What 11′ 8″ Can Teach Us About Project Management

maxresdefault1There’s a low bridge in Pennsylvania.  How low you ask?  11′ 8″.  Why is it so low? Because it was built for a train in an era before automobiles were as popular as they are today and before trucks were as tall as they are today.

The railroad company is happy with the bridge, but wanted to protect it from a tall vehicle, so they put up a steel barrier of the same height just feet before the bridge to protect it.

From the railroad’s perspective the problem is solved.

The city didn’t want vehicles hitting the bridge either, so rather than pay for an expensive rebuild they put up signs warning drivers about the height and attempting to direct them to a different route they had invested a lot of money into building where it would be safe to cross.  The city also knows that each person on the road had to pass a drivers test that primarily consisted of knowing how to read and follow signs.

The number of incidents in the video would suggest that people aren’t following the signs the way the city intended.  While this could lead us to start a commentary about drivers, I believe there’s lessons to be learned here about project management.

What does this tell us about project management?

We need to remember the bridge project was successful from both the railroad and city’s perspective.

In both cases the project managers and organizations were insulated from the environment.  Government, and government backed railroads are rarely incentivized to apply the Toyota Principle of Genchi Genbutsu.  One great example of Genchi Genbutsu was when the project manager for the Toyota Sienna decided to take a road trip in the United States.  He didn’t just drive across the country, he drove that model year in all 50 states and noticed just how big the United States was.  He realized that Americans weren’t just using vehicles for the shorter trips common among Japanese drivers, but long, multi-day trips with families and gear packed in the vehicle.  When he was done with the journey he increased the number of cup holders (Americans are also more likely to eat in their vehicles) as well as improved luggage space.

11-foot-8-bridge.jpgFor the case of 11′ 8″ the railroad company didn’t adopt the culture of Go and See beyond the intent to protect their asset.  I imagine that the city’s version of seeing what happened was less about watching it on youtube, and more about seeing the amount of traffic violations issued by the police officers for infractions.  In every case, it’s the fault of the driver, not the fault of the city for not having improved the road.  In general city officials are heavily insulated from their consequences elsewise how could a firefighter in California work more hours than physically exist in a year?

Applying Genchi Genbutsu is best applied with a cultural perspective shared by the organization’s leadership.  That leadership should foster systems that encourage a go and see attitude, but even when leadership isn’t 100% on board a project manager should be routinely going and seeing as much of the project work as possible.  It’s when you see the work and working environment that you can notice positive risks.  Small opportunities to improve add up a lot over the course of the project, and I know people who work harder for empathetic leaders than any other type.

So what can we learn from this?

Americans tend to have trouble trusting road signs.  This comes from years of speed limit signs being based upon arbitrary laws and not actual road designs, constructions signs left up months after construction is finished (sometimes just so fines can increase for law enforcement), and I also believe the font might have something to do with it.

Leadership in a project isn’t putting up a sign and expecting people to follow it.  It’s going and seeing the challenges that people are faced with (like where’s the road I’m supposed to take if it’s not this one) and help them overcome those challenges.  Leadership is about removing obstacles.  The best way to find obstacles isn’t on a report.  It’s from going and seeing for yourself.

Apply Your Core Knowledge

Everyone knows something and in order to know something they must have studied what they know.  There’s a wide variety of ways people acquire information and knowledge.  I work with some extraordinarily smart individuals and some of them hate reading.  They find themselves suffering through the four-page zone.  I have another friend of mine who’s a helicopter pilot and is terrific with advanced mathematics but finds himself performing best as a tactile learner.  He’s in his 30’s and always carrying his fidget spinner.

All of these people are high performers.  But sometimes their quirks appear to be their Achilles heel.  As life forces us to get stretched outside of our comfort zones it can be easy to hyper-focus on the problems in front of us instead of focusing on the formulas we’ve used for years to overcome similar problems.  I’ve recently found myself coaching people through this sort of situation and my starting point in the conversation is to ask them about their hobbies.

Hobbies are different than our academics.  All too often necessity has forced us to use multiple-choice tests in academic settings.  They’re a great format for getting people to pass because you’re giving them choice that includes the single right answer.  They’re also terrible because they’ve programmed us to believe in life that we’re looking for a single right answer.  Those who believe in the single right answer syndrome have never had someone they love asks them if an outfit makes them look fat.

The outward expression of our hobbies varies, but the inward process is very much the same.  At first glance, every hobby appears to be a study in that particular discipline.  This isn’t an untrue statement, but it’s not a complete one.  More importantly, a study of a hobby is the study of oneself.  To the individual practicing a particular discipline, the hobby will reveal certain things about themselves that they enjoy learning.

Golf is an apt example.  It involves a very brief interaction with the ball and a metal striking surface of a club.  The contact occurs over a very small surface area and yet the ball can fly towards its target and land over 200 yards later.  The mechanics are amazing, but it’s also a fascinating field to study oneself.  The discipline involved to learn to adjust one’s muscle coordination to impact the angle and speed of impact of the ball.  Golf is not just a study of physics and strategy, it’s also very much a study of oneself.

LARPing will strike most individuals as a bit of an odd past time, but it’s not too far off from the same motivation that has turned Halloween into one of the most popular holidays.  Those who participate in LARPing find themselves developing skills in crafting costumes and writing out scenarios for your characters.  Unlike a book where the reader is only a passive participant, LARPing requires the participant to explore their own emotions and problem-solving skills when faced with the obstacles of the scenario.  While it shouldn’t replace reading, it should be easily recognized as a scenario-driven activity that trains its members.  Its environment may be fantasy, but its exploration of the human condition is very real.

From a leadership perspective, you don’t have to enjoy the same hobbies, but you need to well versed in what’s respectable about each one.

It’s been interesting to see this same thing play out in the home as well.  My oldest boy loves Minecraft and will spend hours watching videos about how to play and build complex things.  Every few months I try to have a conversation with him about his learning patterns for the game and get him to realize that if he applies those same learning patterns to other subjects in his life he’ll be just as successful.

I was a terrible student in high school.  Now I have a Masters in IT & Project Management.  During my 18 months finishing up my bachelor’s at Utah State University I was awarded the Man of the Year award.  What changed?  My parents would attribute it to becoming more mature, but having lived through it the reason seems to be a bit more tangible.  Once I was out of school I had time to think about how I liked to learn.  In college, I chose classes that would allow me to apply my techniques for learning and be successful.  

Now, it’s easier to do new and hard things because instead of following someone else’s prescription for learning I can apply my own.  I know it’s effective and I know it’s fun.  When it needs mentors I know how to find them.

When you take the time to look at the things that are part of your core, that you love to learn take the time to look at how you learn those things.  The how is more likely going to be your method for all your learning and if you can take the time to write it down you might just see how easy it is to follow.