Episode 144: Project Management for Green Initiatives with AEC Software

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GreenTalk Radio host Sean Daily talks with Dennis Bilowus and Bill Keech of AEC Software, a Sterling, VA based software company that develops and publishes project-focused and business productivity solutions for Windows and Mac.

Transcript

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Sean Daily: Hi, and welcome to “GreenTalk,” a podcast series from GreenLivingIdeas.com. “GreenTalk” helps listeners in their efforts to live more eco-friendly lifestyles through interviews with top vendors, authors, and experts from around the world. We discuss the critical issues facing the global environment today as well as the technologies, products, and practices that you can employ to go greener in every area of your life.

Hey, everyone. This is Sean Daily with “GreenTalk Radio.” Welcome back to another episode. It seems like just about everyone is going green these days or, at least, has plans to. The list of those resorting themselves to a more sustainable existence includes just as many businesses as it does individuals. Businesses, in particular, have found that improving their environmental sustainability can lead not only to happier employees and lower planetary impact but also to reduce cost and improve public perception.

How do these companies manage these green initiatives and what are the tools and best practices required to do so effectively? My guests on today’s program are going to help shed some light on that question. Dennis Bilowus and Bill Keech are with AEC Software, a Sterling, Virginia-based software company that develops and publishes project-focused and business productivity solutions for Windows and Mac. Fortune 500 companies and industry leaders use AEC Software products to schedule activities, manage project information, and achieve project goals.

So, I'm going to talk a little bit about both of them before I bring them on. Dennis is the President and CEO of the company and one of the founders. He says he's applied one simple project management philosophy in all of his work, that being, “You can't stay in schedule if you don’t have one.” He's had a diverse successful career spanning multiple industries including stints as a nuclear power plant design engineer and project management and executive positions in several large building and construction companies. Bill Keech is the Vice-President of Sales and Business Development for AEC Software and has more than 18 years of project management and business and leadership experience.

Welcome, gentlemen, to the program.

Dennis Bilowus: Hi, Sean. It's great to have the opportunity to speak with you about a subject that we believe that can make green projects successful.

Sean Daily: We hear so much – and this is why I wanted to have you, guys, on the program today – we hear so much about companies going green [xx] of their motivations. I don’t really want to get into that in today’s program, though. It could be intrinsic, it could be because they feel forced to. Whatever it might be, it's a good thing, I think, whether to believe that these companies are doing this, but it really does create a burden on these firms to implement these initiatives. I've often wondered how they really go about it if it's sort of helter skelter or if there are sort of best practices out there and best practice tools to do this. Then, I heard about AEC Software and we want to have you on the program. So let's just start by talking about the types of green initiatives and projects that you see your customers working on. Can you talk to us about that?

Dennis Bilowus: Sure. Last year, we decided to plan the green initiative ourselves for our own company. Of course, we use our own software to plan it. Then, we heard from our sales team and support teams about green projects from our customers. We ended up mapping out a plan to learn more about green projects where our customers are involved by doing green project contests. We [xx] our customers about their green efforts and their use of FastTrack Schedule on the green initiative.

Sean Daily: Now, FastTrack Schedule being the software that you, guys, produced to manage these projects.

Dennis Bilowus: Right. Sean, we were very surprised by the volume of submissions and the breadth of the green projects. We heard from an amazing cross-section of customers with a wide variety of industries from aerospace to telecom to non-profit, even to many small businesses. Out of that responses all came from builders and architects working on green building projects, some industry examples – architects and builders, energy and utility companies, non-profits, scientific and R&D, and manufacturing and engineering.

Sean Daily: I'm just curious, going back to the drivers behind this, what do you, guys, seeing as the primary drivers from these companies in their efforts to go green and whatever that is – the manufacturing process or internally or both?

Bill Keech: Hi, Sean! It's Bill. I think there are many drivers that are kind of forcing people to pay attention to the green movement and especially in tools like ours. But, I'd say, the rising cost of fuel and energy is almost an economic necessity that’s forcing people in that direction. It's also competitive pressure. A sound green strategy coupled with proper execution is a great way for companies to differentiate themselves from their competitors. We're also seeing out there the government oversight, policy mandates, and [xx] and compliances by the federal government, local government, and jurisdictions, and overall cost savings is, obviously, a huge thing.

On top of these, you're seeing more and more, I think, through advertising and the movies and everything else, you'd seen a consumer awareness and social responsibility were responding more to increased consumer demand for green products. Consumers are looking for healthier products, healthier homes, healthier work environments. Bottomline, the driver is kind of just the right thing to do. Companies want to do their part to be more environmentally responsible.

Sean Daily: Now, Dennis and Bill, I'm curious, it's interesting to me that you, guys, have made this especially within the company. It sort of begs the question, what are the challenges for this companies in going green? What's making these green projects different from, for example, an ordinary project and why should they be treated differently?

Dennis Bilowus: Sean, the green projects are often unconventionally different from organizations traditional projects, involve activities and expertise maybe that are outside of their organization’s core competencies. Of the green projects involved, it may involved new stake holders, new methods of measurement and reporting. Sometimes, it's more upfront planning, larger upfront cost, new technologies and methods and analysis before beginning the project, and adjustification is another issue. Aligning green initiatives with traditional business initiatives, justifying sustainable decisions requires future foresight for benefits requiring short and long term goals. That, in itself, is the short and long term goals of perfect use of project management.

Reporting can be different. New forms and documentations, submission requirements. For example, in the case of LEED project, there’s extensive documentation and adherence to specific standards, which is really atypical for a home builder or an office building. You typically don’t have outside requirements besides just measure code requirements. It's a whole new level of examination and/or certification.

Sean Daily: I know LEED has very, very strict requirements and goals that you have to meet, so that makes a lot of sense to me. Do you have particular templates that are specific to the LEED projects?

Bill Keech: Yes, we actually do. One of the nice things about our software solution is that we provide free templates. Those templates really are kind of the jumpstart and a framework to help get our users and customers up and running. In particular, we have several – as we just mentioned about the LEED – we have found a lot of customers who actually have taken advantage of that in building either homes or commercial buildings, etc.

Sean Daily: Interesting. Now, you, guys, are obviously project management experts, you have a background in project management. Why is it so important in your estimation to be applying these concepts in project management to the green projects?

Bill Keech: I think, in simple terms, we're all kind of project managers, to some regards. From the moment we're given like a toy list as kids or homework assignments or how-to-do list, we begin going down the path of kind of being pseudo project managers. Sean, in the work environment, project management comes best practices act as kind of an enabler for these individuals or groups who are initiating green efforts and programs. With our software tool like FastTrack Schedule, it enables managers, leaders, and responsible teams the ability to defining order and accountability out of something that can be chaotic and unorganized and something that is truly a need in today’s work environments.

It also helps you make sure that your goals and objectives are going to be met on time, on budget, and with the desired outcomes. Generally, it helps with the division of labor and accountability that teams need in order to be successful. I think that’s something we've seen. The management and work environment starting to step up to the plate more certainly on the accountability level. Really, there's a kind of tried and true practices that have been implemented in other industries that have been very successful. Why not apply those proven methodologies and techniques to industries and the green efforts?

Sean Daily: Yes. I agree. Well, we're going to take a break right here. I want to talk more, when we come back, specifically about some green building project issues and green efforts, in general, with these companies. But we're going to take a quick break, we'll be right back, everyone, on “GreenTalk Radio.” I am speaking with Dennis Bilowus and Bill Keech of AEC Software. Their company that developed project management software for companies including those looking to implement green business initiatives. We'll be right back.

[podcast break]

Sean Daily: Hey, everyone, we're back on “GreenTalk Radio.” This is Sean Daily, and we are talking today on the project and management tools and methodologies for managing green business initiatives. My guests today, talking with me about that are Dennis Bilowus and Bill Keech of AEC Software, a company that makes project management software. Dennis and Bill, we were talking before the break about some of the drivers and challenges behind green initiatives and these companies are trying to implement these practices internally and externally.

What I want to focus on a little bit right now is on the tools themselves. Now, obviously, you, guys, aren’t the only game in town for project management solutions. Microsoft Projects, one, there are numerous others. What I really want to ask you is about the important features that you see being most important for project management solutions being used for managing the green business initiatives. I supposed, this is really in general.

Bill Keech: You're right. There are several applications that are out there. But one thing that we have done very well as we have made it very easy to use for the customer. On top of that, we've actually provided, like we’d mentioned, templates for these users to actually get up and running very quickly into green-oriented projects. Certainly, FastTrack Schedule allows us to get into the application easy, it's a quick and easy learning curve tool. We get great presentation quality schedules. One important aspect of any green effort is how do we communicate all the project goals and initiatives. It is so important to make sure everybody is reading off the same page. One way of doing that is really to incorporate your schedule output into PowerPoint or you can send that to a shared calendar. So it's a way of actually communicating all the project goals and initiatives.

And certainly, we have, from a price point, we have a great, great price compared to some other solutions that are out there. But generally, we've done [xx] we have a lot of experience 1) in the project management arena; but also, from the green experiences, and really, from our customers. It really comes from the voice of our customers who say, “Hey, we really like what you, guys, have produced.” Some of the other tools that perhaps we're using are not living up to their expectation.” You have a lot of users out there who are using Excel or spreadsheets or word processing programs and, perhaps, those don’t keep pace with the level of project. Certainly, when you have a lot of moving parts, those start to break down.

On the opposite side, I think, of that, is if you have users who are kind of power users, and some of them who are [xx] and can use higher end, more global applications, and perhaps, these are actually overkill for what you're trying to do. So we kind of fit a nice niche and we fit right in the middle where a tool that is easy to use, easy to get in to, and on top of that, we provide our customers with free templates. As everybody knows, time is so critical. No one has enough time, and especially trying to get these initiatives up and going, it is great to have a jumpstart to get up and running.

Sean Daily: Now, speaking of customers, I'm curious, do you have any sort of high profile customers of AEC Software that have used this tool that you can talk about that where maybe you’ve helped them in being successful in their green efforts?

Dennis Bilowus: Sure. For example, we have [xx]. They're located in Southern California. They are residential and commercial LEED builder and they’ve actually been using FastTrack Schedule for over eight years to manage green projects and improve their clients’ communication. They’ve recently switched over to our LEED templates and they’ve found those to be a terrific assistant. It provides a structure to what they're doing and makes their efforts much easier moving forward, but also tracking the changes at the end of a project versus when they start the next project, they already have a basis to start from.

We just have the whole litany of different customers in different industries. I think, probably, you have to relate to an average user who lives at home. Green building homes is one of the few parts…the home building marketplace is actually doing well at this point. I think, [xx] is a fine example of using FastTrack Schedule to an advantage and completing their projects on schedule which shortens their project duration, shortens all their project cost, and delivers their product in a very timely manner.

Sean Daily: You, guys, have mentioned builders and the building companies that have used this software, are you primarily targeting builders or is that just one large contingent of potential customer types?

Bill Keech: We don’t target builders in particular. It's a large breadth of customers from government to non-profit, to scientific and R&D, manufacturing and engineering, consulting firms, marketing and advertising, telecom, creative and production companies and creative literature. All of them have a use for project management. What sets us apart is our ease of use and our presentation ability. If you look at other software, you'll find it's kind of boring. The project comes to life, you can put pictures directly into schedules. You can put pictures as an end point of a bar, for example. So it's something that for so long, the picture of the object moves with it, it's very graphical and people really relate to it very easily.

The other thing that differentiates us is you can output directly from the software to an online calendar systems such as Google Calendars or put it on a Mac. You can go directly to MobileMe, directly from the software and you can communicate with responsibilities and deadlines for the entire project team. Really, what sets our software apart is its easy of use, that cost price point, and some of the really easy to use features that we built and communicate project issues of the entire project team.

Dennis Bilowus: Bill, you brought up actually a very good point. We're actually cross path. We're both PC and Mac compatible.

Bill Keech: One additional thing that we do that no one else does, we integrate cost with the activities. Projects are dynamic, projects have ever changing items. Timeline changes constantly. I have a saying also, one of my other mantras is, “The schedule is only as good until the ink dries on the paper.” Then, tomorrow something will change. So, when something changes, with FastTrack Schedule, you have dependencies between tests, the first item changes and the second item is dependent on the first one, the second one changes automatically.

But what's really cool about this is that all the costs change automatically also, so when that test moves into next week, it becomes next week’s cost. You're able to then check your budget against cost and really get a hand where your project is any moment in time. That’s just the managers, you find that all of the project team loves it because you can come directly from our software. To send a file a picture, it converts the entire file to a picture so that anyone with a browser and an e-mail application can open up and see the schedules. That’s really been well received by our customers.

Sean Daily: Now, I want to go back a little bit, we were talking about green building projects specifically. If you don’t mind, I just want to return to that point for one second. I wanted to find out specifically about how you, guys, are helping the builders out there plan these green projects and the special guidelines and certification requirements that they have as we know from LEED and other things.

Bill Keech: Actually, that’s one of the key areas that certainly we focus on first because, obviously, it's a large industry. But the templates that we provide, we actually LEED stands for leadership, energy, environmental design by the US Greenbuilding Council. It's one of the largest standards that’s out there. In that process of using a green template or conforming to a standard, there are a lot of activities, there are a lot of different requirements that are requested not only of the construction team but the entire team. What we've tried to do is put almost the entire checklist together that helps the project team get through that process. In that process, we're keeping track of resources, we're keeping track of time, we're keeping track of all the different elements that go into achieving a green building, whether it be commercial or whether it be for home builders.

Sean Daily: Okay. Now, one of the things I always like to give a guest on the program a chance to do is to offer the audience, in this case, I imagine, it's going to be project managers and companies and anybody who's involved with maybe even chief environmental scientists and people like that that are involved in implementing these types of projects within their organizations or possibly even consultants that I know, people like Paul Smith who’ve been on this program before who helped other companies implement these types of programs. Do you have any tips, best practice advice, and so forth for people that are doing these things, lessons learned from the past that you'd like to share?

Bill Keech: I think, applying this easy project management concepts to green projects would be useful for everyone. Project management is actually very important and easy. You really just start out with developing a project mission and a strategy. Then, you create a task list and organize the work to be accomplished. You start planning the time and then you [xx] between activities. You apply cost, [xx] to schedule events. On top of that, your funding may depend on the schedule of events being completed at that particular time or particular order. Communications of these objectives also and deadlines as we put in milestones, put in pictures, put in large lines will indicate where important for everyone to focus on.

Sean Daily: What do you find are some of the pitfalls that typically happen in the implementation of these types of projects whether it be builders or what have you. Where do people usually go wrong with this other than using the wrong tool, obviously, which we talked about?

Bill Keech: I think, not enough upfront planning and thought process. My experience is about 70% of the value of a schedule actually using project management software created in the original schedule. That’s not because the operational project is not important, but the thought process that goes into the regional planning is extremely important. I think that’s where a lot of projects fall short, they just plan, take the time to provide the organizational structure of their project and then put in really realistic goals and achievements and try to really pre-think the project before it starts.

I think, one of the differences also I can give you is difficult to make changes as you go along. That’s why, for example, Excel is not enough of a tool to use. Excel is kind of a static tool. You put your cost into it, it totals it up for you. But with project management, if you put in links between activities or defining relationships between activities, those relationships are key. Oftentimes, one activity can't start until the prior activity finishes. You can see the immediate impact when something is delayed.

For example, in FastTrack Schedule, we have immediately tracked a revised bar. We show the bar in a different color, a different style. So you can see we off track immediately and it pushes out, for example, five activities and all five of them change color to a different color. So I think the pitfalls are not planning enough early, and then also not spending enough time just managing your own schedule. I think, all of us are very busy and if you look at the difficulty of finding time to do it, but that taking that time to plan the schedule and communicate, the schedule changes and requirements, the deadlines and the cost and all the project team, I think, that’s really key in making the initiative successful.

Sean Daily: Yes. It's really cool to see specific tools coming out that are designed to help companies implement these green initiatives. I think that that’s a real harbinger of big change when we see that kind of focus happening, it's so exciting to see. Certainly, I appreciate you both being on the program to talk with us about it today.

Dennis Bilowus: Thank you, Sean. Again, it's a great opportunity to speak with you about the subject that we believe can make a green project successful.

Sean Daily: My guests today had been Dennis and Bill Keech of AEC Software, a company that develops project management software for companies including those looking to implement green business initiatives. You can find them online at www.AECSoftware.com.

Gentlemen, thanks again for being with us on “GreenTalk Radio.”

Dennis Bilowus: Thanks, Sean.

Bill Keech: Thank you, Sean. I appreciate it.

Sean Daily: Thanks as always to everyone listening in today. Remember, for more free on demand podcast, articles, videos, and other information related to living a greener lifestyle, visit our website at www.GreenLivingIdeas.com. We’d also love to hear your comments, feedbacks, and questions. Send us an e-mail at [email protected].

[music fades out]

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