Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Managing vendors is a lot like house cleaning

My wife and I are teaching my teenager how to really clean a house. We've been kind of teaching him for a long time, but now we've really got our sleeves rolled up and are taking this seriously. My first step? Go back and watch Don Aslett's video (literally, a VHS tape) Is There Life After Housework and review one of his books. My next step was to try out what I was about to teach.

One of the tips that stuck out for me from Mr. Aslett was the simple idea of doing a little cleaning every day instead of leaving all the cleaning for one big multi-hour cleaning session on Saturday. For instance, I bought one of those plastic cleaning caddies, put all the necessary cleaners in it, and keep it in my bathroom instead of under the sink and on various shelves in the laundry room. Each day before I shower I take two minutes and clean something. On Monday, I might clean the mirror. On Tuesday, wipe down the sink, etc. Doing it this way means the bathroom never gets too far out of whack and I don't even notice the time it takes.

Managing vendors in a software project can be very similar. If you bite off huge amounts of functionality in contracts or task orders with delivery dates way off in the future, and one big demo scheduled at the end you're asking for trouble. Every vendor can bill you like clockwork for hours they burned over the past month (or two, or three). They can even itemize exactly what part of the code they worked on for each hour. But not every vendor can actually DELIVER, get something actually coded, tested, done, and ready for prime time. Some can't handle the pressure.

So part of your job as a PM is to find out which kind of vendor you're dealing with: a burn hours and bill and bill and bill vendor or a focus and deliver vendor. The best way to know is to give them a small piece of work with a deadline and hold their feet to the fire. If you're dealing with a burn and bill vendor, you want to know that pronto so you cut your losses and move on.

The well known consultant Ram Charan refers to "operating mechanisms" in his book Know Hows (which I just finished and enjoyed). Jack Welch described an operating system he developed at GE in Straight From the Gut. Each of these experts is describing a series of meetings, training programs, and retreats scheduled throughout the year on regular intervals where various parts of the business are analyzed or dealt with. In other words, they clean a little bit of the organization every day or week or month so it never has a chance to get too far off track.

After you've had your kick-off meeting and have the project charter or user stories in hand, the PM needs to do the same thing: put an operating system in place. This may mean daily stand-ups with on-site employees and contractors, weekly GoToMeetings/WebEx calls with off-site vendors and remote teams, weekly status reports out to project sponsors, and monthly higher-level project portfolio reports to management. Each PM will work out what works best for her/his situation. The point is not what your operating system looks like; the point is that you have one and that the feedback you're asking for is more than just "did you bill some hours last cycle?" Of course they did. When dealing with vendors, you obviously need to address general scope, schedule, and budget issues, but you specifically need to know if they produced their agreed-upon deliverable for this specific iteration or not.

So keep some Windex handy in the bathroom and your vendor's direct line on speed dial.

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