Acceptance is the act of formally receiving or acknowledging something and regarding it as being true, sound, suitable or complete1. To do that, criteria are used. Those criteria, including functional and performance requirements are essential conditions, which must be met before project deliverables are accepted.
Acceptance by the customer of the project deliverables is a critical phase for a project manager and his or her team. It will “sign off” on the success or the failure of a project.
Therefore, in our experience in the deployment of telecommunication solutions worldwide, this customer acceptance criteria has always been a key cornerstone of any project. We spent a lot of time for each project in an effort to get the whole set of deliverables accepted by the customer. In the project quality plan (a dedicated section of the project management plan), a go-no-go decision review meeting is generally planned to authorize, or not, a project to enter the acceptance phase. Checklists defined by the quality control processes are excellent inputs for verifying the project’s readiness for acceptance.
However, some aspects of project acceptance have to be anticipated and prepared for carefully from the outset, covering questions such as:
- Is my customer in a position to run the solution acceptance tests?
- Are the customer resources sufficiently trained and involved to be part of this acceptance?
- Did the project manager sufficiently support the customer in planning this phase (from customer perspective)?
- Did the project manager consider efficiently all the aspects of the customer acceptance run?
The aim of this article is to explore these questions further and to develop, based on our experience of IT solutions deployment and acceptance, the essential elements the Project Manager should consider when preparing and entering an acceptance phase.
Our project Management background
In our field of expertise, the lessons we learned from the projects we have managed enable us to provide tips and best practices that will enhance the chance of a successful acceptance phase.
The most representative project type that we deal with has the following characteristics:
-The application area is IT software and hardware solutions from conception through development, integration and deployment.
- The environment of the project is international, meaning customers are from around the world.
- The international environment means there are local and virtual teams in play. Common project organization includes:
o Back office teams (architects, software developers, back office integrators, etc.) in charge of solution design that meets customers requirements, development standards and validation in the labs.
o Front office integration teams that are generally based near the customer and maintains daily contact.
- The lead time of a project runs between 6-12 months, with the duration of the acceptance phase varying between 7-10 weeks.
A structured and anticipated approach for successful acceptance
We believe the two main factors for successful acceptance are:
- The degree of customer knowledge of the solution deployed.
- The degree of customer involvement in the acceptance phase preparation.
In order to consider these two factors of success, the following two questions should be taken into account by the project manager from the early stages of the project.
- How do I fully explain the solution deployed to my customer ?
- How do I train and efficiently and proactively involve my customer?
The project manager should invest time and effort in order to implement these principles, and we strongly recommend the establishing a dedicated plan to formalize the acceptance from beginning to end. Below are listed the main periods covered in the dedicated plan that we have put into place for our projects.
In the dedicated plans we have put in place for our own projects, we distinguish four main periods:
-The analysis, design and implementation phase
-The integration and verification phase
-The User Acceptance Test phase (UAT)
-The first office application
The analysis, design and implementation period
During this phase, the project manager is far from the user acceptance.
What is important at this stage is to work with the customer to define what the outputs of the project will be based on customer requirements.
Evidently, the requirements list, the solution definition and high- and low-level design documents are critical deliverables that require customer acceptance and approval. However, experience shows that sometimes due to a lack of time, there is pressure to not block project progression, which can result in a lack of knowledge that may lead to missing customer targets.
Therefore, some good tips and techniques at this level are:
- Confirm full understanding of the future acceptance criteria, as per the contract.
- Confirm with the customer his or her expectations, requirements and priorities.
- Demonstrate the solution (even partial) as soon as something becomes available.
- Install a prototype version (even partial) so the customer has time to check and better understand it; keeping in mind related costs and schedule aspects.
- Finally, be sure to communicate regularly with the customer on your understanding of their requirements and how they are being met.
The integration and verification period
At this stage the solution is implemented and ready to be verified and integrated. The validation and integration phase aims to assess initially from the provider’s perspective, the solution and verify that it complies with customer requirements.
Typically during this phase, the customer is eager to see the results of your design and implementation. However, this is not yet the acceptance phase and you do not need to demonstrate that. However, this can cause frustration on the part of the customer.
Some good tips at this step in the process are:
- Start with the official training (normally specified in the project management plan); this will provide insight into the solution that will be acquired.
- In a “win-win” approach, negotiate to involve customer representatives in your validation teams as a potential gain of additional, no-cost resources, and try to anticipated the customers’ understanding of the solution and capabilities. Of course, this should be done properly and carefully with regards to the first impression given of the solution and any defects in the backlog.
User Acceptance Test (UAT) period
The user acceptance test phase must be carefully prepared for and planned with the customer. In order to prepare this phase, we propose the following:
- Obtain formal acceptance of the test list to be run.
- Propose and establish a plan covering the release, environment, test data, test planning and execution management (testing framework, tracking tools, etc.).
-In general, confirm with the customer that all means of acceptance (material, logistic, security, etc.) are available when required.
In terms of quality management:
- Reiterate the User Acceptance Test protocol including the User Acceptance Test completion criteria: number of critical problems (0 for example), number of major problems (less than 5, for example) and number of minor problems (less than 20 for example).
- Clarify the definition of the severity levels of problems.
- Define the environment change control process. To give an example, request 24 hour advance notice, so that dependencies and potential collisions can be identified.
In terms of resource management:
- Identify the test resources for your project team and from the customer team. Be sure everyone is ready from a solution-knowledge standpoint based on previous training.
- Establish the User Acceptance Tests working hours. Define the conditions and feasibility of overtime.
- Define possible third party involvement modalities.
In terms of Communication Management:
- Schedule a periodic “progress meeting”, and include the conference call information (bridge number, room number and other details)
- In terms of results reporting, define the owner and the distribution list.
A go-no-go is then held with the customer in order to formalize the acceptance start, and in terms of follow up:
- In parallel with planned customer meetings, organize internal meetings with all necessary stakeholders to develop a common understanding of the situation in terms of progress and quality, including test coverage, associated defects, gravities, etc.
- Organize all involved teams in defect reproduction, understanding and resolution. Develop a true problem resolution approach in your teams and encourage people.
- Manage all defects in a dedicated information system so that all are easily accessible for various synthesis.
- Keep the customer up-to-date and communicate with them about defect follow-up, resolution and priorities. When needed, organize dedicated points of contact, for certain issues such as blocking.
- Demonstrate to the customer that you are in full control of any situation. This is a key point to ensure the acceptance “convergence” and a positive outcome.
In terms of acceptance finalization:
- Share with the customer a full understanding of priorities in terms of defect correction. Be ready to propose workarounds when possible.
- In order not to block the acceptance, consider proposing further correction steps for defects of lower gravity levels and associate a date each time.
For all the solutions we have deployed worldwide, customer acceptance has always been an essential project step that requires special attention from the project manager, team and all stakeholders.
The most important lesson to learn is to anticipate, as soon as possible, the future acceptance requirements and modalities. In addition, it is critical to establish a good working relationship with your customer through regular exchanges, open communication and trust.
Mounir Soudani, PMP, SSCGB
Mounir Soudani is a Project Manager and trainer working for Alcatel-Lucent France, who has been practicing project management for more than 8 years in international and multicultural contexts. His project management expertise covers innovative Research and Development projects, billing solutions deployment in the telecommunication field.
Jean-Roch Houllier, PMP, MGP, SSCBB, FFP, Executive Coach Certified
Jean-Roch Houllier is a Program Line Manager (PLM), consultant and trainer working for Thales University (Thales Group), who benefits from more than 15 years of project management experience in multicultural environments. His expertise covers various types of projects including research and development, operations and maintenance as well as subcontracting.