International Women’s Day Celebrating Laura Nee

International Women’s Day Celebrating Laura Nee

International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. Here is our call to action:

Today we celebrate our President and CEO, Laura Nee, and her achievements. She has made strides in a traditionally male-dominated industry, and empowered many women whom she has employed to solve complex and technical business issues for our customers—setting a strong example for girls and women everywhere, including her nine-year-old daughter, Ava.

Having begun her career as a software developer and business analyst, Laura had always had an interest in business-process reengineering, helping companies improve their bottom line through automation. By the time she was 26 years old her father was ready to retire, and sell the company he’d founded in 1984, The Simplex Group, Inc. She was an enterprising young adult who wanted to run her own business, so when the opportunity to acquire and mold Simplex arose, she jumped at it.

At the time, Simplex was a value-added reseller for a project-management software company now owned by Oracle, Primavera Systems. Primavera is known in the engineering and construction industry for their flagship planning and scheduling products. Headquartered in Pittsburgh, Simplex worked with local organizations like Westinghouse, Bayer Corporation, and Highmark, while expanding into western New York to service companies like Eastman Kodak, Rochester Gas & Electric, and Cornell University. Simplex also had contracts with organizations involved in construction like Mascaro, Dick Corporation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Sargent Electric, and many others from traditionally male-dominated industries.

Laura saw the need to merge her software-development experience with her project-management expertise.

“We need to build our own project-management system, but not the way a typical software vendor does. We need to develop it with the customer, not for the customer.” In working with off-the-shelf products like Primavera, Laura had learned that people rarely used most of the functionality available within the application.
Taking that innovative approach to technology has made Laura and her organization successful. In 2008, her team launched VPO, a construction project-management system. After working with client after client, we eventually created a set of Best Practices for the construction industry.VPO
“We didn’t build an off-the-shelf system with features that we thought people would need; we built a system around processes that we knew they definitely needed.”
Laura continues, “We worked on neat projects like the North Shore Connector Light Rail Expansion Project—a light rail system built underwater. We worked with one of the world’s largest energy companies, CONSOL Energy, to manage an $800M capital-improvement program updating their conveyor systems across their mines. One of our most successful projects is for Yale University’s Office of Facilities. We developed a bid-management system that supports over 1,200 contractors who upload their bids electronically, securely.”

Laura and her team continue to work with more and more companies to deploy and evolve VPO. Right now we’re working with the University of Pittsburgh’s Facilities Management division to roll out an enterprise-wide program-management system managing their capital projects. We’re building a custom version of VPO for a construction-management firm out of Southern California, Simplus Management, to help them manage projects for their clients in an innovative way like Orange County, and the City of Long Beach. Laura’s team also recently deployed VPO for an international contractor, Venco Imtiaz Construction Company, who is building the headquarters for The World Bank in Afghanistan.

At Simplex, we honor Laura Nee on International Woman’s Day, 2017, and we thank her for being our leader. Her vision and know-how have benefited not only our clients and each other, but also our families. As are so many other women, we’re the main caregivers for our loved ones. And in addition to eliminating unnecessary overhead costs, operating from our homes for a business owner who empowers us to “work smart” gives each Simplex team member a flexible environment in which to meet our responsibilities to our company and customers, and to our families—as well as to ourselves as individuals.

#IDW2017 #BeBoldForChange #SheMeansBusiness #InternationalWomensDay

Can you use Microsoft Office 365 for Project Management?

Can you use Microsoft Office 365 for Project Management?

Does your organization use Microsoft Office 365? First, let’s clarify what Office 365 is. Some people think of Office 365 as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook apps. Some people recognize the name because it came with the PC they just bought. Some companies use Office 365 because their IT professional told them to move to Microsoft’s hosted email platform.

Office 365 is a Cloud-based business platform managed by Microsoft for hosted email, file sharing, online meetings, calendaring, and more. But what does this mean for you, and how does it help improve your business? For the past 30 years, we’ve worked with customers from various industries and business types—but they all share a common theme: project management.

We want to help you learn about the tools and features that are available from Microsoft, and show you how you can use them to improve your business. There are a lot of companies that have moved, or are planning to move, to Microsoft’s Cloud platform. But so many of those companies only know about a tiny sliver of Office 365’s capabilities.

Let’s look at the apps that are available with a standard subscription of Office 365. There are traditional apps for email like Mail, Calendar, and People. There are apps for online versions of Microsoft Office apps like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. And there are so many more apps that are valuable—but only if you know what they are and how to use them.

We work with customers daily on leveraging these tools as project management tools. We can help you learn about the apps and features that relate to project management, and the value that they can bring to your business. If you’re using Office 365 today, then you may have access to these tools without even knowing it!

SharePoint App

SharePoint is an enterprise content management system typically used to develop a company’s corporate intranet or secure employee website. People don’t know where to start with SharePoint, and often the team members who help set up Office 365 are network specialists, not business analysts. It can be very intimidating to try and figure out where to start with SharePoint because, by default, SharePoint is installed as a blank site without any content.

Templates

When we work with clients to set up and configure SharePoint, we establish templates of content that can be reused within the company. For example, our customers in the engineering and construction industries use our construction project management app, VPO, as a starting point to manage bidding, design reviews, RFIs, Submittals, Change Orders, and other features. By using our template, you can get your next project off the ground quickly without the need to wait for IT to develop a project management system for you. We also use templates to help businesses set up sites for departments like accounting and marketing.  

Workflows

SharePoint is a powerful tool for managing business workflows. A workflow is a process of submitting information for review and approval. There are different types of workflows—serial and dynamic. A serial workflow sends an approval to multiple parties, and each party must approve in a specific order. A dynamic workflow allows an individual to pick whom to send the approval to, and the assignment can change at any time, as needed.

A typical workflow in the construction industry is a Request for Information (RFI), and we use a dynamic workflow setup. In VPO, we have a standard form that collects information that a Contractor would submit to an Architect for clarification. The Contractor can ask the question digitally, and an email notification is automatically sent to the Architect, notifying him or her of the Contractor’s question. The Architect can reply with the answer, and another email is then sent back automatically to the Contractor. Alternatively, they could send it on to the Owner to get their input. We call the ownership of the workflow, the Ball-In-Court.

This way, you always know who is holding on to the document for approval. You also have a list of RFIs that are visible to anyone within the project, providing transparency and an audit trail of anyone who has touched the RFI.

 

SharePoint can be used to create any workflow in a company. For instance, you can set up a workflow to allow employees to submit a timesheet for review and approval to their Manager, or an expense report and purchase requisition. The trick is to create the form that collects the information, and then train your team members on the process.

File Sharing

Office 365 is a powerful tool for managing company documents in the Cloud. With Office 365, there are two apps dedicated to file sharing; SharePoint and OneDrive. SharePoint should be used to store, and share, company-related documents. OneDrive should be used to store your own documents that aren’t yet ready for sharing. Think of it this way: if you’re going to save a document that you’re drafting, but you’re not yet ready to share it with coworkers, then you typically save it to your Documents folder on your PC. However, this location is not necessarily being backed up, so if your PC crashes, then you’ll have lost your documents. If, instead, you save that type of document to OneDrive, then it will be saved both on your PC and online, in the Microsoft Cloud where it’s being backed up.

If you’re working on a sales proposal—a company document—then you should save the document in SharePoint, in the Sales department site. You can work collaboratively with others on the document, and using the Cloud ensures that it’s being backed up. You can sync SharePoint documents with your local device so that you can edit them locally, but they are being synced online and backed up in the Microsoft Cloud.

There are many advantages to storing your documents in the Microsoft Cloud, in SharePoint and OneDrive.

  • You can access the documents from anywhere; no VPN connection needed.
  • You can sync documents, work offline, and then automatically re-sync online.
  • Version history is turned on by default, capturing an instance of every document changed by any user.

  • Searching for documents is fast and intuitive; you can use keywords to search not only the title of the document but also the contents of a document.  

Task Management

In dealing with customers in the engineering and construction industry for decades, we’ve learned well that their business success relies heavily on critical-path schedules that can be used for long-term forecasting. Some businesses don’t need such a robust planning tool; they need a simple project management tool for communicating goals and deadlines to coworkers, and for getting periodic feedback on the status of those goals.

SharePoint allows you to manage a set of tasks that may belong to a project, a business initiative, or a department. You create the task list as you would in an Excel spreadsheet—which is what many people do. However, it’s not easy to see tasks in an Excel spreadsheet. You have to open a document to see the tasks, and only one person at a time can edit the task document. When creating a SharePoint task list, you create each task, provide a title, a longer description, a start date, an end date, and whom it’s assigned to. It can be as simple as that. Optionally, you can automatically send an email alert to the individual assigned any task. There’s no real logic between the tasks; each one can be completed independently of others, keeping it simple to set up. And you can have multiple users editing tasks at the same time. You can also add tasks to a timeline so that others can see a graphical view of the tasks.

You can indent tasks to create summary tasks, and any tasks that are late will automatically change to the color red. It’s simple to manage, easy to understand, and transparent for everyone in your organization.

We’ve even developed an app called My Tasks, that’s a personal view of tasks assigned to you from all task lists. A great way to keep on top of your assignments across any task list.

Project Online App

Many people don’t realize that Microsoft offers a Project Portfolio Management (PPM) system in Office 365. A PPM system allows you to manage your company’s projects in a single database. With a PPM system, you can see your company’s projects in one view. It’s great for team members in management, because they need a bird’s eye view of projects’ status. This way they can see if a project has an issue, and drill down into the detail of the project plan.

In Office 365, you can subscribe to Project Online, and it will provide the enterprise project infrastructure you need to manage your projects. You don’t have to purchase expensive perpetual licenses; you can simply subscribe and pay a monthly fee depending on the type of functionality needed. You can even bundle the desktop version Microsoft Project into your subscription. The advantage is that there’s nothing to install in your organization; Microsoft manages the infrastructure in the Cloud for you, and you’re always using the latest versions of the software.

With Project Online in Office 365, you can manage your projects using a web browser, without having any software installed on your desktop. You have anywhere access to the project data.

If you prefer to use a desktop version of Microsoft Project, you can check out the project from Project Online, modify it, and then check the project back in and publish it to all other users.

With Project Online, you can define templates that include a standard Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), tasks with durations and logic, and assigned resources, so that when you need to create a new project, you’re not starting with a blank page. You can build intelligence into your project templates, and use them as a starting point, and the solution will build consistencies into your company’s project plans no matter who is developing them.

Skype for Business App

A few years ago, Microsoft purchased Skype, a video conferencing leader, and now Microsoft offers Skype for Business as an application within Office 365 as a subscription-based tool. It’s included with other apps as a bundle. Not everybody realizes how powerful and useful Skype can be for project management.

First, Skype can be used to host and join web meetings. The pricing model of Skype makes it more reasonable to give to every employee within your office access to host a meeting, rather than a select few like you would with GoToMeeting. This allows for people to connect with team members no matter where they’re working from.

Skype can also be used as a video feed to share live information from anywhere. Our customers running construction projects use it in the field. The Project Manager and Field Superintendent can use the Skype mobile app on their smartphone or tablet, and show a live video feed of a problem at the job site to someone sitting in an office.

Watch this video from Microsoft to see Skype for Business in action.

With Skype for Business, you simply get answers to questions done more quickly.

Shared Mailbox

Today there are so many email messages that go back and forth on a project. It’s difficult to track down correspondence, and once you do, it’s hard to be confident that you’re reading the latest thread in the conversation or opening the latest attachment. In Office 365, we have a feature called a Shared Mailbox that allows you to set up an email address that’s unique for your project. When sending an email message to your project team, you can simply Cc the project email address, and the correspondence is automatically collected in the project’s mailbox. You can also forward to that address any email related to the project. You can assign team members to the mailbox who can see the project mailbox in Outlook, next to their own mailbox. You can search for any correspondence just like you can with your Outlook inbox.

Summary

Office 365 is a great project management tool for any organization. Leverage your investment in Office 365 by taking advantage of more apps today.

Is CPM Scheduling Critical in Construction?

Is CPM Scheduling Critical in Construction?

Many of our customers are looking for a quick and easy way to develop a construction schedule. There are many complex software programs on the market today (and the list keeps growing) that offer resource planning, cost-loading, s-curve reports, earned value metrics and more.  However, many of our customers in construction do not need all of those features –they are just looking for a simple, easy-to-use tool to plan out the timeline of their projects.

Yes, critical path scheduling is truly “critical” in construction so that you can see the impact of changes as they occur throughout a project’s duration. Some people do not know the steps involved with creating a CPM schedule and how easy it can be to use –especially to your advantage. I’ve outlined the steps below.

How to Develop a Critical Path Schedule

To develop a critical path schedule, you just enter tasks with their planned duration (usually in days) and establish predecessor and successor relationships between tasks in a scheduling program. Let the scheduling software work for you! So many people try to develop a schedule by entering the start and finish dates for each activity. That is NOT how you develop a CPM schedule or a good schedule! We suggest no open-ended activities except for the Project Start and Project Completion activities in your schedule. Once you hit a button to “schedule” your project plan, a value called float or slack is calculated for each task identifying how many days late it can be before impacting your project as a whole.

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Critical Path Schedule for a construction project

The critical path settings vary depending on the scheduling application that you use. Tasks are critical usually when the float or slack value is less than or equal to 0. This indicates the number of days that need to be made up to get the project back on track. For instance, if your float or slack is equal to (-2) for activities on the critical path this means that you have to make up 2 days in your schedule to meet your project finish by date. 

Use Templates to Develop a Project Plan

It does not have to be hard to create a schedule for your projects. We always recommend starting with a template so that you are not starting from scratch every time. If you have repeatable steps in your projects –even if they are generic –use them to help you with the planning process. It is much easier to edit tasks, and the process can act as a checklist to make sure you are not missing anything. In a template, you can save as much information as you know such as a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), task descriptions, durations, logic and more. It can take a few minutes rather than hours to develop your project plans.

Baseline a Project Plan before Updating

Now one of the most important steps that many people skip is the baselining process. If you do not baseline a schedule, when you update your project you will overwrite your planned start and planned finish dates with actual start and actual finish dates. In fact, it will appear as if you are always “on-schedule” when you are not. By baselining you can create visual views to see where you thought you would be on the project and to where you are. Baselining in a software tool is as easy as hitting a button, so don’t skip it!

Updating a Project Plan

I was just speaking with a company who said, “We always develop a schedule but on one ever updates it.” That happens far too often for many who do not take a disciplined approach to scheduling. You need to update the schedule on a regular basis on a frequency that makes sense for your projects. It may be weekly or monthly depending on how long your projects last. Some of our customers in the energy industry managing nuclear power plant outages update their schedules hourly!

It can be a daunting task to get updates into your project plan –that is why so many people skip this step. However, it can be an easy process with a little bit of preparation. If you develop a view specific to the fields that you want to update, it makes it simple for anyone to provide the updated information. For instance, we suggest a simple view like you see in the screenshot below. We try to make it look as simple as an Excel spreadsheet (but it is not!).

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Updating View

Use Reports to Communicate with the Project Team

Throughout the duration of a project, it is important to make sure to share the information with the team.  During a team meeting, you walk through progress information and review any issues or risks on the project. You can generate simple reports to share during the meeting. Many people use a report called a look-ahead report i.e. a 2-week look ahead report. This is a report that is a filtered list of activities about the period in review. You can also use a bar chart report to view slippage in your project plan in a graphical format. In the screenshot below you can visually see the impact on the schedule as a whole when the second activity did not start on-time. All of the tasks that are dependent on it are affected. Again, the idea is to capture what’s happening so you can work as a team to resolve issues before they happen.

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Tracking View

Why use a CPM schedule?

The construction schedule is meant to be a business intelligence tool to the project team. It is intended to bring the foresight of issues before they happen. It is a communication tool to discuss what’s going on in a project with the team and stakeholders. It is a very critical component of construction projects and doesn’t have to be that hard with a little discipline and planned approach. 

If you’d like to learn more about our VPO project scheduling tools, please visit our website at http://vpocloud.com/project-scheduling/ for more information.

Any questions or comments, please email me at lnee@simplexgroup.com.