Blog, Product Management

The Italian Way – A story about Project Management

This article has been previously published in the Spanish Project Management magazine “Proiectus”. If you speak Spanish and are curious about it you can find the original article here: Proiectus Issue nº1

The Italian Way, Alberto Sordi eating pasta

We Italians are known in the world for many good things, like high fashion and sport cars, but unfortunately also for not-so-good things. One of the main negative attitudes that identify us is the complete lack of organization. You can experience it just strolling through the center of Rome, attending an event organized by Italians or even worse stepping into the tax office. Soon enough, you get overwhelmed and start screaming out, cursing the chronic disorder that characterizes this country.

With this experience in mind, you may wonder how it is possible that big industrial icons grew in such a poorly organized environment. When you name companies like Ferrari, Gucci, Prada… you suddenly forget the chaotic traffic in central Rome. World leading brands seem to be born like flowers in the desert. How these successful companies achieved the international prestige with this chronic lack of basic organization? Let’s try to find a solution to this dilemma.

One may wonder that Italian companies are just like any other global company, with a clear project management strategy. At the end of the day, the fact that a country is poorly organized does not have to mean that internally the big brands are disorganized as well. They could simply rely on a team of qualified project managers working with the most efficient methodologies. Another hypothesis is the possibility of importing external professionals with experience in working with a faster pace environment. The company could delegate them the power to lead the good organizational routines.

Many case studies can attest to the first two hypotheses. Ferrero (Nutella Company) is the typical example of a company whose production plant follows a rigid Kaizen scheme. All managers has been formed with methodologies focused on the continuous improvement of processes. Another example is the case of Lamborghini. At a time of severe financial instability, the company has recovered leaving all major activities in the hands of the engineers’ team from its mother company. Following its acquisition by the group Volkswagen, its departments of R&D, design and prototypes are today managed by German management professionals working in its production plant of Sant’Agata Bolognese.

The Italian Way, boy and girl on a Vespa

But these two cases are just drops in the ocean. The reality is quite different and is much closer to what one may have wondered from the beginning. Even the large Italian companies are poorly organized. No project management good practices, lack of documentation, fragmentation of information, inefficiencies, duplication of roles and difficult-to-identify responsibilities. A mixture that could drive crazy any independent auditor. So the mystery gets more intricate. If it is true that Italian companies mostly do not follow agile project methodologies nor basic management tools… How can they continue to achieve great results?

To answer this last and crucial question, one must live within one of these companies. Or in many of them, to find a recurrent pattern. Although my experience is not so extensive as to give a complete view, I think I know enough to attempt a clear explanation. In Italy, they work mainly through personal relationships. It is all about networking. No insurmountable problem cannot be overcome by talking to the right person. Possibly eating together or during a break at the coffee machines. The issue is simply to persuade the partners to stop any less important activity and focus on our problem. Thus, project management becomes an exchange of favors and counter-favors that gain importance along with the negotiation ability of the interlocutor. The default flow of information turns irrelevant and leave space for a urgencies management and extremely flexible models.

This sounds crazily inefficient, and probably it is so. But if we try to outline these human relationships and compare them to normal flows of structured information, we can see how it is amazingly close to a Japanese Lean Production model. Let’s do a quick exercise of transposition: the petitioner is the “client” of the activity or information, the producer is the “manufacturer” of it. There is also the kanban (card) seen as the favor that is transported in a completely unstructured way among actors. The cycle follows the same logic of the Japanese model, with the favor that climb the information chain from the consumer to the supplier. And the way the kanban (favor request) is shipped determines its urgency. If a phone call is more important than any email, a physical meeting gets top priority.

It requires a little mental elasticity to think that this system can actually work. Imagine to be in a bazaar in Marrakech, and try to follow a transaction. Taking only a quick look one can’t understand how a simple negotiation can take tens of minutes, but almost always end with both parties satisfied closing the deal over a cup of tea. Likewise, the Italian management system forgets the basic rules of information exchange, adopting a system based more on manners than contents.

It remains to ask ourselves whether this system is really effective and if its worth studying and adapting it to different situations. For the first question, attempting to structure this model and to extend it to another reality is virtually impossible. It would be like trying to teach creativity or art. You can cultivate these skills in an already gifted person, but you cannot expect a child without any artistic ability to create a masterpiece.

The other important aspect is to understand when the Italian model can provide real benefits. Its essence is both strength and weakness: it is very inefficient, since any decision follows a twisted flow and causes great loss of time. But at the same time allows to prioritize almost immediately any emergency that may arise throughout the production cycle. The balance between efficiency and flexibility is strongly shifted toward flexibility.

This also helps us understand why Italy is famous worldwide for its fashion brands. High fashion is the typical industry where no matter how fast a production line can be. What matters is that the looks are up to date with the trends and anticipate the consumers’ wishes. So it is crucial that the entire flow management is very reactive to change, having the capacity to stop an entire collection and give it a new direction ten minutes before its presentation. The other side of the coin are highly specialized sectors with low systemic risk. Could you apply this model in a bolts factory? Obviously not. A great exception is the sports car industry, where the low number of models produced and the high customization of each specimen rewards unstructured management.

Too bad there is not an Erasmus program for Project Managers, otherwise I would advise everyone to take a couple of months of interchange and come to Italy to try firsthand the Italian model. At the beginning can be shocking, but I think you could learn some good lesson on how to make and ask for favors.

The Italian Way, Peroni beer vintage commercial

Photo by Archivio storico e museo Birra Peroni.

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