Interview with Michel Burla, Director of the Oils & Fats Division, Centravo Group

  4 April 2024
  Interview    , ,

Can you introduce yourself, your organisation and your role in it?

My name is Michel Burla, and I have been in charge of the Oils and Fats segment of the Centravo Group since 2019. This segment is based on two sites, an oils and fats refinery in Lyss (BE) and a margarine factory in Mitlödi (GL). It employs 120 people and generates annual sales of CHF 120 million.

Why did you decide to use Prefix’s services?

I had the opportunity to discuss project management with Philippe Lauper, who suggested that I carry out a test to establish my organisation’s project management maturity. The result of the test showed that we had a lot of room for improvement!

What were the main challenges or problems you faced before Prefix came on board?

We already had a project management process in place, but it was clumsily defined, incomplete and not recognised as a process within the group. In short, we lacked project skills and culture. The test also revealed to me that we had no control over our project portfolio.

Which of Prefix’s services did you choose?

Following the test, Prefix was able to make me a proposal targeted at our weaknesses. We chose to start with a full Circular Project Management course and training on the Microsoft Project scheduling tool, so as to build up our skills. After that, we took out a support subscription to become more autonomous.

What struck you most about Circular Project Management, the Prefix method?

I appreciate the flexibility that this method offers. It corresponds well to the frequent changes in our company’s environment (customer requirements, legal requirements). I also appreciate its simplicity and adaptability.

I also like the shape of the 8 method, or lemniscate depending on how you read it. It gives me a good mnemonic to remember it. Since the training course, I’ve been using it regularly to explain certain principles of project management to people around me.

Have you noticed any significant improvements in your team’s productivity or efficiency since working with Prefix?

Yes, clearly. Following the training, we overhauled our entire project management process and the associated documents, and integrated them into our quality system. From now on, we won’t accept any project that doesn’t comply with the method. Thanks to this, we’ve been able to revitalise dormant projects, increase the number of parallel projects and improve our credibility with the group and our customers.

When I read the results of the test, I found it hard to accept that we had major shortcomings in project management, but now we’ve stopped tinkering with things, we’re taking a professional approach. Not only has it made my job easier, it’s also re-energised my team. We should have made this investment much earlier!

What struck you most about Prefix’s services?

For me, Prefix is the art of asking the right questions and coming up with the answers. Everyone in my team is now involved in the project management process and we’ve got into the habit of asking ourselves the right questions!

Can you share a funny or unusual anecdote that happened while you were accompanied by Prefix?

We had planned to do the training in English, the language most common to Prefix and my team. In the end, the oral exchanges were a spontaneous mix of German, Swiss German, English and French. In the end, we all spoke Prefixian!

What other question would you like to answer?

Has the Centravo Group benefited from the return on its investment in Prefix?

Before committing myself, I made a quick calculation of the cost per hour and per person of the team I had tied up for this process. It turned out to be negligible compared with the estimated time saved thanks to our increased skills. I’d advise everyone to start with the test and go through the same experience as we did.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I love the quote that says “When a man’s hungry, it’s better to teach him to fish than to give him a fish“. Prefix has been like our fishing rod!


Why isn’t anyone using the potential of the Project Management Triangle?

  6 March 2024
  Method   

What does the Triangle represent?

The Project Management Triangle, sometimes called the Magic Triangle, is a universally recognised concept. There are various interpretations of it, but they all reflect the major constraints that frame a project. Here, I will use a representation of the Triangle that illustrates four constraints common to all projects: Result, Time, Cost and the Human factor.

Result. The first parameter of the Project Management Triangle concerns the constraint of the expected end result, i.e. the objectives to be achieved and the deliverables to be produced as part of the project.

Time. One side of the Triangle represents the time constraint, in other words the time allowed to deliver the expected result of the project.

Cost. The second side of the triangle represents the financial constraint, in other words the costs associated with the project.

Human. The fourth constraint, the human factor, represents the availability and performance of the people needed to make the project a success. Too rarely identified in the Magic Triangle, it is nevertheless at the heart of any project approach.

Trivial definition or useful resource?

Unfortunately, many project managers perceive the Project Management Triangle as a trivial definition, devoid of any usefulness. Too often relegated to the status of an academic concept, the Magic Triangle is seen as a cliché with no relevance to the real world of dynamic projects. It’s obvious… Everyone knows that… Project managers see it as such a ubiquitous concept that it is of no use.. And yet, this careless perception obscures the true essence of the Magic Triangle, which goes far beyond a mere academic formula.

In fact, understanding the flexibility inherent in these constraints turns out to be a strategic asset for those who manage to master it, thus transforming the Project Management Triangle into an instrument that offers the possibility of anticipating and adjusting the methods used to control the project. It is by exploring beyond the surface that we discover the richness and usefulness of this simple representation.

Reality on the ground

Project managers take on a role in which the main responsibility is to successfully navigate through the unforeseen events that constantly challenge the path initially planned. Their task is to choose a route taking advantage of limited resources, all with the aim of achieving the desired end result. However, this roadmap is constantly being challenged, as the reality on the ground brings its share of unforeseen events every day.

These unforeseen events, whether they be delays, resource problems, changes of priority or any other unforeseen obstacle, continually test the robustness of the route initially chosen. Project managers must therefore be masters of adaptability, ready to constantly reassess and adjust the trajectory in the light of changing circumstances.

Postponing the Paris Olympics?

By understanding the flexibility of a project’s major constraints from the outset, managers can anticipate the potential changes to which they will need to be able to react and thus adapt quickly to unforeseen circumstances.

An inflexible constraint is one less lever for project managers. For example, if there are unforeseen circumstances in the preparations for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, it will be impossible to postpone the dates. This leaves only the option of committing more resources or delivering a worse result than originally expected.

Once they have understood how to use the Magic Triangle, project managers will adapt their tools and the route chosen to achieve the result, sometimes even modifying the scope of the project so as to reintroduce flexibility with regard to one or other of the constraints. The key is to create flexibility where there is too little, or to plan alternatives in advance.

In short, mastering the flexibility of constraints at the start of a project transforms the manager into an informed navigator, better prepared to deal with the unexpected and take advantage of sudden opportunities. It’s a strategic way of choosing the ideal path to ultimate success, where agility becomes a valuable asset in the project manager’s toolbox.


How can you successfully estimate time and costs?

  5 February 2024
  Method    , ,

The challenge of each estimate is to identify the most realistic value possible, so that at the end of the project, the difference between the estimated value and the actual value is as small as possible.

To get as close as possible to this realistic value, I use the following approach:

  1. I start by noting the value that comes to me intuitively, whatever it may be.
  2. I use one or more of the following estimation methods:
    • By breakdown. Breaking down the element to be estimated into sub-elements, up to a level at which it becomes possible to make an estimate.
    • Expert judgement. Consultation with people experienced in the field related to the item being valued.
    • Estimation by analogy. Reference to similar projects or project elements whose value is known through experimentation, while adapting this value to the new context.
    • Parametric estimation. Estimate based on statistical data specific to the field of the element being estimated.
    • Mean value. Calculation of an average value, based on the most optimistic value and the most pessimistic value.
    • Poker planning. Collaborative and consensual estimation method, using a pack of cards bearing different values.
  3. I add to the value obtained a reserve linked to the level of uncertainty in the estimate. This reserve can range from 10% to cover a minor contingency to 300% for highly uncertain situations. For very specific projects, some people use the pi-figure method to define the reserve to be included in their estimates.
  4. I compare the intuitive value with the value established using one of the above methods. If they are consistent, I have sufficient confidence in the value established. If the values are inconsistent, I redo the intuitive estimate and use other methods.

The pi-figure method

The pi-figure method is entirely empirical and can be interpreted by the fact that a non-performing team spends 3x as much time carrying out the tasks it has estimated and that there is 3x as much work behind the unknown tasks.

The method therefore consists of combining these two factors to estimate the amount by which the value should be multiplied to include the reserve, according to the following rules:

  • π^2 when the project team is not yet performing well and is doing something it does not know how to do,
  • π when the project team is not yet performing well but is doing something it knows how to do,
  • π when the project team is performing well but doing something they don’t know anything about,
  • √π when the project team is performing well and doing something it knows how to do.

5 steps to choosing the right deadline management tool

  9 January 2024
  Method   

One of the keys to successful projects is controlling deadlines. This requires good planning and coordination of the work needed to deliver the final results expected at the end of the project.

Here are the 5 steps I use to keep my project deadlines under control.

  1. Determining the complexity of the project. An uncomplicated project is one where the strategic stakes are relatively low, the entire project lasts from a few weeks to a few months, the team consists of a few known people, the environment is known and the budget is a few thousand francs at most. A complex project is one in which one or more of its parameters is strong or high.
  2. Determine the predictability of the project. A predictable project is one where you can easily determine the course, activities, costs, stakeholders and risks before the project starts. A poorly predictable project is one in which one or more of its parameters is difficult to estimate in advance.
  3. Understanding the project environment. The choice of project management method and planning tools depends on the organisation’s environment. It depends, for example, on the tools already in use, established procedures, IT security rules or licence costs. The choice also depends on the habits and skills of the team.
  4. Choosing the management method. Depending on the predictability and the environment, you can determine whether the most appropriate method is an agile method (e.g. SCRUM), a predictive method (e.g. Hermes, IPMA, PMBOK) or a versatile approach such as Circular Project Management, which allows both approaches.
  5. Choosing the scheduling tool. For less complex projects, I make do with a list of tasks and a summary schedule, or even a few key milestones. For projects that follow an agile approach, I use a phase plan and Kanban boards. Finally, for complex projects that follow a predictive approach, I use a specialised planning tool (e.g. Merlin Project, Microsoft Project). There are a wide variety of IT tools available for planning projects: tools offering Kanban (e.g. Trello, WeKan, OpenProject), tools specialising in Gantt charts (e.g. GanttProject, ProjectLibre, Microsoft Project) or multi-functional tools (e.g. Jira, Asana). At Prefix, I use Merlin Project, a very comprehensive tool that can be used to display work in the form of both Kanban boards and Gantt charts.

The creation of Prefix

  13 December 2023
  Dialogue   
  • What triggered the creation of Prefix?

I’ve always wanted to set up my own business, mainly to have the freedom and challenge of making all the strategic decisions. It’s sometimes daunting, but incredibly stimulating and always exciting.

After 8 years working for Solar Impulse on behalf of my employer Altran, I found myself physically and mentally exhausted. To avoid exhaustion, I was given the opportunity to reduce my working hours to 70%, which gave me time to rest and do other projects. It was during this period that I decided to set up my own business to put my project management experience to good use. For 2 years, I was lucky enough to be able to run both activities in parallel, before finally devoting myself entirely to Prefix in 2014.

  • How did you choose your company’s sector of activity?

It was only natural for me to continue my work in project management, motivated by the different experiences I had gained in my previous jobs and mandates.

  • How did you go about creating your network and getting yourself known in the first place?

I started with the contacts I’d developed up to that point and began taking part in networking activities in my region.

Then I quickly decided to take an active, voluntary role in events such as the Auvernier Jazz Festival and organising stages of the Tour de Romandie in Neuchâtel. This gave me the chance to gain new experience while taking part in projects I was enthusiastic about, and at the same time to make new contacts and raise Prefix’s profile in the Neuchâtel region.

  • What products or services are you most proud of?

I’m particularly proud of the fact that I’ve been able to find a way of marrying the initial approaches to project management, known as predictive, with more recent methods, known as agile. This marriage gave birth to a method that I have christened Circular Project Management.

Since then, I’ve been training and certifying my clients in this method and applying it to all the different situations I encounter in the course of my assignments.

  • What does the future hold for your company?

My current aim is to consolidate my range of services so that I can meet all the demands associated with the project management profession and extend my offering beyond French-speaking Switzerland.

I’m also keen to offer a platform that will enable anyone to propose and carry out projects on a private basis.


What is the difference between the requirements specification and the product backlog?

  7 November 2023
  Method   

The purpose of the specifications and the product backlog is to ensure that the final deliverable meets the needs of the customer or end user as closely as possible. It is therefore used to identify customer requirements and to structure the work to be done to achieve the final deliverable.

So it’s the same thing, but it’s very different!

What differences are there?

REQUIREMENTS SPECIFICATION

  • Origin. The term “specifications” originated in the Middle Ages in the field of construction and engineering. Project owners (architects, engineers) wrote down their requirements, their “specifications”, on sheets of paper and passed them on to the craftsmen. All these sheets together formed a “notebook”.
  • How it is used. It serves as a reference for defining the customer’s or client’s expectations of the deliverable. It is the responsibility of an expert or the person in charge of managing the project.
  • Content. The requirements specification detail the constraints and functional requirements of the deliverable, as well as the associated performance criteria.
  • Evolution. The requirements specification is a formal, static document, once it has been accepted during the planning phase. Any changes are subject to a formal validation process, which is not very flexible.

PRODUCT BACKLOG

  • Origin. The expression “product backlog” is an Anglicism originating from agile methodology, in particular Scrum. The word “backlog” literally means accumulation, delay and represents a list of tasks or items awaiting processing.
  • How is it used. It is used to organise and prioritise the work to be carried out on the deliverable. It is constantly updated to reflect the changing needs of the product. It is the responsibility of the “product manager”.
  • Content. The product backlog is made up of “customer stories”, which represent the functionality of the deliverable expected by the customer, as well as elements representing improvements or corrections to be made to the deliverable.
  • Evolution. It is potentially updated during each iteration, or sprint, of the agile process, depending on customer feedback and changes in priority.

In short, the specification is a static document that specifies the requirements of a deliverable, whereas the product backlog is a dynamic, evolving list representing the tasks to be carried out as part of an agile development process. In both cases, it is the document that frames the development of the deliverable, ensuring that its final form perfectly meets the customer’s needs.

The word of the ibex

Frank Lloyd Wright said:

My favorite project? It’s the next one.

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