Published here August 2006.


Musings Index

A Lesson in Simplicity - Case Study

Note: The account of this project is entirely fictitious and any resemblance, real or imagined, to anyone or anything is entirely coincidental.

Once upon a time, (all good stories start out with that don't they?) there was a North American hi-Tech company, we'll call them NatCo for convenience, that was feeling the stresses of competition from a rival Asian company, whom we'll call "Offshoring" for purposes of anonymity. In the interests of research into better management of projects (I have to bring in project management some how, don't I?) NatCo decided to invite Offshoring to engage in a competitive project.

After much hard negotiation on both sides, the parties finally agreed on a project. This project had to be held where there could be little political influence, and Canada was the obvious country of choice. The project also had to be independent of any high technology content, for fear of exposing trade secrets. The one finally selected was a canoe race to be held on the South Arm of the Fraser River, here in British Columbia. Because of its length, the race was called The Long Race. The Fraser River is a major river that flows through the low-lying delta area just to the south of Vancouver, see Figure 1.

Figure 1: Lower Fraser River, BC
Figure 1: Lower Fraser River, BC

This river is ideal for all sorts of sports activities - see Figure 2.

Figure 2: Sturgeon allegedly caught on the Fraser River
Figure 2: Sturgeon allegedly caught on the Fraser River[1]

However, The Long Race would not be in just any sort of canoe but in traditional Indian canoes, see illustration Figure 3.

Figure 3: Indian canoe race
Figure 3: Indian canoe race[2]

Anyway, both teams practiced long and hard. On the big day, the weather was fine, the water calm and everything ready and just right. The Offshoring team won The Long Race by a couple of klicks.[3]

As a result of this, NatCo became very discouraged by the severe loss and their morale sagged. Corporate management decided that the reason for the crushing defeat must be thoroughly investigated. A Continuous Measurable Improvement Team (CMIT) was formed consisting of senior executives with a mandate to examine the problem and do whatever it takes to apply a corrective action plan.

After several highly secretive meetings, the CMIT finally agreed on the cause. The Offshoring team had six people paddling and one steering whereas NatCo had one person paddling and six people steering. Since this was a matter of corporate prestige, the CMIT hired the best project management consulting company in the country, but not from Canada you understand, to examine the problem and recommend appropriate corrective action.

After some time and several million dollars later, that's US dollars of course, the PM consultants observed that while "too many people were steering and not enough were paddling" there was also a failure to adopt best practices in project management. In fact they identified no less than seven processes that should be added, thirteen that should be renamed and two deleted to comply with latest published recommendations.[4] In addition, a project such as this should have serious management attention and visibility at the highest corporate level.

Accordingly, to prevent losing to Offshoring the following year, NatCo decided to institute a new management structure to oversee a much improved project management process. A program of four projects was therefore launched: Canoe acquisition; Paddle acquisition; Paddler and Steerer selection; and Paddler and Steerer training. Four project managers were appointed along with four technical sponsors (the functional divisions wanted in on the act) and these people were designated as Project Directors. A Program Manager was appointed to manage the program. To give the required corporate visibility at the executive level, a new vice-president position was created: VP-Competitive racing.

Following a risk analysis, it was observed that the Lower Fraser River is tidal and the water can be quite rough. To mitigate this risk, several selected steerers and paddlers were sent to the local maritime institute to obtain their certificate of perfect marine paddling (pmp). However, the Program Manager determined that steerers and paddlers with a pmp certificate would not actually be deployed in the race unless absolutely necessary because certificated personnel expected more money and proper project cost control must be maintained over the program.

Instead, a new performance standard was established to incentivize the work of canoe paddlers and thereby enable the possibility of becoming a "six figure performer". Management called this "empowerment". A small breakout group from the Paddler and Steerer selection project was formed to examine the issue of ratio of steerers to paddlers. However, since steerers dominated it, the group concluded that any change in ratio was "not consistent with NatCo's management culture", so no changes were recommended.

The following year Offshoring won The Long Race by nearly four klicks.

Upon this devastating result, NatCo promptly laid off all canoe steerers and paddlers on the grounds of poor performance or expectations, sold all its paddles, canceled all capital investments in new canoes, awarded a high performance certificate to the PM consulting company, re-assigned all Project Directors and Managers to other duties, and used the money saved as a "golden handshake" for the Vice-President.

Now, how would you have approached the problem?

1. Found on Internet at, accessed 12/30/05
2. From Catlin, George. Letters and notes on the North American Indians. New York: C. N. Potter, 1975, found on Internet at, accessed 12/30/05
3. Slang for kilometer
4. Any resemblance to any standard published in North America is purely coincidental.
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