The Project Management Institute (PMI) has a case study library here. Unfortunately, it is as much a marketing tool for the PMI as an objective case study library. However, several of the case studies provide good level of detail on project execution and best practice techniques. Some of the better ones are the case studies on AT&T, Marriott and Saudi Aramco.
The Chicago World Fair charts the roller coaster ride of benefits realization well. Initially the fair had grand dreams to exceed the Paris fair with something to rival the Eiffel Tower and hundreds of thousands of visitors each day, but initially attendance way well below expectations, though it eventually improved.
Construction Timing Pushes Back Realization of Benefits
The Fair was hastily constructed with wind and snow delaying construction. As a result the fair wasn’t ready on time, and the impression for early visitors wasn’t great, as the fairground wasn’t completely finished, for example the parkland hadn’t had time to bed down.
The Search For The Eiffel Tower’s ‘Replacement’
The Eiffel Tower was a big hit at the earlier Paris fair, and the Chicago fair wanted something to rival it. Ironically, they had a golden opportunity with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, but turned it down and forced it outside of the fairground, it was actually a major draw and competed with the fair rather than complementing it. The Ferris wheel was the eventual hit the fair was looking for, but delays meant it only emerged in June, over a month after the fair opened.
The fundamental issue appears to be a marketing lesson in viral marketing and urgency. Much of the attendance came later in the fair after other people had visited the fair and told them about their experience and as the fair was close to closing so the sense of urgency was greater.
A lot of the detail here comes from Erik Larson’s book The Devil in a White City, which is a great read by the way – particularly how the story of the fair and a serial killer are combined.
The Titanic ‘s construction was successful, as far as is known. It was built on time and budget by White Star Lines in 1912 and its sister ship the Olympic successfully completed decades of service including being used as a transport for US troops during the second world war.
However, there are some lessons from the sinking of the Titanic that translate to project management.
Failure To Learn From Prior Mistakes
The Titanic’s captain may have suffered from hubris, Captain E.J. Smith was very well respected after his 43 years of service, but in the 8 months prior to the sinking of the Titanic he had had two collisions, and a near miss by 4 feet even as the Titanic was leaving Southampton on its fateful voyage. It is common practice to demote captains after collisions, but perhaps because of his reputation and years of service, Captain Smith remained in command after not one but two serious collisions in a short period of time. It appears he may have become overconfident or less focused.
Blinded By Science
This hubris also translated to the ship itself, the length of which was comparable to some of the tallest buildings at the time. It was the largest ship ever built at 882 feet long and the largest moving object on Earth. It appeared that many genuinely believed she was unsinkable and the Captain appeared to believe this too, telling a younger officer that if cut in half the ship would remain afloat indefinitely. In fact, there was some degree of truth in this, because if the Titanic had hit the iceberg head on, it may have stayed afloat, but the idea of a scraping side on collision rupturing multiple compartments of the ship was not considered. The belief in the robustness of the ship was combined with faith in the recent development of Marconi radio transmission, which enabled transmission of messages over long distances at times of distress.
Absence Of Sufficient Life Rafts
This sense of safety meant that the Titanic was not equipped with enough life rafts to accommodate all the passengers, because it was believed that the Titanic would always stay afloat, and at the time, the British standard was to measure life rafts by volume rather than the people that could be accommodated. The apparent faith in the ships unsinkability (even apparently held by some who stood on deck during the final hours of the ship) meant that effective risk management options were not in place.
For further reading on the Titanic see Frances Wilson’s excellent recent book from which most of the facts in this post are drawn, and for more on disasters see, Inviting Disaster which analyzes why disasters occur in detail.
The US Government Accountability Office recently published a 13 page report on how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is doing on upgrading elements of the US air traffic control systems to move to satellite based aircraft tracking, use better coordinated data exchange rather than voice for routine information sharing during flight and ultimately create better alignment between US and European processes, it’s early in the project but here are the highlights:
- Clear customer oriented success metrics in place for the project (e.g. reducing delays 27% from 2009 levels)
- Currently ahead of schedule in certain areas (e.g. innovation in fuel saving routes for aircraft)
- Currently forecast to be 7% over-budget across all projects. As if often the case of 5 key projects, 4 are on track, but one is materially delayed and may impact the others due to dependencies.
- Stakeholder credibility – even though the work is broadly on track, most stakeholders (the airlines) are skeptical that the work will be done on time, and aren’t willing to make necessary aircraft investments until they see more evidence that of project success.
It’s too early to have a firm view on the success or failure of this project. Most interesting is the stakeholder dynamic – the airlines not believing that the FAA will complete their work on time could be self-fulfilling because the FAA requires the airlines to complete aircraft upgrades to allow technology investments the FAA are making to succeed.
Currently, there is a proposal for a venture capital scheme where the airlines get loans to make the necessary upgrades with payback contingent on whether the FAA meets its schedule commitments, this is an interesting solution to the problem, though of course it would be preferable if the FAA had credibility in the first place.