Category Archives: Project Management

Why An 8-Step Improvement Plan?

While organizations in most sectors work at making at least some ongoing improvements to their work and work processes, most industries or vertical markets consist of leaders and followers.

People often ask about what makes the difference between the industry leaders and the follow-behinds.  In our experience, there are two things:

  1. What they work to improve
  2. How they go about the improvement

Industry leaders tend to “work on the right things,” which, as we’ve noted numerous times in this blog, is the most important decision we all must make every day. They also go about making improvements in an effective way. By working on the right things and following a proven effective improvement process, an organization can get further faster.

We recommend an 8-step process for studying and improving the work. While it is possible to make improvements in fewer steps, the more comprehensive eight-step process helps to ensure people are working on the “right” things, and also that the improvements will “stick.”

These steps are:

  1. Identify and quantify the waste you want to eliminate
  2. Clearly define what you want to do (including problem statement, objective, measurements, scope, team, and plan)
  3. Study and measure the current situation
  4. Analyze the root causes and evaluate and plan solutions
  5. Implement
  6. Study the results and take appropriate action until objectives are met
  7. Stabilize and standardize the improvement so that it stays in place and is used throughout
  8. Evaluate and learn from this improvement effort and plan the next

As noted above, some people think this seems like a lot of steps and wherever we go we meet people who want to “streamline” this process . We call them the “two-fivers” because the improvement process they follow is simply:

  • think of something they believe will improve things
  • implement it

Two-fivers eliminate 3/4 of the steps we recommend! Possibly a good, or at least workable idea… but the whole point of the eight steps is to make sure people are working on the right thing, that they get to the right solution, and that it sticks. If you can do without that, by all means, be a two-fiver.

Six Pitfalls that Lead to “Discontinuous” Improvement

Many, if not most organizations make attempts to improve their work. But no matter which specific methods predominate, almost all of these initiatives aimed at gaining greater efficiency, quality, speed, and/or customer delight have two important things in common:
  1. They generally produce some improvements
  2. Then they peter out

For an organization to go through a cultural change so that continuous improvement becomes the new way of working (not just a one-time ‘program’), we need to pay close attention to the ‘soft’ part of the improvement model.

This will enable us to smooth the path, remove the obstacles, and continue to lead, communicate, and motivate both emotionally and intellectually.
Following are six common causes of discontinuous improvement:
  1. Neglecting aligning individual or team goals with those of the organization
  2. Insufficient communication between management, the workforce, project teams and CI leaders
  3. Delegating leadership, which is a responsibility that should stay with senior management
  4. Manager’s or Sponsor’s failure to remove obstacles
  5. Lack of quick success
  6. Letting-up on the “gas” when initial results are made

Bigger CI Gains Can Come With “Bigger” Challenges

We all strive to achieve breakthrough or “bigger” gains when involved in Continuous Improvement, and a basic fact of accomplishing this is to pursue cross-organizational improvements.

However, these efforts typically involve more people, and this size factor alone can make projects more difficult to execute.

Consider that the larger the group, the more effort is required to ensure that good working relationships develop among the team members. Scheduling meetings becomes more difficult, and individuals may take less responsibility because with a large group it is easier to assume someone else will pick up the slack. There is often a limited window in which people are available, and the more people who must participate, the more constraints the project leader must schedule within.

Here are a few recommendations on how team leaders can minimize these “size-related” difficulties :

  • Make sure each participant has a clearly defined role and that everyone is clear about why each participant is needed.
  • Develop (and continue to refer back to) a clear charter and mandate from senior management
  • Develop ground rules about how to handle absences in a way that ensures the project continues forward. Will substitutes be used? Who can substitute and how will the team make sure that a substitute will know what is expected of them?
  • Set up firm meeting times and locations at the start of the project.
  • Publish minutes so that everyone is clear about what was decided and who has what action item.
  • Publish agendas so that everyone knows what is expected to happen at each meeting. Send reminders to make sure that action items are ready when planned.
  • Involve a facilitator to make sure that everyone provides input and that discussions stay on topic. Projects without a good facilitator will lose focus.
  • Develop concrete time lines and scope, and “chunk the work.” Breaking the work into specific deliverables helps to manage the size and complexity of cross-organizational improvements.

Outstanding at Execution!

In a previous post we noted that an organization can have an excellent strategy, but fail to execute effectively on that strategy, and went on to share some discussion on the 4 Disciplines of Execution, a book written by Sean Covey, Chris McChesney, and Jim Huling.

If you truly want to achieve maximum results from your improvement effort, it can only be done through implementing and sustaining a plan.

Even when people excel at identifying major opportunities for improvement, if they don’t execute, they don’t make gains. In our work with hundreds of organizations, we have observed that the most successful are outstanding at execution.

If you’d like to improve your organization’s ability to implement strategic plans, here are five key areas of focus that can help:

  1. Get senior leaders to become actively involved
  2. Identify clear project plans for delivering results, including measures and milestones
  3. Engage team members and stakeholders
  4. Set expectations and consequences — both positive and negative
  5. Develop an organized structure and an activity / accomplishment reporting plan – communication matters!

The Right Tool for the Job?

It’s been said that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Such is not the challenge we face today! Over the past 50 years, a tremendous number of analysis and problem-solving tools have been developed and are available to deploy in the unending quest for better service to customers, producing greater value with less waste. In today’s world, the efficiency and efficacy of continuous improvement depends on selecting the best analysis and problem-solving tool at the right time.

Perhaps the most important tools for success start in the scoping.

Defining and Scoping Improvement Projects
One of the most valuable tools early on to effectively define the process, problem, and project is the SIPOC:

  • Suppliers
  • Inputs
  • Process
  • Outputs
  • Customers

Some organizations always start with the SIPOC to get the team on the same page so they can answer six important questions:

  1. What is the process?
  2. Its purpose (why are we doing this)?
  3. Who owns the process (surprisingly sometimes not obvious/known)?
  4. Who are the customers/suppliers?
  5. Who is the primary customer?
  6. What do they get out of the process or provide for the process?

And then there is a lot of learning about the high level process flow and the process measures for each step.

What’s the ideal? Is the data available?

Are we already measuring it?

What is the goal? What is the impact?

Once the team members have a shared high-level understanding of the process using the SIPOC, and have gathered the data that enables them to measure the gap between the current situation and the ideal, they can create a good problem statement, objective, scope, and timetable.

These together are key components of a Project Charter, the ‘North Star’ of a project that helps keep the project moving forward to successful completion.