Friday, May 29, 2015

Third-party filter

This is a true story. The company names have been changed.

The project

Acme Corporation is an application development company. They were sub-contracting to Standard Inc., whose Portuguese client wanted several million dollars worth of modifications to their existing Human Resources system.

Before each development occurred, the client would write requirements in Portuguese, and then Standard would translate those requirements to English, which Acme would use to prepare effort and cost estimates. All communication between Acme and the client went through Standard, so Acme and the client never talked directly.

A typical outcome

Acme received a set of translated specifications from Standard, and based on the stated requirements, estimated that the modification would take three months and cost about three hundred thousand dollars. Standard provided the estimate to the client. The client was appalled. Surely this particular modification was not that big a deal. The client asked Standard to have Acme break down the price into components to justify the effort and fees.

Once the client saw the detailed components and fees, it was obvious that Acme had not understood the requirements.

The client re-wrote, and Standard re-translated, the specifications and Acme produced a new estimate of three weeks and thirty thousand dollars. The client accepted the estimate, and the work was completed and delivered.

There were many similar situations with other modifications on the project. Sometimes, the modification would be installed at the client before anyone discovered that the modification did not really deliver what the client had asked for.

The project manager repeatedly tried to convince Standard to allow direct communication between Acme and the client for clarifying requirements. However, Standard insisted on being the go-between.


The problems continued to occur. The client felt that Acme was not serving their needs very well. Acme felt that Standard was the problem, with their sloppy translation of requirements.

The project manager did manage to continue to deliver modifications, but the client was never totally satisfied with Acme, and Acme was continually frustrated with Standard. The Acme project manager left the company after the first year.


Standard had no programmers, analysts, or technicians assigned to the project. Their main function on the project was to translate documents from Portuguese to English and back. This was not a necessary service for Acme, who had already done similar projects for clients in Spanish, German, Arabic and Japanese-speaking countries.

The problem was not the language difference. It was the process that was put in place to solve the supposed language issue. Standard filtered every communication between Acme and the client, and that filtering caused numerous errors and assumptions.

The Acme project manager failed to find a way to solve the problem because she was reluctant to discuss the issue with her own management. She also didn’t figure out the root cause for Standard’s insistence on continuing the unproductive process.

Standard provided little more than translation services, but was able to make its money by marking up Acme’s fees when billing the client. Standard was careful to keep itself between Acme and the client, in order to prevent the client from eliminating Standard from the process and the next contract.

The Acme project manager should have discussed the issue with Acme management. The Acme VP could have encouraged Standard to provide some of technical or analytical resources for the modification work. This approach would allow Standard to be involved in a way that provided value to the client, thereby reducing the chance that they might be eliminated.

Then Standard likely would be more inclined to allow the Acme team to speak directly with the client to obtain and clarify requirements. Speaking directly with the client would certainly shed light on the requests, and allow the client to receive what had been asked for. The client, in turn, would be more satisfied than with the current arrangement, and more likely to renew the contract with Standard and Acme.

Multiple parties to a project are a complicating factor in project management. In this case, the process of filtering communications through a third party caused a lot of confusion.

Copyright 2015 Debbie Gallagher