Sometimes project managers are as much informed by their projects, as they inform their projects.  And sometimes the lessons they learn are as valuable to the broader scheme of life, as they are to their projects going forward.

What does that mean?

It means that the total experience of carrying out and managing  a project sometimes adds a richness to a project manager’s experience that no training, no development course, no experiential modeling, no simulation, and no textbook could ever provide.

It is these experiences that project managers should reflect upon in order to draw out some real lessons when dealing with the physical, mental, social, and emotional states of project management.

This is the story of one such encounter from my experience.  I hope it provides you with some insights, and I hope  that you share your own similar experiences in projects so that others in the project community may benefit.

In 1996, while working for UNOCAL 76 Products Company as a Marketing Operations Analysis project manager, I was pressed into service opening convenience stores under our “Fastbreak Format” program.  This was an initiative to construct and operate convenience stores ranging from 1500 square feet in interior size to 2500 square feet interior size.  Many of these convenience stores also included fast food sections that featured Carl’s Jr., Subway, or another food brand.

As a project manager, it was my job to take the site from the Construction group, and then implement a plan for completion of store’s interior layout (including fixtures for the display of soft drinks, candies, and snacks) while also completing the store’s exterior layout (including underground fuel storage tanks, fuel dispensers at the islands, and other features).  Systems in the store included Point of Sale equipment that was sourced by major suppliers and installed by a special UNOCAL systems group. 

Obviously, coordination and timing were of the essence in such an operation.  I had at least ten bosses from various groups who always wanted to make sure that their portion of the exercises was completed on time, on budget, and fully operational.

There were two C-stores in particular that I remember from this experience. 

One was located in an inner city area of Los Angeles.  It was a 1500 square foot interior C-store that was to be franchised by a couple in the local area. 

The other was a 2500 square foot interior C-store that was to be a company-operated store on a freeway location just north of San Diego. 

The larger C-store was equipped with several islands for gasoline dispensing, while the smaller C-store had only two islands for gasoline dispensing due to the small lot at the inner city location.  The smaller C-store was equipped with a bulletproof glass partition that separated the operator from the customers after certain hours of the evening.  The larger C-store, on the other hand, had an open and spacious layout with extensive coolers for a variety of cool drinks and beverages.

The larger C-store had a company-employed manager who was already a manager at a nearby C-store about ten miles from the new location.  Although it was his responsibility to manage the store upon opening and to assist me prior to opening, it was solely my responsibility to manage the project, interface with all the suppliers and vendors, work with all the company systems groups for installation of systems, and determine when the store was ready for operation. 

In the case of the smaller, franchised C-store, my principal responsibility as project manager was to complete the project, interface effectively with the couple who would operate the store upon opening, and determine when the store was ready for opening.

The couple who had franchised the store had two children under age ten, and a grandmother who was always with them during the construction, installation of equipment, training, and opening of the store.   Although the manager of the larger C-store was extremely helpful in carrying out routine tasks in getting the store ready to open, he was also very impatient to “get his hands on the reins” and drive the stagecoach.

These two stores were going up concurrently, and I lived about half way between the two stores.  I divided my time each week between each location as I managed the various project tasks that had to be staged to bring each store to a ready state.

Occasionally during the work, a representative from another UNOCAL group would appear on-site to talk to either the franchisee or the company store manager.  These discussions, of course, always involved me as a principal participant in the preparation of the site. 

There were always issues in the opening process that required my liaison with another UNOCAL or supplier group.  For example, we encountered systems problems with installation of the Point of Sale equipment in the smaller C-store because the satellite communication equipment for credit card authorizations was not working properly.  So, a supplier from the network systems vendor was on-site much of the time during that phase of the setup, diagnosing and troubleshooting the satellite communications.   This meant that I had to describe the problem, the planned solution, and the timeline for fixing it to the franchisees.  Although nothing in the project plans called for informing them about how this interface with going, I felt an obligation to let them know exactly what problems we were encountering since they seemed to be at the site 24 hours a day.

As the two stores slowly took shape, my drive from my home to each location each day provided a good time to reflect and plan and digest and understand the C-store operators’ different agendas.  My obligation was to provide an open C-store, free of any systems issues, and ready for steady state operation. 

The smaller C-store was ready first even though we had been delayed with systems problems several times during the project.  I began to think of the training that the franchisee couple had received as the store neared completion and wondered if they were really prepared for what was to come.  They would have control over when the whole C-store would be open to the public and when customers could interface with the manager only through the bulletproof glass partition.  This was in stark contrast to the freeway location for the larger C-store where hours were almost unrestricted.  Although 24 hour operation was not common at that point in time, the store was open from 6 AM to 10 PM.

On the last night when I drove away from the smaller C-store, I was assured that the couple had sufficient training to see the store’s opening through.  I made sure that company personnel and vendors/suppliers had called on them enough that they had phone numbers and contact information with backup numbers if necessary.  The wife asked “does this mean we will not see you again?”

I wasn’t sure how to react.  All I could say was “yes, I had completed my project and felt they were prepared to operate the store successfully.”  But that is when I realized that this was more than just a project; it was their livelihood, and lives were dedicated to making this venture work.

As I drove away that evening, I questioned whether I had done my best to prepare them for the days ahead.  Had I coached them enough on the credit card system?  Had I helped them enough to understand the dispensers and the card readers?  Had I really treated them like they were going to be successful in this endeavor?  Only time would tell.

Meanwhile, the larger C-store was nearing completion.  More corporate people were appearing everyday to question the store manager and his staff on their particular areas of influence and control.  As we neared completion, I participated in the training of the staff to handle every aspect of the store.

It was solely my call whether the store was ready for operation.  As project manager for this C-store opening project, I weighed all the evidence and decided that we needed one more day to be sure that everything was in working order.   My store manager disagreed and voiced his disapproval to the Business Development Manager for the region.  Although the BDM was concerned, he recognized that I was the only person who had been on-site every day, knew every piece of ground, had talked with every vendor, had questioned each systems development specialist, had operated each dispenser, and each card reader.

As it turned out, we did have a minor systems problem on that last day before officially opening—a problem that no one, not even me, could have foreseen.  It took several hours to resolve, but I knew better at that point than to make a big issue of why we needed one more day.

As we opened the larger C-store, I thought of the smaller C-store and the vast differences between the two….the differences in location, market, operations, and especially the challenges for each.  Had I done my best to prepare each one to succeed?  I learned so much from the experience that I am sure it affected my approach to future projects and the people involved.

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