Fueling Deadline Urgency

Untypical tactics help maintain employees' momentum on long-term projects.

By Dan Carrison Dec 1, 2003
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HR Magazine, December 2003

It is difficult enough to create a sense of urgency in a staff, a department or a company for short-term deadlines. So consider the challenges faced by managers who must lead and inspire their personnel over the course of years.

Three recent long-term projects provide excellent examples of deadline management: Turner Construction’s new Denver Broncos football stadium, Boeing’s 777 jetliner and the last successful mission to Mars by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

The following deadline-management principles came out of the crucibles of these prominent projects and can serve managers well regardless of their industries.

Keeping a High Profile

It is amazing how many major corporate endeavors are not heralded by management until they are completed, as if they can be shared with the rank-and-file only when their success has been established. Sometimes management stays subdued for a reason, such as product development security, but more often than not it’s simply because the organization has not recognized the value of internal and external “buzz” as a tool for creating a sense of urgency.

All three projects—the stadium, the airliner, the space probe—were kicked off with the hoopla and fanfare usually accorded the completion of a major corporate enterprise. Senior executives introduced the teams responsible for leading each mission to success, in front of the news media cameras and the assembled workforces, in elaborate blue-ribbon ceremonies. And throughout the course of each project, the press was invited to observe activities that many might have expected would be kept behind closed doors.

When Chicago-based Boeing conducted the first test flight of its new 777 at its Seattle-area assembly plant, it invited the world’s press. Bear in mind that test flights are not carefully controlled public relations events. Anything can happen during the first flight. If there had been an engine fire, an aborted takeoff or some other problem, the media would have had graphic file footage that could have been aired whenever a 777 made the news. Because of such risks, many other airplane manufacturers conduct their first flights unannounced at privately held airfields.

As Dallas-based Turner built the new Broncos football stadium in Denver, it worked with local newspapers, contributing to a daily column for the entire three-year project. Above-ground construction projects are highly visible anyway, but certainly Turner could have kept the progress of the project close to the vest. Instead, the company shared both good news and bad with the media.

And what could be more visible than a space launch? For weeks the gleaming rocket stands in the gantry for all to see. The launch itself is a major media event, with project team leaders looking grim during the launch and so relieved afterward. In contrast, space launches in the former Soviet Union were essentially state secrets; there were no live broadcasts. Successes were shared with the citizenry; failures were not acknowledged.

The managers at Boeing, Turner and the JPL (which is managed for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena) trumpeted the progress of their respective projects. They knew that the media spotlight put much pressure on them and on their teams to meet the high expectations coming from both outside and inside their organizations. They also knew that the kind of exposure they invited creates a sense of common cause within the entire workforce.

It should be stressed that increasing the visibility of an important project doesn’t require expensive publicity. Management simply needs to talk about it—frequently, at every opportunity with the rank-and-file. In-house “reporters” can be assigned to cover the progress toward deadlines, “broadcasting” via e-mail, newsletters and companywide announcements. Suggestions can be earnestly solicited, to involve those not directly associated with the project.

In addition, managers must remember that if they don’t talk about the project, uninformed people will, which can set off rumors throughout the workplace.

Stressing the Schedule

For many involved in a long-term project—or for those forever working at the beginning of a process, such as on an assembly line—the finished product can remain an abstraction. Pressure builds on those working at the end of the time line, often because previous lapses in the schedule by others unfairly compress the time originally allotted to the final phase.

One can imagine that the engineers at Boeing, designing a plane scheduled for delivery five years into the future, might have felt less of a sense of urgency than, say, those involved in the final testing of the navigational system on a plane only months away from its scheduled delivery. But because of Boeing’s emphasis on sticking to schedules, everyone involved in that long-term project felt an obligation to keep pace.

Boeing had so refined its ability to forecast precisely when a project would be completed, based on the position of its workforce on the time line, that no one doubted the occasional alarming projection. If a team of engineers were told they were approaching a “day-for-day slide”—in which every day behind schedule meant the plane would be delivered to the customer a day late—they felt an acute responsibility to get back on track. The entire team would work late into the night, every night, until they recovered their position on the schedule—all for a plane that wouldn’t be ready for five years!

This wasn’t a matter of Boeing managers cracking the whip; instead, they had created a sense of duty, felt by all of the thousands of employees involved, to complete their respective tasks on time. The tongue-in-cheek motto of the Boeing managers was “Panic Early!”

Holding All Accountable

Turner Construction confronted a unique obstacle to creating a sense of urgency. The city of Denver would not allow the demolition of old Mile High Stadium, scheduled for the final summer months of the project, until the replacement stadium had been completed. All of the assurances from Turner could not persuade the city leaders, who felt they had been “burned” by other contractors on projects completed later than expected. The city decided that if Turner did not complete the new stadium on time, Mile High Stadium could be used until the new stadium was ready.

The venerable stadium loomed over the construction site as if to reassure the community—and, more important, the workforce—that there would be no penalty for delay. Consider the challenge that Turner’s managers faced: How do you motivate the rank-and-file to keep pace with a very demanding schedule when everyone could see that adhering to the schedule really didn’t matter?

The managers and team leaders were able to create a sense of urgency by an intense emphasis on the schedule. The slightest infraction was treated as if it were a disaster. Emergency meetings were called, during which rather surprised subcontractors found themselves on the hot seat, surrounded by grim managers, demanding a recovery plan. No “small mistake” was ever allowed to lead inexorably to a “big mistake.” Everyone was held accountable for their targets for completing tasks. This was not the time for an “understanding” manager who would forgive lapses in productivity or who would look on the schedule as a flexible, living document that could be amended to reflect unforeseen challenges.

The schedule was sacrosanct. Preoccupation with meeting the schedule so completely dominated the thoughts and activities of all concerned that the city’s backup plan to use Mile High Stadium was eventually forgotten. In fact, the keys to the new stadium were handed to the customer weeks before the contractual delivery date.

Participatory Scheduling

Whether a project requires years or months, an enforced schedule will bring it through. It is important to remember, however, that the schedule cannot be the result of some airy math on the part of an executive whose only basis is a calendar, rather than the realistic feedback from those who will perform the task. It is critical to get one’s people to participate in the development of the schedule and, further, to get them to sign off on their respective commitments.

Once the ownership of tasks is voluntarily assumed, rather than grudgingly accepted, there is no mature recourse but to meet one’s commitments.

Strategic Celebrating

It’s customary to celebrate the completion of a project, but managers at Boeing, Turner and the JPL will tell you it’s a mistake to wait until a project’s completion before celebrating it.

Boeing threw a party when the 777 project was only half finished. With two and a half years of hard work still ahead before the first 777 would fly, Boeing showcased the first assembled jet in a hangar for a catered weekend choreographed by Dick Clark Productions. All of Boeing’s Seattle-based employees and their families were invited to come and see. About 100,000 proud Boeing employees strolled through the hangar that weekend, many pointing with pride at their personal contributions. It was a very moving experience to finally see the shape of the jet for the 21st century.

There was a similar celebration at the JPL -- a year and a half before its Mars space probe would be complete. Engineers and their families were invited to a showing of the assembled space vehicle. Unlike a massive jetliner, the small orbiter had an endearing, fragile, “homemade” appearance, yet it would soon be launched into the most hostile environment of all—deep space. Signature sheets were posted in front of the little craft so that the spouses and children of each team member could sign their names. The sheets were then reduced to microfiche, and those signatures went out into infinity as a kind of interstellar greeting card.

Turner Construction, too, invited the families of its workers to the new Broncos stadium well before it was ready for the public.

Inviting family members to see work in progress can be an effective way to keep up the momentum, to foster a continuing sense of urgency within the project. It doesn’t have to be a large-scale celebration; it can be a modest, corporate-sponsored “pot luck” get-together. What’s most important is that the celebration help renew workers’ spirits.

Boeing, Turner and the JPL all witnessed a deepening of support for their endeavors after their parties. The festivities created an additional, informal layer of “management.” Team members discovered that questions about their progress on their respective projects came up not only at work but also at the dinner table, and the interest at home reinvigorated them at work.

Celebrating strategically, then, should be teamed with the two other practices—making the deadline highly visible and sticking to the schedule—to keep a sense of urgency about a project all the way to its completion.

Dan Carrison is the author of Deadline! How Premier Organizations Win the Race Against Time (AMACOM Books, 2003). He is also the co-author of Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way (AMACOM Books, 1998).

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