What is (Project Management) Value to the Customer?

Oliver Tambo airport, Johannesburg, South Africa.

05h15 a.m.

I have nowhere to go.

As usual, Etihad Airways has under promised and over delivered: our flight from Abu Dhabi arrived well before the scheduled time. However I can only check in the guesthouse at 11h00. I have things to do and people to see, but most businesses only open at 9h00. Four hours to kill. I could go and collect my rental car and drive to Fourways where I am staying, but then what?

Luckily I had a very comfortable flight and a good few hours of sleep. I decided to hang around the airport for a while. To my surprise the Mugg & Bean coffee bar at the airport is open. It turns out they are open 24 hours, 7 days. Strangely for this time of day they are quite busy too.

I am pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of my waiter Owen and his efficiency in taking and delivering my order, as well as his constant follow up. He sees me finishing my coffee and volunteers the free re-fill. Of course, after living in the country for 23 years, visiting South Africa always feels a bit like a homecoming for me, and this time it is no different: I am immediately swept by the warmth of the people…

Then I observe the waiters and waitresses gather around a couple of tables opposite me. Owen is already seated but notices me looking around, gets up, walks to my table, and enquires if there is anything I need. Upon my negative answer he smiles and goes back to his seat. A staff meeting is about to start, and I am close enough to follow the discussion.

Maximilien, the person leading the discussion, reminds the waiters to introduce themselves to incoming customers and of other things they should do. He stresses that they should make sure the table numbers are correctly entered in the system as they log their own orders, which I deduct is an ongoing problem. Then he invites suggestions of what else they could do to improve their service. The meeting concludes with brief condolences to Princess, who lost her mother a few days ago, and is still very much in grief. She is encouraged by some of her colleagues as they get up and get ready for the day.

The meeting did not take longer than 7-8 minutes. In the construction industry this would qualify as a “toolbox talk”, normally called by the foreman of a small team, and known to be effective in aligning people to focus on the day ahead, and reminding them of the do’s and don’ts of whatever it is they do.

Peter DruckerThe late great management guru Peter Drucker wrote that every business has to “create a customer”. He also reminds us that our value to our customer is not primarily our product (and pity the business that thinks it) but what our product does for them, the utility it provides to their world.

It was this last point that was made so clear by my situation this morning. What was I looking for? I already had breakfast on the plane so another one was the last thing I needed. Yet I decided to enter Mugg & Bean and order another one. What I needed was a comfortable place to spend my compulsory waiting time, and it was the best one available. I also like the vibe at M&B. There are TV’s, magazines, good coffee and a buzz of people. And as a bonus, it ended up making me reflect on this particular management topic and inspired this blog.

We tend to forget these simple truths in business, and even more so in projects. Projects are unique so we need to define who our customer is every time. The customer may even be different for every project phase. There may be several customers and there certainly are multiple stakeholders.

Then we need to understand our customers’ needs, not just in terms of product, but what they expect our product to do for them. We need to understand their objectives, and therefore their business. This is supposedly done early on in the project lifespan, and early on in each phase in the case of larger projects. I say “supposedly” because we know that this is where a lot of project managers fall short. All too often we are content to provide a product, and we abscond from our responsibility to make the product work for our customer, to make it yield the value it was intended to.

As project managers we should do “toolbox talks”, not just with our team, but also our customers and other key stakeholders. We should go out of our way to understand what is expected from the project result, so we may create the right product, for the right purpose, in the right way.

What strikes me as well in my miniature window on the world here is that communication seems to flow freely, and is easy. There is constant follow up on orders as waiters pass each other on their way to and from the service counter, and at the computer station where they record their orders per table so they may compile the correct bill at the end. This is not chit-chat but necessary ad-hoc communication, the kind we often shy away from in our partitioned, graveyard-silent offices.

As time goes by I start preparing for my drive into Fourways, north of Johannesburg. I am quite pleased with my morning reflections, but suddenly realise that because of the time of day, I am now going to be confronted with the infamous morning traffic on the N3 highway.

Nothing is really perfect it seems.


As I packed up my computer and got up from my table, Maximilien came up to me with a slightly worried look on his face, to ask if everything was OK. My table had been cleared long before and perhaps it looked as if I had not been served at all. I assured him of my satisfaction and complimented Owen’s excellent service.

I shared some of these thoughts with him and out of interest, asked him for his background. It turned out he had moved from Cape Town 4 months ago in this job, and that he had been previously employed by Shell. “From Oil and Gas into hospitality?” I quipped. “Yes” he replied, “For now. Until another opportunity comes along…”