Inadequate project management at the Zurich vaccination debacle

Embarrassing failures like the one in the Zurich vaccination campaign could be prevented with simple project management methods.

In the vaccination tram, the population should be able to spontaneously get vaccinated against the coronavirus Covid-19 without making an appointment in advance.

Michael Buholzer / Keystone

In connection with the Zurich vaccination campaign against Covid-19, two embarrassing failures will be remembered later: Immediately before the start of the first vaccinations last spring, the vaccines were delivered earlier than expected, but could not be administered because the start was only planned for the Tuesday after Easter. And last autumn another mistake by the cantonal health department: Booster vaccinations could no longer be administered in the vaccination center at Zurich main station because those responsible had not expected the large number of people willing to vaccinate.

In both cases one rightly asks the question: “Why did no one think of it?” Unfortunately, all too often banal technical errors or omissions in project management are the cause of these and similar failures.

Analysis of potential problems and opportunities

Like every project, the construction of a vaccination center has a defined start and end date. Projects are also unique and therefore always first time. Project work therefore primarily means overcoming obstacles that have never occurred in this form because of the unique nature of a project. However, it can also happen that there are no obstacles in the way of success, but rather positive surprises. That things are going better than expected.

The Zurich government councilor Natalie Rickli, who is responsible for the health department, is therefore well advised to obtain management literature from the two American management consultants Charles Kepner and Benjamin Tregoe. There, the method of “analysis of potential problems / opportunities”, which was developed decades ago under the name of “KT analysis”, is described. It enables you to prepare for possible project obstacles in a three-stage process and to protect yourself against them with suitable measures.

On the basis of the project planning, a maximum of five success-critical tasks are first identified. The team then thinks about what could go wrong with these five activities and what possible causes could be considered. In the third step, it is finally analyzed what can be done today to counter these potential problems or their causes.

In the concrete case of the Easter fiasco, this method could have helped, but in reverse as an “analysis of potential opportunities”. The question is formulated: “What could go better than expected?” and “What can be done today to ensure that we do not miss these opportunities?” A careful analysis would have resulted in someone addressing the possibility of faster vaccine delivery and therefore having to prepare for that opportunity.

The same thing with the early booster vaccination stop at Zurich main station: Here, too, it would have been worth considering that the demand could be significantly greater than expected and that one could prepare for it.

Scenario technique

The scenario technique could also have helped against the vaccination debacle. In short, with this method one tries to imagine both the most positive and the most negative course of the project in as much detail as necessary. If you succeed in preparing for both extreme scenarios with the appropriate measures, you will certainly have all the variants in between under control.

With these technically simple project management methods, not only would embarrassments and damage to the company’s image have been avoided, but the unchecked spread of the pandemic could have been delayed by a few valuable days. It is to be hoped that the authorities learn from the mistakes they have made and prepare better for future projects.

Markus Thuringia worked as an IT and business project manager for large financial institutions in Zurich.

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