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Richard Maltzman
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Gyres and Legos and Zeros, Oh My!

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Gyres and Legos and Zeros, Oh My!

OK, so let’s start with that goofy title.  It’s supposed to be a reference to that scene (clip below) from the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz


You probably know what Legos(TM) are (if not, ask a parent, child or grandparent).  And there is zero uncertainty around the fact that you know what a zero is.  But do you know that the presence or absence of a zero (and not in salary) could actually be an inspiration to a project team?  It can.  Read on.



You may not know what a gyre is.  The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines a gyre as a large system of swirling ocean currents. Increasingly, however, it also refers to the garbage patch as a vortex of plastic waste and debris broken down into small particles in the ocean.

 One of the largest such gyres is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

I have previously blogged about Ocean Cleanup, the brainchild of Boyan Slat.  This program has grown and continues to expand.


Have a look at the video below.  Really.  It's 16 minutes long.  Knowing that some of you won't watch it,  I’ve also curated some of the key points for project leaders to take away.  Much of it has to do with an agile approach to projects and the way teams work best together.  There’s also some great nuggets in here about how stakeholders that could easily be opponents were made to be collaborators.


In the video you can see the relief on team members’ faces in that they now have a chance to meet face-to-face again.  They take advantage of this by using Legos to model the new System 03.  This is a large upgrade over Systems 001 and 002.  That is not to say that these systes have not been effective.  They have removed so far 55 tons of plastics from the Pacific. 

Note that System 03 has one fewer zero.  Which brings us to the next piece, which is: Zeros.


When Ocean Cleanup started, the program directors thought that it would take hundreds of these systems to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  So, three ‘places’ were held for the digits 001 through perhaps 472 or whatever the number of Systems it would take.  With the radical redesign of System 03, it was determined that TENS, not hundreds of systems could handle the cleanup.  So, for the simple numerical reason – but also as a motivator and a ‘totem’ of the project, one zero was removed.  Do not underestimate the power of project ‘totems’ like this.

Other takeaways

As you watch the video, please notice some of the other project leadership ideas that this team has adapted, some which come from an agile mindset, some from predictive PM.  They have done a great job of applying my three-word solution to the completely non-existent ‘versus’ situation when it comes to which methodology is best: Use What Works.

As we saw with the Legos, the team used modeling – in that case physical modelling. However, they also make significant use of mathematical modeling which reportedly has been quite accurate in predicting where and when to launch the System 02 missions. 

They use what I call "careful KPIs", and a ‘balanced scorecard’ (although they don’t use that term).  The KPI (key performance indicator) is cost per kg of plastic removed.  They want to clean the ocean, but they want to do it in a fiscally responsible way.  As for the balanced scorecard, they are quite aware that their efforts have  an impact of their own – the vessels burn fuel, they do intercept some wildlife, and they are not ignoring it – in fact they use that in the measurement of their success, not just the tons of plastics they are removing.

When the team encounters a problem (such as plastic escaping over the floating boundaries of the collection system) they use a ‘lockup meeting’ in which the team all gets together to brainstorm and cannot leave until they have a solution.  They even make references to ‘locking the door and throwing away the key’.

In general note how they have become a 'learning organization' and are allowing themselves to try-and-fail, try-and-fail, so that they can try-and-succeed.

One of the most poignant segments of the video is a visit to the firm which is making the collection nets.  The firm is a fishing company.  Normally they are making nets to catch fish.  It turns out that much of what is collected by the Ocean Cleanup is from the fishing industry.  So the two groups might naturally be at odds.  But each actually stands to gain from the other.  The Ocean Cleanup team gets expertise and manufacturing capability for their nets.  The fishing firm gets cleaner, ‘greener’ fish and as the interviewee says in the video, a chance to move from being ‘a part of the problem to being part of the solution’.

I found this 16-minute video to be inspiring and informative, in particular for project managers who want to become project leaders.

What did you think?

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: August 09, 2022 03:33 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Smart Farming - Part 3a

Image from

Part 3 is the last (for now) in the series on Smart Farming - focusing on projects and programs in the area of growing and distributing foods.  As I wrote it, I realized that it had to be further decomposed into Parts 3a and Part 3B.  The decomposition theme continues here - in a WBS sort of way.  Read on, brave project leaders, read on.

In Part 1, I covered agrivoltaics - the practice of installing solar photovoltaic panels on farmland in a way that primary agricultural activities (such as animal grazing, insect resourcing (honey production) and crop/vegetable production) can continue.  In Part 2, we shift upwards - WAY upwards, to focus on satellite imagery and using data to discover and potentially repair problems with topsoil.

In Part 3, we bring our attention to the food that is grown on farms and projects surrounding its distribution.  Again from UMass Magazine, there is a piece about Farm to Institution New England, a network backbone that connects farms to institutions, such as universities and hospitals.  Their mission?

"Our mission is to mobilize the power of New England institutions to transform our food system."

A good mission statement deserves a vision that drives it.  We know this as project (and especially Program and Portfolio) leaders.

"By 2030, we envision New England institutions and the FINE network playing leadership roles in cultivating a region that is moving towards self-reliance. We envision an equitable and just food system that provides access to healthy and abundant food for all New Englanders, and is defined by sustainable and productive land and ocean ecosystems."

This is a project-oriented organization.  For a glimpse at some of their work, visit their projects page by clicking here.  I was fascinated by the  projects surrounding University dining.  As a long-ago graduate of UMass Amherst, I am of course proud of the UMass year-after-year number one ranking for campus food (very, very different from when I attended - can  you say "cube steak"?).  FINE has published (amongst many other items) this interesting report about the supply chain of food from local farms to university campuses, called Campus Dining 201 (click on the link or the image below for an immediate download).

In it, you will find a treasure trove of data (D) advanced into information (I) and knowledge (K), providing wisdom (W) (see the Part 2 post of this series to learn about the DIKW Pyramid).  Amongst the gems in this report, and of particular interest to project leaders, is the pie chart (see figure below) which talks about the definition of "local food".  We know that in a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), we need a WBS Dictionary to tell us what we mean when we say (for example) "Complete Electrical Wiring", and whether or not that includes installation of light fixtures.  It's similar to the idea of defining project success, so that we know when we're done - but on a work package level.

To even begin to understand the food supply chain and the element of 'local food', what do we mean by the term 'local food'?  The pie chart below tells us that we have some work to do in that area:

I was amazed by the fact that almost 3/4 of the schools don't define or know what is meant by local food.  So it seems some work is in order to provide the equivalent of a WBS Dictionary for terms such as this.  Otherwise we are in danger of compiling lots of data and creating lovely charts that are based on undefined or unknown inputs - a formula for disaster.  Work being done by groups such as FINE are helping us avert this disaster by providing some definition. 

Do your projects have concise and clear definition around the work to be done?  It's worth some background work on your part as a project leader.

In Part 3b, I'll close out this series with more about projects focused on the food supply chain and advancing data into information, knowledge, and wisdom in the area of just how that Christmas fruitcake from Auntie Catherine made it from ... wherever fruitcakes come from ... to your holiday table.

 Merry Christmas!


Posted by Richard Maltzman on: December 25, 2021 12:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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