Some project managers reading this blog are engaged in developing software, hardware, and systems applications for corporate or other uses by stakeholders who bank on their technical expertise to provide solutions for cost, scope, quality, and schedule issues.

Other project managers are engaged in designing and building “brick and mortar” facilities.

Still others create value for organizations by providing project deliverables that satisfy requirements for new transactional systems applications that enable the business processes of organizations to realize their full effectiveness.

In general, the project business requirements for project managers working on the types of projects discussed above dictate an in-depth understanding of stakeholder behavior under the most rational of conditions, and those stakeholders usually recognize the importance of a collaborative effort with the project manager in defining the project’s business requirements.

However, there are other types of projects for which the requirements space includes much more than just cost, schedule, scope, and quality; rather, these projects require kindness and empathy in addition to the standard project requirements.

I wanted to learn more about project management in the business context where project managers work directly with customers. John Esposito and his team at ESPO Fire and Water in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were kind enough to let me visit them on-site and find out more about how project management principles are implemented in their workplace. ESPO Fire and Water is engaged in mitigating loss, and in restoring and renovating properties damaged by fire, smoke, wind, water, and other secondary entities such as mold.

The project managers at ESPO Fire and Water deal with home and business owners who have seen their homes and businesses devastated by flood and fire— stakeholders who are often distraught and emotional. Who do I turn to? How do I recover? What is my best alternative? These questions are foremost in the minds of the people immediately affected by a disaster loss.

I wanted to learn how they dealt with the unique customer-service demands of their industry.

I met with Kevin Hefley and Ann Parker, project managers who each have more than twenty years of experience in fire and water damage assessment and cleanup work. They are extremely well versed in the typical project management aspects of scheduling, estimating, planning, budgeting, and quality. Moreover, they keenly understand that, in their business context, building a relationship with their customers is far more important than the transactional aspects.

Kevin told me that project managers from ESPO Fire and Water are often the first representative of ESPO Fire and Water that the customer meets. Sometimes, project managers from ESPO Fire and Water are the first people on-site after the disaster. Given that, at that first visit, a project manager may spend “most of his or her time with the distraught victims, who are trying to grapple with the situation. We know that [we] must play more than one role in these cases so we can quickly calm the victims and assist in their thought processes.”

Kevin told me that one of the many roles that project managers at ESPO Fire and Water must play is that of an advisor to their customers. For example, they must inform and educate customers about any standards—such as ANSI (American National Standards Institute Standards)—that must be met in the remediation. Kevin summarized his customer-centric philosophy this way: “Every morning, before I begin work, I glance at a Chinese proverb on my computer which says ‘Before you ask yourself if you are doing things right, first ask yourself if you are doing the right things.’ This saying has become my philosophy because we are often acting so fast in dealing with multiple projects.”

Ann also commented on the importance of the customer at every step. “There was one job where the customer wanted to know exactly what we planned to accomplish each day on the job and, since that customer was on my way to work, I stopped by each morning to make sure the customer knew exactly what would happen that day.”

Kevin and Ann also told me that they try to import their relationship management skills into other, non-customer oriented aspects of their project management. For example, ESPO Fire and Water relies heavily on contractors and vendors to supply basic electrical and plumbing work. Management of these vendors is facilitated by the fact that most of the vendors have worked with ESPO Fire and Water for a number of years, so they understand the quality of work that is demanded.

I also asked Ann and Kevin whether they used best practices in their project management. They described to me an extremely mature business process which relied heavily on best practices—even including preparing the trucks each night so that they would be ready to roll at a moment’s notice (which is all you get in a disaster situation)! Similarly, the technical director of ESPO Fire and Water is a member of the ANSI standards board. He has a very interactive role to play in both setting new standards, and in interpreting existing standards.

My visit reminded me of process guru Michael Hammer’s classic book Beyond Reengineering. I have applied his thinking to every project management organization that I have been a part of throughout the years. In the book, Hammer discusses the fact that the natural consequence of an organization that focuses on well-defined processes, and on becoming process centered, is the “professionalizing” of the organization’s work.

In this context, he says: “Three words characterize the worldview of a professional: customer, result, and process. The professional sees himself or herself as responsible to the customer; the mission is to solve a problem for the customer, to create the value that the customer requires. If that value is not created, if that problem is not solved, the professional has not done his or her job. It is only by producing the result that the customer requires, by performing the entire process that yields that result, that the professional discharges his or her responsibility.”

Other scholars have added to this definition by insisting that the “professional” is one who is continuously learning on the job and “reflects” on his experiences while sharing lessons learned with others in his practice.

In my experience with the various project management organizations, some met Michael Hammer’s standards, and others were “somewhat less than professional in their approach.”

I was impressed by the high degree of “professionalism” displayed by the project teams at ESPO Fire and Water. I think that other organizations wishing to evaluate and improve their own internal processes could use ESPO Fire and Water as a “benchmark” in that respect.

ESPO Fire and Water project manager Ann Parker told me that “the greatest satisfaction I get from my project work is when a customer calls me six months after a completed job and says ‘thanks for giving me my life back.'”

We don’t always see such a level of empathy in our daily project work; but, with the success that ESPO Fire and Water has demonstrated in all of its project management practices, maybe we should strive for a similar customer-centric outlook.

What level of “professionalism” does your project organization exhibit?

Is your process driven by transaction or relationship?

I look forward to your comments below.

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