On The Rebound

A fledging PMO helped a financial processing firm come back from behind - Matt Schur

When every other project is a failure, it’s time to go back to square one.

That was the reality for Symcor Inc., a financial services company based in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. The company processes roughly 1.4 billion checks and more than 48 million customer payments per year—but low client satisfaction was putting the business at risk.

Clients were frustrated that Symcor’s project teams misunderstood their requirements and had a difficult time managing change requests. A lack of oversight frequently led to schedule delays, budget overruns and scope creep—and the business had little insight into whether projects were delivering the desired results. Even Symcor’s board of directors had lost confidence in the company’s ability to execute projects—which made leaders hesitant to fund new projects.

“The board of directors was not confident in Symcor’s capabilities,” says Savio Vaz, associate director of finance, project management office. “The organization had to earn the right to invest in the future by demonstrating that it could deliver with a high degree of certainty.”

To bolster business performance—and rebuild client relationships—Symcor established a project management office, or PMO, in 2010. Its first task was to roll out a    standardized project management framework that gave project managers the tools they needed to increase their success rate, says Rory MacLeod, associate director, project management office.

“The PMO gave project managers the ability to go out and manage projects and meet the expectations of the clients through project status reporting, proper planning and scheduling,” he says.


Previously, Symcor lacked the governance needed to ensure a consistent project approach. It offered no guidelines regarding who could start projects. It kept no record of how many projects were currently active. And there was little collaboration between project teams, especially across business lines.

Drawing on principles from PMI’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), the PMO created a handbook that offered standardized

terminology, templates and reports, and defines which deliverables should be completed in each phase. It serves as a go-to reference guide—and a training manual that starts new project managers and contractors off on the right foot.

“By introducing these standards, there were some rules about when to start the project and how projects should run. As a result, client satisfaction improved,” says Nenad Krsikapa, PMP, program manager

The PMO’s consistent framework defined client touchpoints, set client expectations for each stage of the project and provided details around the deliverables for each phase. It ultimately became the cornerstone for all project engagements.

“Even if different groups approach clients for different projects, they will use the same methodology and they will use the same documents,” Mr. Krsikapa says.

Repeatable and recognizable processes made it easier for clients to interface with the business. But it also helped reduce cost overruns. In the new framework, the PMO funds only 10 percent of the project estimate once the team opens a project code. It restricts the spend until project kickoff so that teams can only perform high-level activities, such as aligning stakeholders and clients, formalizing the scope and revising estimates. This allows Symcor’s leaders to assess the project’s business case and confirm its potential value—which helps them make more strategic decisions.

“We know what the cost will be and how it’s going to help with the strategy,” Mr. Vaz says. “So the line of business, the leaders, they are given enough opportunity to decide whether they should be accepting a project or not.”

The PMO also facilitates greater communication between those in charge of resource management, investment forecasting and financial reporting. That enables the lines of business to roll their investment benefits (such as new revenues or reduced costs) into future financial baseline projections. The entire framework has led to project cost reductions and more accurate cost and revenue estimations—and more projects delivered on budget. Overall deviations on investment spend have reduced from greater than 20 percent in 2011 to less than 5 percent in 2014.

And despite initial fears that the PMO would slow down the business, it’s done the opposite: Time to project initiation from when a request is submitted has been cut from nearly 100 days in 2011 to 26 days in 2014.

“We have been able to do more projects at the same cost, which means, from a strategic point of view, our operational efficiencies have increased,” Mr. Vaz says. “We have increased our profitability with the same amount of investment.”


To rein in operations, the PMO also focused on increasing project transparency. Keeping senior leadership in the loop required instituting biweekly steering committee meetings for both lines of business. These meetings include all impacted senior managers to foster better engagement and communication across Symcor’s divisions.

And while projects are assessed according to how they’re performing, the meetings don’t put project teams on the spot. Rather, they’re a time for project managers to receive guidance, coaching and fresh perspectives on stubborn problems.

“A project or program manager has the opportunity to ask for help and assistance, and he or she can ask for the approvals if there are any changes required,” Mr. Krsikapa says. “So it is a great help. It is a great tool.”

More engaged executive sponsors have given the company an opportunity to be proactive— which is especially helpful on complicated endeavors, such as the company’s recent workflow automation project. The three-year initiative to revamp operations and improve turnaround on certain project types stretched across various departments in the company and involved many stakeholders, including clients and customers. Given the scope and number of different stakeholders, it would have been difficult to manage without a PMO.

The PMO was able to bring in all internal and external customers together on a monthly basis to ensure that all parties were on the same page and understood the scope, risks and strategies as the project evolved.

“It was a very complicated project,” Mr. Vaz says. “It was evolving. And because of these steering committee meetings, we were able to manage the project.” Buy-in for the steering committee meetings was low at first, but their value—and the value of the project—has been proven over time. In fact, Symcor recently finished the benefits realization for the workflow project and found that it yielded an ROI of more than 100 percent. The project also improved turnaround on projects by cutting the time it took to onboard new clients into the infrastructure from six months to three.

The company’s program management oversight also gave the organization’s leadership a high-level view of the projects on the table. Prior to the PMO, a formal definition for program management didn’t exist and made insights into programs difficult. The introduction of clear standards mirrored project standardization, and defined how a program is initiated, funded, executed, reported on and closed. It also clarified the roles and responsibilities between project, program and portfolio managers.

“A program can have a good overview over lines of businesses in all other departments like technology, architecture, procurement, finance and so on,” Mr. Krsikapa says. “And it can bring them together so that they work as one team.”

Because Symcor now coordinates projects extending across multiple lines of business, it’s easier for the organization to seek out and deliver long-term, multi-divisional projects that bring in bigger profits.

Source: PM Network 01/2016 - JOBS OUTLOOK

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