“Who are you going to believe?” Groucho Marx famously asked, “Me or your own eyes?”

The Groucho Question came to mind as I read an intriguing, if conspiracy-oriented opinion piece by James Schmitz Jr., a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Schmitz’s contention is that home-building is trapped in 19th century technologies and methods that have prevented productivity increases in that sector for a matter of decades. (“Homebuilding must modernize,” StarTribune, 5/2/2021).

His solution: “Rather than manufacturing homes in factories, they are constructed outside, with a centuries-old technology sometimes called the “stick-built” method.”

He’s the “Me” part of the Groucho-ism. As one who consults on and writes about matters of organizational effectiveness, I found his contention appealing.

As the owners of a downtown condominium who, by HOA mandate had been required to have our balcony door replaced … twice; the first replacement having been problematic … my wife and I recently had the opportunity to see Schmitz’s theory applied in actual reality (and isn’t it strange to live in an era where I have to specify which reality I’m writing about).

We were Groucho’s “… or your own eyes,” as we watched two clearly expert individuals remove the offending door panels and replace them with (presumably) more serviceable ones. To get the job done they had to deal with perhaps six situations that required significant expertise and ingenuity.

It occurred to me that while the door panels had been manufactured in a factory – they were the result of a well-defined process – their installation was clearly and unavoidably a practice.

Why this matters to you: Here in KJR reality we’ve frequently discussed the difference between processes and practices; processes being how work gets done in factories, with their repeatable, predictable steps; practices being how work gets done in hospitals and law offices, where no two cases are ever exactly alike and work must be adapted to each specific situation.

We consultants frequently advise clients to turn case-by-case kinds of work into metaphorical factories so they can perfect their techniques and get results that are more repeatable and predictable. I’ve been guilty of this myself, although I hope with enough qualifiers that I haven’t overpromised the ease and simplicity of the result.

The differences between process and practice aren’t “mere” semantics, not that there’s anything truly mere about semantics in the first place. It’s also fair to say that to the extent it’s possible to redefine how work gets done so it’s less of a craft or practice and more of a manufacturing-like process, defect rates and incremental costs will, in most cases, decrease.

It’s just easier said than done. To turn any craft or process into a factory-like process, a key aspect of the transformation is to view each step in the work as responsible for reducing the variability or, looking through the other end of the telescope, increasing the predictability of what those responsible for the next step in the work will face.

If you’re building a house that means getting started by (based on my extraordinarily limited understanding of the trade) clearing and grading the lot, laying the foundation, and fixing variations in ground compressibility to avoid surprises when pouring the slab and laying cinder block.

When building an application it means (among other things) clearly defining the architecture and coding standards, writing consistent user stories, and determining interdependencies to avoid surprises when, depending on the application architecture, coding each module, service, microservice, or what-have you.

Bob’s last word: When we envision a factory we envision a conveyor belt that carries identical items to each step in the work.

When we envision most of what IT does for a living … or when we envision building a house … we don’t envision anything remotely like that.

Bob’s sales pitch: Looking for help improving the practice of improving business practices and processes? Here’s where to contact me so we can start a conversation.

There’s no such thing as … not “an IT project,” although there isn’t. Something else there isn’t is a perfect organizational chart.

You’d think that after centuries of structuring organizations for optimal performance, someone would have figured out a “best-practice” — another thing there isn’t, as it happens, but also not this week’s topic, which is, in an oblique way, something you can do to mitigate your org chart’s limitations once you’ve given up on designing a perfect one. What it is: establishing so-called Centers of Excellence (CoEs) or their grassroots cousins, Communities of Practice (CoPs).

Start with the org chart itself and why there’s no such thing as a perfect one — important because if we don’t understand the problem we’re solving we’ll only solve it by accident. And so …

Org charts are taxonomies. As a general rule, taxonomies partition each level based on the same logic as higher levels, so if the company’s top level is functional — Operations, Finance and Accounting, Human Resources, Information Technology, and so on — it usually makes sense to organize the next level by function as well, so that the CIO breaks IT down into Application Support, IT Operations, IT Business Office …

Then the CEO gets word that some multi-million-dollar project is in trouble, and realizes it isn’t the first, nor is it the second project management disaster in the making. In fact, expecting big projects to crater has become baked into the company culture.

Crater is the default expectation. Late being better than never the CEO recognizes the root cause of project management failure: There’s no “one throat to choke” — no one organization whose head ends up on the chopping block (if you’ll forgive my mixing of executional metaphors).

The topic goes on next the ELT (executive leadership team) meeting agenda, where the CIO recommends the “best practice” solution, namely, to establish a PMO (project management office), to be given responsibility and authority for defining, establishing, and overseeing project management best practices throughout the enterprise … and here’s the punchline … crossing all organizational boundaries.

The ELT, that is, has just recognized the fundamental limitations of taxonomy design: No matter how you break things down from trees to branches, to leaves, to veins in the leaves, some responsibilities will never fit neatly into just one box.

Which is too bad, because whether it’s something seemingly simple like adding a PMO or some other box, or something more complicated like a full-bore organizational restructuring, when you’re done drawing boxes and connecting them with lines, some responsibilities just don’t fit.

The point of reorganizations is to fix problems by removing barriers, but every barrier removed is really a barrier that’s just moved.

Reorganizations, that is, fix what’s broken by breaking what’s fixed.

Which is why, a year after our mythical ELT establishes the PMO and commissions an independent review of its outcomes, they discover that, when compared to pre-PMO times:

  • Projects fail at the same rate.
  • Actual project management practices are still scattered and inconsistent.
  • Project managers face twice the administrative burden … they have, that is, twice the paperwork.
  • Everyone involved complains that the PMO has turned into little more than a stifling, choking bureaucracy whose main purpose seems to be establishing a bunch of flaming hoops everyone else has to jump through.

It isn’t the PMO’s fault, either. It was chartered to prevent failure, not to foster success. Of course it became a bureaucracy. Try to prevent failure and you’ll do what it did: List every reason projects fail, and establish reviews and checklists to make sure none of those reasons happen here.

Sadly, what they miss is that, taken together, their reviews and checklists become new causes of project failure.

Which is why CoEs and CoPs often work better than attempts to solve problems through more oversight groups.

CoEs’ and CoPs’ purpose is to foster techniques that work well, and to find ways to improve them further, in domains that cross organizational boundaries.

Crucially, they’re chartered to have little (CoE) or no (CoP) authority, so they have to achieve their goals through persuasion and influence — they can’t compel compliance, only encourage participation.

The difference between them: CoEs are official bodies. A project management Center of Excellence has someone or a small team, part of whose official responsibility is to improve project management practices throughout the enterprise.

A CoP does not. It’s a grassroots organization composed of enthusiasts who participate because they want to.

And gee … what a shame. That’s all the time we have this week. Next week we’ll pick up where we’re leaving off.