Rescue hero: Larry Bell

Larry Bell analyzed the Information Services Division at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives when he arrived as division chief and quickly realized something important was amiss.

Many of the bureau's more than 5,000 computer users were unhappy with the division's service and support. Neither was meeting people's expectations, Bell said. But ATF employees had few opportunities to express their frustrations about the IT services they were receiving.

"They didn't feel they were getting the full return on their investments," Bell said. "Customers felt that systems were never delivered within cost, on schedule or provided the performance originally required."

The division is responsible for IT investments of about $85 million a year. However, Bell said, he found few policies and procedures in place for controlling costs and schedules. Many projects were falling short of their intended functions. In addition, other projects were affected by scope creep, a sure sign that a project's functional requirements are out of control, he said. Scope creep occurs when a team introduces new project requirements that are outside the scope of the original project.

Bell, a certified project manager, also found ATF struggling with too many information systems. When he arrived at ATF, the bureau had 119, many with overlapping functions, and each with its own project management plan and budget. The total is down to 99, and ATF could eliminate a dozen more, he said.

Bell created a project management office to standardize project management practices and held monthly project reviews. He began shifting the organization away from time-and-materials contracts to performance-based contracts.

Refocusing on schedules and creating a customer-focused culture in the division weren't easy, Bell said. His first step was to ask for feedback. ATF employees vented, and Bell listened. Now he makes sure he talks to bureau employees at least once a month by scheduling program management reviews and occasional meetings.

"I really took some hits when I first came in with customers not being happy," he said. "We've come a long way on that one. If there's an issue, we sit down and work through it together."

Michael is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Advice from the pros

Name: Larry Bell.

Title: Chief of the Information Services Division.

Organization: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Project: Information Services Division transformation.

On managing people: "Listen, listen, listen," Bell said. ATF employees don't hesitate to tell you their concerns, he added. "I was knocking on doors and asking people what they thought. Everybody in a job like this needs to do that."

On managing processes: Set cost and schedule goals and follow an integrated project plan to eliminate duplication, Bell said. "You need to have processes and procedures in place to prevent additional requirements from coming in. You have to have a good release strategy."

On managing technology: Change is the name of the game, Bell said, and an organization has to be prepared to embrace it. "The brave new world of outsourcing and multisourcing is here," he added. "We all must change and adapt often and quickly or become obsolete."

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