Your PM yardstick may not be 3 ft. long

In response to my December 2000 column about project management yardsticks (pg. 46), Kevin Smith, a project manager in Greenville, S.C., wrote to me because he felt his responsibilities and productivity differed from my experience. I'd like to respond to Kevin in detail. ( Editor's note: Kevin Smith's letter appears on pg. 8 of this month's issue .) There is one sole responsibility of a project manager,

In response to my December 2000 column about project management yardsticks (pg. 46), Kevin Smith, a project manager in Greenville, S.C., wrote to me because he felt his responsibilities and productivity differed from my experience. I'd like to respond to Kevin in detail. ( Editor's note: Kevin Smith's letter appears on pg. 8 of this month's issue .)

There is one sole responsibility of a project manager, Kevin, and that is to ensure that each job he manages makes a profit. Within the framework of doing so, a project manager is given certain authority and responsibility, depending on the structure of the company for which he works.

Even if you get stuck with too much responsibility and not enough authority, the bottom line is that you're still expected to make a profit consistently or get tossed out on your ear.

You have to be given the necessary authority to control decision-making and implementation regarding basic matters such as hiring, purchasing, small contract compromises, scheduling, billing, etc. If idiots in your company make decisions about your jobs that should be your call and not theirs, then it'll always be a crapshoot whether you can make a profit on your jobs.

Sometimes you're given too much responsibility—the old "make me a 10% net despite the fact the estimating green sheets say we should only make 5%—or you'll be fired." Take comfort in the fact even company hemorrhoids are usually removed or fade away in time if you can take the pain long enough to outlast them.

If you weren't making the firm money, you wouldn't have your job, trust me.

Personally, I always fight tooth-and-nail for the authority to do my own job hiring, firing, job buyout, project billing, scheduling, etc. It's my butt in the end after all. Conversely, I accept the ultimate responsibility for those decisions I make.

And even though I want the authority, I also demand help. In order to get the work done and not work 80 hours per week, I acknowledge the need for competent front- and back-office personnel who can handle most of the actual paper shuffling for me.

I need someone who can contact the vendors I select and fill out the hardcopy purchase orders and then follow up to make sure the materials will be shipped on time. I need personnel gurus who will work with any new hires regarding company policies, procedures and tax matters. I want CAD guys who can artfully churn out the coordination drawings I need so I won't have to spend my weekends glued to a workstation. I need a diehard warehouse or yard man who knows where every odd bit of stored material and equipment is, either at the shop or disbursed to different jobs that I can draw on and try to keep my direct costs down.

And last but most importantly, I need a professional administrative assistant who can keep me in contact with the important people, filter out those who will waste my time and organize the messes I call job files so I can find what correspondence I need when I need it.

Kevin, if your company doesn't give you and your compadres adequate shares of these resources, then it's no wonder you spend an average of eight days per month per job instead of what I consider to be an industry average of three.

In any case I'd say that you are not inefficient in using what time or resources you have, because if you were, you'd have been fired by now. However you might characterize the management and owners, they're not stupid. If you weren't making the firm money, you wouldn't have your job, trust me.

I'd say you're probably accepting too much responsibility, either by design, accident or necessity. There is one yardstick to measure management efficiency. The mark of a good manager is always the lack of ego that permits delegation of authority as much as much possible and the intelligence and common sense to make sure those under him accomplish those tasks assigned within the time allotted. You can't go out in the field and run every foot of duct or pipe (if you do, then you're a foreman, not a project manager). Similarly, you can't or shouldn't have to cross every single "t" or dot each "i" on each slip of paper in the office.

If you enjoy that level of immersion, that level of total control over every detail within the job jacket and your bosses don't care, then I'd say fine. If, however, your bosses are too cheap to provide you and the other project managers with adequate office help, then I'd say it's time for an upper and middle management pow-wow.

The bottom line of your question, "How can I improve my efficiency?" is this: I don't know without seeing you. I'd need to come down to South Carolina and be your shadow for a week and see how both you and your company work together.

You may be able to answer the question yourself. Ask yourself, who is or can be more efficient at any given task that's a function of project management? Is it you or somebody else in your company who may be more specialized, more talented or works a lot cheaper than you do?

If you answer, "that other person" for specific tasks, and you have the authority to delegate, then by all means do so. You'll end up being more efficient and actually have more time to spend on each job (because the office staff will be taking care of the details), which will ultimately mean higher potential profitability for each job you run.

In Part II of my response to Kevin Smith, I'll tell you my "wish list" for an idealized structure for a mechanical contracting firm.