An IPA research study once said that the average small to mid-sized project team is “over-extended, under-resourced, lacking a strong work process, and poorly trained.” Harsh words, but often true—not because of any personal failing on the part of project teams, but rather because of the lack of robust work processes and staff at the site level. The same can be said—perhaps even doubly so—of the gatekeepers employed by site-based project systems. Strong gatekeeping can ensure projects meet their goals and are cost effective. It can also help ensure the portfolio and staffing are right-sized. Yet, this is a weak point for many sites.
First, What Do We Mean by Gatekeeping?
Gatekeeping is a process, not a single person. It encompasses various steps. Key steps include:
- Assurance — checking that project deliverables are accurate and of high quality
- Endorsement — a recommendation that the project meets the business need and is ready for execution
- Financial sign-off — agreement that the project is aligned with the company’s financial goals and can be authorized for execution
For small to mid-sized projects, assurance and endorsement often happen as a single step, and once that occurs, it is unlikely for financial sign-off to be denied. This article looks at some aspects of the assurance-endorsement process.
Who Is the Gatekeeper for Site-Based Projects?
If we look at our database of more than 200 sites, it appears that just about anyone (short of perhaps that junior electrician you hired last week) can fill this role. Gatekeepers may be assigned from positions as senior as the business vice president, business unit manager, or plant manager. In other systems, the project director, engineering manager, managers from other functions, and/or unit superintendent fills the role. A few disorganized systems even use a peer approach—experienced project managers act as gatekeepers, even as they are developing their own projects.
What Approach Is Used—Decision Review Board or Single Point of Accountability?
About half of sites use a decision review board approach (team of gatekeepers), and half use a single point of accountability approach (single gatekeeper). The number of people on the decision review boards ranges from 2 to 10. Usually, various functions, including business, operations, and health and safety, are represented.
Which Gatekeeping Approach Is Best?
IPA has not observed a definitive advantage to one approach at the site level. With a decision review board, projects benefit from the input and alignment of multiple functions. But, it diffuses accountability. This approach can also extend project schedules, as the board typically convenes to approve projects only at pre-ordained times throughout the year. A single point of accountability approach ensures accountability for project success rests on one individual, and can expedite decision-making. But concentrating gatekeeping in one person is dangerous if that person lacks the proper experience.
How Are Site Gatekeepers Trained?
In general, they are not. Only one-third of gatekeepers for site-based systems receive any formal training. In other words, the very people responsible for investing millions of company dollars mostly have no training in how to do so effectively!
What Are Best Practices for Site-Based Gatekeeping?
In addition to training gatekeepers and clearly defining their roles and responsibilities, there are a few other practices that contribute to project success. First, the project manager should present the project to the gatekeeper(s) in an interactive session. More than 10 percent of sites do not do this, and they see worse project definition and results. Second, the gatekeeper should review the project deliverables—not just during the session, but ideally in advance. With regard to the review of deliverables by the gatekeeper(s), 13 percent of sites report little to no review, 29 percent report that the deliverables are reviewed only as presented at the session, 28 percent report that the deliverables are reviewed prior to the gatekeeping meeting, and 30 percent indicate that the deliverables are reviewed and discussed with team members in advance. The sites in the latter category see the best results.