Project Issue Management
In project management lingo the noun ‘issue’ is a risk that has now become a reality. We may or may not have identified the issue when it was a risk or potential issue, and may or may not have implemented some risk response measure. So a project issue may be a risk that has not been fully mitigated and which now threatens project success. And of course a project issue may not have been foreseen at all – perhaps a key project team member has suddenly and unexpectedly left the project. That’s an issue.
Some practitioners argue that all issues are problems, but not all problems are issues. The distinction that is sometimes made in the project management world is that ‘problems’ can be resolved at project management level, whereas ‘issues’ are those problems that need to be escalated to the project sponsor for resolution. Usually where our suggested solutions to the problem require a change to current parameters as defined in the Project Charter, it’s an issue that needs to be escalated for a decision. However, in this blog item I use the latest PMBOK definition:
“An issue is a point or matter in question or in dispute, or a point or matter that is not settled and is under discussion over which there are opposing views or disagreements.”
Perhaps the objective with issue management is to resolve the issue quickly, efficiently and effectively, and then move on, with as little impact to the project as possible. To achieve this objective we first need to record the issue in an Issues Log or Register, a typical format for which is shown below and also at http://www.skillpower.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Project-Issues-Register-.docx. In addition to the information shown in this risk log we might also add other columns. Also, ‘Issue Status’ might lend itself to a traffic light system, where RED means the project cannot proceed before the issue is resolved, ORANGE means that resolution is in process, and we’ll be able to proceed soon, and GREEN means resolution implemented, and issue no longer exists. A periodic comparison between a project’s Issues Log and its Risk Log is one indicator of the effectiveness of project risk management, where a large number of issue entries and a small number of risk entries usually suggests a need for improved risk management, given it is easier and cheaper to prevent issues through risk management than having to resolve them.
Our job as project managers is to manage project issues throughout our project’s lifecycle and sometimes into live running. Some useful points to keep in mind are:
- Anyone concerned with the project may spot issues. We should encourage and reward participants for bringing issues to our attention and it should be easy for them to submit their concerns.
- Once a risk (which is something we think may happen in the future) becomes an actual problem, we should move it from the risk management process to the issue management process.
- We need to encourage our project team members and other key stakeholders to properly record all project issues in the issues log—even if there is not time to deal with them straightaway. All entries are factual—avoid being personal.
- Ensure there is only one issues log and it is readily accessible.
- Take into account the impact and priority of the issue, assign a date by which resolution is needed and assign each project issue resolution to the person best equipped to deal with it – on occasions this could be someone outside the project team.
- Once an issue is raised, recorded and assigned we should regularly check to ensure that it is proactively pursued and dealt with to the satisfaction of all concerned parties. Ideally by the end of the project there should be no outstanding issues.
- Where appropriate, update the project work breakdown structure with issue response tasks.
- Report on significant project issues in our routine status reports to the project sponsor.
Managing issues involves both problem solving and decision-making. Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, management literature makes a clear distinction between the two. Problem solving is a larger process that starts with the identification of a problem and ends with an evaluation of the effectiveness of the chosen solution. Decision-making is a subset of the problem-solving process and refers only to the process of identifying alternative solutions and choosing from among them. Problem solving and decision-making might be an individual endeavour or involve others, and it might be undertaken reactively or proactively, creatively or logically.
2. Define Issue. Once we recognise there is an issue and decide it needs to be resolved, it is useful to develop a issue statement:
“We have insufficient storage space for project building materials.”
“On-site safety procedures are not being followed.”
“The project has fallen behind schedule.”
Usually this statement is clear, concise and specific, and contains no assumptions, likely causes or solutions. It helps to verify the issue statement by conferring with others. If there are several issues, they may need to be prioritised in terms of their importance and urgency. And issue clarity often evolves. In some case, the definition of an issue may be complete only after the issue has been solved! This step in particular may need to be revisited as further evidence is revealed or gathered.
3. Identify Cause(s). Care needs to be taken to identify the root cause or causes and not simply symptoms. Solving or removing symptoms doesn’t treat the cause and the problem remains. A simple ‘why analysis’ often gets to the root cause. Other techniques are brainstorming and a fishbone (root cause analysis) diagram. It is also useful to get input from others who noticed the issue or are affected by it. However, not all issues can be said to be caused, and not all causes can be corrected.
4. Determine Solution Attributes. What will the situation look like when the issue is resolved? We now determine the characteristics (essential and desirable) of the ideal solution. Again brainstorming is useful as is a ‘paired comparisons analysis’ in order to priorities the characteristics, criteria, features, functions, or attributes inherent in the ideal solution. Once we are clear about the ideal solution, we can identify possible solutions.
5. Generate Possible Solutions. Here we typically brainstorm various solutions – new or improved processes, policies, protocols, procedures, products, people etc. This step in the process may involve a literature review, research, benchmarking, surveys, discussion groups, and even issue of an RFP seeking outside solutions.
6. Shortlist Probable Solutions. Some solutions might not be viable, feasible or practicable. Short-listing eliminates those solutions that are inadequate in terms of our essential solution attributes. Also, there may be other constraints that would rule out a possible solution, such as ethical, political, economic, financial, environmental, legislative, cultural, social, time, risk, market and resource availability considerations. A short-listing checklist could be developed.
7. Evaluate Shortlisted Solutions. Here we assess the suitability of each viable solution against the various solution or selection attributes that we identified earlier. A useful tool to use at this step is a weighted-attributes decision matrix where each attribute is assigned a numerical value that represents its relative importance. This enables us to quantify decision-making and helps us make an objective assessment of the viable options.
8. Select Best Solution. The evaluation of options enables us to identify the best solution.
9. Future-proof Solution. The best solution is then subject to some scrutiny in order to identify and respond to potential implementation problems. Such risks are usually assessed in terms of their estimated impact and probability. A risk analysis worksheet can be employed.
10. Prepare Action Plan. As a minimum, our action plan identifies who is to take action, describes the activities needed to implement the solution, resources and timings. In some instances the entire project plan may need to be revised.
11. Implement and Control. The solution is implemented as per our plan, progress is monitored and action taken where necessary to resolve deviations and accommodate changes. To solve it easily, we must detect it early.
12. Evaluate Outcome. Has the issue been resolved? What have we learned? Have new issues been created? What should be done to prevent this type of issue in the future? Was the process useful? Consider any changes to policies, procedures, training, etc. Mention the issue and its resolution in our post-project report and update our organisation’s risk list to help us avoid any repetition of this issue.
In our endeavours to resolve issues be aware of ‘groupthink’ that is a silent disease, doing its devastation in quiet, subdued ways. It is often blamed for project dysfunction. There are up to eight symptoms present in groups that arrive at unsuccessful plans, decisions and solutions. The more obvious these symptoms are, the greater likelihood of groupthink being present at your project meeting.
- Illusion of Invulnerability. The belief by the decision-making group that whatever their decision it will be successful.
- Belief in the Group’s Morality. The belief by the group that their decisions are consistent with the highest levels of morality.
- Rationalisation. This involves the complete downplaying of the decision’s drawbacks. Legitimate objections and risks are completely overshadowed by likely negative reaction to anyone voicing these concerns to the group.
- Stereotypes of Out-Groups. This involves falsely characterising those groups that challenge the decision as the enemy and adopting a “them and us” attitude. The group becomes less receptive to even valid criticism from legitimate outsiders.
- Self-Censorship. This is when the group suppresses their doubts under the guise of group loyalty, project team spirit, or perceived adherence to company core values, policy and rules.
- Direct Pressure. This involves pressure upon group members to keep dissident views to themselves. It may involve ridicule or sarcasm.
- Mind Guards. This occurs when data, facts and opinions which might be important are not advised to the group or simply ignored as they are of “doubtful relevance”, “the group already has sufficient information”, “the time factor”, etc.
- Illusion of Unanimity. The group coalesces around the decision and drawbacks and risks are downplayed in the interest of morale, consensus and unanimity.
Solutions. Groupthink can be mitigated by:
- encourage free, open discussion
- prefer non-judgmental attitudes
- accept divergent thinking
- bring in outsiders to check assumptions
- each member should be a critical evaluator
- keep an open mind
- admit preconceptions
- use sub-groups and compare
- sleep on important issues
- encourage criticism.
An excellent 22 minute video about groupthink may be viewed free of charge at this site http://www.employeeuniversity.com/videos/Groupthink.htm. The video explores the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. Remaining on schedule for the launch took priority that day over safety. Project group members fell victim to several circumstances that contributed to groupthink, which led to the decision to launch Challenger despite knowing the potential for o-ring failure in extreme cold temperatures. This faulty decision-making on the eve of the Challenger launch would soon prove to be a fatal mistake. Just moments after the Challenger launched, the o-ring failed and the Challenger exploded, causing seven crew to lose their lives. This example serves as a reminder to all groups of the disastrous outcomes that result from groupthink and the need to make an effort to take preventative measures to avoid it. The graph below shows o-ring damage against temperature.
If it’s an important issue and you don’t agree with the decision or likely decision, what might you do? Some possibilities are these:
- First check you really understand the decision and reasons for it.
- Muster your relevant evidence and present it well.
- Ask for a break – an opportunity for individual reflection.
- Put your reservations in writing – clear, precise, complete, and coherent.
- Bring in the non-combatants – third party/mediator/facilitator.
- Encourage group to assess consequences of their decision.
- Has the decision-making process been appropriate?
- Invite expert opinion, via ‘Delphi technique’ for example.
- Is it possible to trial the decision – simulation perhaps?
- Get the project sponsor to veto the decision or delay its implementation pending review! The sponsor would presumably need convincing evidence.
Case Study Scenario
This is an actual issue or problem t hat I was required to resolve. The local airport has a small aircraft refuelling facility capable of delivering both aviation turbine (AVTUR) and aviation gasoline (AVGAS) fuels. The simple replenishment system is illustrated below:
Tanker vehicles deliver fuel into above-ground storage from where fuel is pumped by centrifugal pumps via micronic filters into aircraft. It is essential that aviation fuel is totally free of contamination. Pressure drop across the filtration system indicates when filter elements are reaching replacement time.
The two parallel systems are identical except that different fuels are involved. And until recently the filter elements for both systems have been good for about 100,000 litres of the respective fuels. After that quantity of fuel the pressure drop or loss across the filter requires that the filter element be changed. This equates to a new filter element for each system about every three months. They were last changed one month ago.
The fuel staff check the filter pressure drop each day as part of their routine inspection. While the AVGAS system seems to have been operating normally, the AVTUR filter is already due for replacement some two months earlier than is normal. When the used filter was removed the operator noticed some slime covered the filter element. He had never observed this before and sent the filter element to a local laboratory for analysis.
The laboratory report arrived some five days later. The slime was cladosporium resinae a biological growth that can occur at the interface between kerosene products and water.
Meanwhile, the replacement AVTUR filter has already reached its half-life after only one week of operation. And the airlines you service are becoming increasingly anxious about the situation as rumours of contaminated fuel stocks begin to spread. You have received some complains although at this point you are confident that no fuel has been provided from your facility that is not within acceptable levels of contamination. That is, all water has been removed and particulate contamination has been less than 10 microns in size.
Some practices, changes and issues that might be relevant are:
- The outlet pipe from each bulk fuel tank is 5cm off the bottom of the tank.
- Each tank is equipped with a bottom drain valve.
- Fuel within each tank contracts and expands slightly with temperature changes.
- Each tank is equipped with a pressure-release valve.
- Fuel is delivered by oil-industry road-tanker every week to ensure that a reasonable reserve is maintained to provide a buffer against fluctuations in demand and supply.
- The weather has been particularly humid over recent months.
- Cladosporium resinae has a wind-borne spore. It needs oxygen and carbon to sustain itself.
- Two months ago the local region experienced a severe earthquake. Among other things this earthquake caused the airport fuel supply facility to close down while some leaking pipes were properly repaired.
- Every day a bottom sample is taken from each tank to ensure that no water contamination is present in the fuel. A litmus-type paper test is employed to ensure that water is below acceptable levels – some few parts per million only is permitted.
- Six months ago the airport’s fuel facility was relocated to a more convenient site.
- Each tank has a concrete bund wall creating a space within the bund wall capable of holding 110 percent of the tank’s maximum capacity.
- Four months ago the airport contract for fuel system maintenance was awarded to a new contractor who possesses a fine track record. They changed the brand of filter cartridge used.
- Each filter has a bottom drain valve to purge any water that may have accumulated during filtration. The filter system also removes water from fuel. The system is very efficient.
- It is assumed that the bulk fuel delivered to the airport is within the required specification for the fuel types involved. The airport does not possess equipment for comprehensive acceptance testing.
- Since about 12 months ago all aviation fuels delivered to the airport have a Fuel System Icing Inhibitor (FSII) additive, which is a safety measure required by your customer airlines. FSII also increases the electrical conductivity of fuel and thus helps prevent a dangerous build-up of static.
- The country produces its own aviation gasoline from imported base stocks. AVTUR has been imported exclusively from Singapore until some two month ago when some stock was also imported from Australia.
- The recent earthquake caused a crack in the tarmac near the fuel storage area. However, all fuel tankage, pipelines and other equipment are above ground level, and suffered no damage other than the severing of the outlet pipe from the AVTUR tank. Only a small quantity of fuel was spilt before repairs were undertaken. It was not necessary to drain the fuel from the bulk tank to safely effect repairs. The tank appeared to have moved upward at the outlet end by some 5cm.
- All pressure gauges are working accurately.
- Other than the pipe rupture incident, the only other problem with the fuel system up until now has been some minor rust contamination all safely removed by the filtration system. The electric pumps meet all safety requirements. The lights in the vicinity are intrinsically safe.
- The bulk fuel tanks are long cylinders supported on concrete stands to facilitate their regular inspection. They also have manhole covers for internal access.
- John, the airport manager reckons that the slime on the filters may have been the result of sabotage by an unsuccessful fuel maintenance system contractor. At the time they were very annoyed that their tender was unsuccessful. He has no evidence of foul play. It is speculation.
- At least one airline customer said that if the filter is taking out the slime then there is no problem and that is why we have a sophisticated filtration system. So long as we change the filters as required why worry?
- Yet another airport employee speculates that the pressure gauge that measures the pressure loss across the filter is probably malfunctioning and that the slime is irrelevant. He thinks we are panicking – making a mountain out of a molehill.
- Also, the fuel laboratory that analysed the slime is staffed with a bunch of boffins. They might be over-reacting.
- One customer has suggested that we close the airport for the time being. Flights would need to be diverted to the next closest airport, which incidentally has an identical fuel system reportedly without any problems. Most people think this would be a total over-reaction. Because there is need to do something, the airport manager has not ruled out this possibility. Anxiety is growing and rumours spreading.
Your job is to identify the most likely cause of the problem, and then decide how the problem might most economically, effectively, simply, safely and quickly be eliminated. And, yes, in effect solving a problem is a project in itself.
First, analyse the situation and prepare a problem statement that contains no assumptions. A problem is a deviation. It may therefore help to decide what has deviated from the norm. Second, write down the problem statement and then brainstorm possible causes of the problem. Third, rank the causes in order of likelihood. Fourth, identify the solution to the most likely cause. Incidentally, the earthquake is a relevant event, but not all other information is relevant.