The Apple and Why You Need Project Documentation

It’s Monday and Jack, your company’s best salesman just closed a large deal to provide an apple from your company, Bob’s Widget Factory and Apple Farm to Cabessa Pie Factory. The deal is with Gordon P. Cabessa, customer. Jack is freshly back from his whirlwind sales tour of the Midwest and drops the contract, ink still wet, on the president’s desk. Bob has assigned the work to you because Jack assured Gordy, ‘We’ll put our best person on it right away’.

You know Bob is a demanding boss who will laud accolades on a successful employee but also is quick to assign blame for any perceived failures. Eager to accomplish the work assigned you open the paperwork and dig in.

Without getting into the details of the contract or process lets look at a quick bullet list of how this delivery could go…

Project Manager: “Here’s your apple, sir (holds out a pristine red Macintosh apple)”
Customer: “That’s great but I wanted a green apple.”

Project Manager: “I’m sorry let me take care of that for you (spends more time and comes back with a perfect Green Granny Smith apple with a stem and two leaves on it). Here is your green apple.”
Customer: “Um, that’s nice but we can’t use them with stems or leaves on them.”

Project Manager: “Okay…….Let me check into that and I’ll get back to you (many emails, more time spent figuring out how to get the stem and leaves off) here you go.”
Customer: “I can’t use them whole. We make pies. They need to be sliced.”

Project Manager: “Nothing in the agreement says anything about slicing. That costs extra.”
Customer: “Your salesperson said he’d get us as many apples just the way we wanted for this price.”

Project Manager: “let me check that out (sure enough your boss says give them what they want so you slice it for them) here’s your sliced, green, stem and leafless apple.”
Customer: “I can’t use that. It’s on a plate. We need them in bags to dump into the machine. We don’t know how to deal with plates.”

Project Manager: “Well, you could do the same thing with plates as you do with the empty bags, couldn’t you?”
Customer:“Throw them away? I suppose so (confers with his production manager a bit) okay, yes. We’re running out of time so we’ll deal with plate for now but future orders need to come in bags.”

Project Manager: “Okay, great. I’ll make a note of that and make sure to pass that on. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”
Customer:“Uh, where are the rest?”

Project Manager:“Rest of what?”
Customer:“My apples. Where are the rest of my apples?”

Project Manager:“Um, the documentation and contract I received only requested one apple, singular.”
Customer:“We make pies here I need two tons of green granny smith, stemless, leafless, apples, sliced, in bags but I guess plates will do, here by tomorrow or I miss deadlines for contracts I have and have to refund my clients money!”

Project Manager:“…….(cancels weekend plans in favor of cutting and bagging apples by hand).”

It sounds crazy but if you’ve ever done any project management (or anything that remotely looked, felt, or tasted like project management) for longer than one or two projects you already know this isn’t really very far from reality sometimes. Some basic upfront project management documentation can change the above scenario from a one-time contract into something both gratifying and profitable for both parties.

Lets layout the scenario of the contract a little differently and then we’ll take it step by step. The contract is simple and reads as follows…

Cabessa Pie Factory wants an apple from Bob’s Apple Farm by next week, seven calendar days for $2 per pound of apples.

The contract has Gordon P. Cabessa’s signature, Jack Salesman’s signature, and your copy is now counter-signed by Bob Widgetmaker, President, CEO and Owner of Bob’s Widget Factory and Apple Farm.

Project management documentation by definition does not operate on vagaries. Where ambiguity is, questions from the project manager should be also. These questions are not aimed at pointing out anyone’s failings. They are designed to ensure the company provides what the contracting client wants. Unfortunately, to often pushback is received internally because those at whom the questions are aimed take those questions as accusatory trying to fix blame rather than trying to help the project succeed.

The sole aim of project documentation is to confirm provided details and flesh out any that might be missing. In our example glaring questions and some of the information those questions might solicit might be like these…

Project Manager:
“What is this apple (singular) going to be used for?
Customer: “We make pies. It takes 16 apples to make a pie.

Project Manager: “How many apples do you need from Bob’s Widget Factory and Apple Farm?
Customer: “You make widgets? I thought you were an apple farm?

Project Manager: “Our primary business is making widgets for the South East Asian widget markets but we also have a subsidiary You Pick apple farm utilizing our patented widget technology.
Customer: “Okay. Can you handle getting us two tons of apples?

Project Manager: “I will have to check on our factory stock and get back to you (knows full well they do not have this level of stock on hand). What type of apples do you primarily use and do you accept any substitutes in case we run shot?
Customer: “We use Granny Smith apples in our recipe and no we don’t allow substitutes because we sell ourselves on our unique flavor that only our hand selected Granny Smith apples have (turns to his production manager). Does patented widget technology count as hand selected (turns back to the project manager)? Are you guys sure you can get us two tons of Granny Smith apples in six days?

Project Manager: “I will confirm with you today that we can have your two tons of granny smith apples delivered before Monday. Can I have those delivered whole in bushel baskets via next day delivery?
Customer: “We need them before Friday. We have to process them this weekend, bake them, and box them up for sorting to be delivered on Monday locally by our trucks. No, bushel baskets are no good. Our equipment is built to deal with apples that have already been sliced and are in food service grade ten pound plastic bags. Are you sure you can deliver two tons of apples by Friday?

Project Manager: “Friday? The contract I have from Jack says by Monday (shows a copy of the contract to all parties).
Customer: “I’m not sure what that means, but our conversations with Jack he understood our obligations were due on Monday. We have to make the pies and can’t do all that in one day. (production manager speaks a little louder than he should in the background) We can get them from Sleep Jim’s Apple Farm and Dohickey Emporium tomorrow.

Project Manager: “I’ve already committed to getting back to you today. I’ll call you before lunch time with the information I have and we’ll move forward from there. Currently let me restate what you need and what I’m confirming. Cabessa Pies needs two tons of sliced Granny Smith apples in ten pound food service quality plastic bags by close of business Friday at the cost of $2 a pound. Is that right?
Customer: “Yes.

Project Manager: “Very good. I’ll be in touch before lunch and I’ll send out a transcript of this call to everyone so they know what we said. Please feel free to contact me if anything comes up you think we missed or I need to know.

This is not a good place to be in, but it’s in a better place than walking into work on Friday morning with your cell phone blowing up because your newest client doesn’t see two tons of apples on his doorstep. You can now handle what you’re empowered to handle on you own, and involve management for what you need their help. When you send out your notes from the call this makes sure everyone is aware of the situation and can apply the appropriate amount of urgency to it. In cases where you cannot meet these obligations all parties know at the earliest possible time and can form contingencies to address the issues. In the worst case where client satisfaction is in jeopardy those people who are client facing and potential receivers of an upset phone call have a heads up as soon as possible.

These projects are not the ideal by any stretch. In truth, they are not the norm either. Most organizations have processes in place that address gathering most of the needed data for a successful project completion. However, if honest evaluation is done on projects that fall short of their stated goals or deliver less than the client expected usually more attentive documentation in the beginning could have avoided or mitigated those circumstances.

Many organizations shy away from a formal project process. They believe it adds unneeded time to the delivery cycle of their products or services. In truth, if client expectation is set up front concerning these steps most customers are calmed rather than alarmed at the prospect of a stable, and well-managed process. Project management helps deliver exceptional levels of success to the customer and more return on investment for the company when adhered to and executed properly.