Category Archives: Project Management

Why Improvement Initiatives Often Fail

brick wall

During a discussion with several of our improvement partners, it was noted that approximately 80% of the time Continuous Improvement efforts fail or are abandoned prior to achieving their potential.

We also discussed a set of barriers that could lead to failure, which included:

  • Low aim, poor advance planning or scoping
  • Lack of data during the planning stage
  • Lack of buy-in from management
  • Lack of buy-in from participants
  • Lack of management support, which is required to free up the resources to work on improvement
  • Lack of progress due to ineffective or inconsistent execution. The slower the effort moves, the more likely it becomes that priorities will change, new opportunities or problems arise that decrease available resources further.
  • Poor meeting management, causing slower progress.
  • Participants need for skill development

A number of solutions to the above-listed challenges were also discussed, which will be the subject of our next post.

Implementing a New Year Strategic Plan?

implementation

In a 2018 post we noted that an organization can have an excellent strategy but make little-or-no gains if they fail to execute effectively on that strategy.

It was also noted that this happens in a great many instances, as people at all levels frequently struggle to stay-the-course when it comes to achieving goals, keeping resolutions, or executing strategic plans. Instead, they fall prey to “working so hard on the urgent that they forget about what’s really important.”

Since we are about to begin a New Year, and since many organizations have, in fact, created a strategic plan for the upcoming year, it seems an ideal time to re-share and reaffirm the fact that “planning” does little good without execution. Fortunately, there are solutions!

The Four Disciplines of Execution, an insightful book written by Sean Covey, Chris McChesney, and Jim Huling, shares one of these solutions.

As you may know, the ‘Four Disciplines’ comprise a management system of making consistent and systematic progress on executing plans and achieving goals. An organization can have an excellent strategy but fail to execute effectively on that strategy. Almost always the reason is that everyone is BUSY, and that they experience a conflict between all of the demands to keep the business running on a day to day basis (the ‘whirlwind’) and the time required to move the organization forward to accomplish existing or new goals!

The book identifies four key elements of execution that can help any organization achieve steady progress on the strategic objectives:

The first discipline is to focus on the “wildly important” (WIG—Wildly Important Goals). It is suggested that we’re better off executing a small number of goals right instead of spreading ourselves too thin. It is also important to not only identify, but also communicate exactly what these wildly-important goals are so that everyone is working on what matters. Equally as important, each of these goals must be associated with a targeted completion date – in other words, they must be time-based.

The 2nd discipline is to set (and act upon) lead measures. While lag measures tell you whether or not you have achieved your wildly-important goals, in most cases, by the time the results are in, it’s too late to do anything about them. Lead measures are predictive; they tell you how the lag measures will move, and they are “influenceable” (you can do something about them).

For example, a person might set an important goal of losing weight. The lag measure will be to take periodic measurements of weight. But to influence the weight goal the person must act on the lead measures: exercise (calories burned) and calories consumed.

The 3rd discipline is to keep a compelling scorecard. The scoreboard shows the lead measures and lag measures defined in the first two disciplines. This scoreboard must be ‘a players’ scoreboard’ not a ‘coach’s scoreboard’. It must support, guide, and motivate the players to act effectively on the lead measures and influence the lag measures.

People play the game differently when they are keeping score, and they play differently if they are keeping the score themselves! In fact, the action of recording their own results has proved to have a strong effect on people ― fostering ownership, engagement, and a deeper appreciation of the impact of their effort.

In addition, there are four important requirements to creating an effective scorecard that will truly promote execution and engagement:

  • The scorecard must be visible. If it is out of sight, on your computer or on the back of the door, it is less effective at aligning the team to focus on moving those measurements.
  • It must be simple, showing only the data required to ‘play the game’ ― to let the players know how they are doing day to day.
  • It must show both lead and lag measures.
  • It must show “at a glance” how the team or players are doing.

The 4th discipline is to develop a “rhythm of accountability.” This is the discipline that enables you to win… without a rhythm or cadence of accountability, teams will have a much more difficult time and will tend to become less engaged. The threat, of course, is that the whirlwind of running the day-to-day business that will consume all the available time.

By setting a rhythm or cadence the authors mean an inviolable regular schedule to which everyone is committed. For example, teams should meet every week or every two weeks as opposed to “whenever something comes up.” It’s also best to schedule the meetings at the same day and time each week or every-other week. These meetings should never be canceled ― they must be viewed as important and productive, thus promoting strong feelings of belonging, commitment, productivity, and accomplishment, which are all drivers of engagement.

As noted in the book, “without accountability, the whirlwind will win!”

Like many things in life, these elements are simple but not necessarily easy… but they do enable an organization to more easily achieve important goals in the face of the whirlwind.

Improvement Project Success Predictor

improvement tools

Our previous post focused on defining and scoping an improvement project prior to launch. Another useful pre-launch tool, which was created by our consulting team, is a “success predictor.”

The “success predictor” distills a century or two of collective experience with what characteristics are most necessary for an improvement project’s success – in other words, it can help to prioritize options and increase the likelihood of working on the right things.

The following eleven factors can predict with a fair degree of accuracy how likely a project is to succeed:

  1. The potential benefit of the project to the organization is clear, substantial and quantifiable. (10 = very clear, quantifiable, substantial)
  2. The problem to be solved is clearly defined and quantifiable, and the project scope is focused and well-defined. (10 = very clear, focused, and well-defined)
  3. The project has top management’s commitment and support (resources, sponsorship and follow-up); no influential person is actively opposed to the project. (10 = very strong support)
  4. The sponsor and team leader are clear about each one’s role and partner effectively to ensure the success of the project. (10 = very clear)
  5. The team leader and key resources are devoting enough of their time to the project to complete it very quickly. (10= full time)
  6. The team is staffed and led by the right people for the job, and they are determined and capable to quickly achieve results. (10 = very determined and capable)
  7. Meaningful and accurate facts and data about the process are available. (10 = very available)
  8. The process to be improved is repeated frequently enough to efficiently study variation in the current process and to and test and measure improvements. Hourly? Monthly? Annually? (10 = very frequently).
  9. The processes to be improved are within the team’s span of control. (10 = under control).
  10. The expected timeframe for completion of the project or for achieving concrete and measurable milestones. (10 = 4-8 weeks to completion or measurable milestone)
  11. The processes are stable, that is not undergoing very recent or imminent major change (10 = very stable).

Defining & Scoping Improvement Projects

SIPOC

An earlier post referenced one of our founder Bill Conway’s favorite quotes, “The most important business decision people make every day, is deciding what to work on.”

This pearl of wisdom applies to all forms of work, and is certainly critically important when it comes to initiating an improvement project. Various tools have been developed to help people better define improvement initiatives, one of which is SIPOC, an acronym formed in the early days of TQM and one that continues to be used today in Six Sigma, lean manufacturing, and business process management..

SIPOC enables people to effectively define the process, problem, and project early on to ensure they are, in fact, working on the right things. The acronym stands for:

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:

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

Once the questions above have been answered people can focus on the high level process flow and the process measures for each step by answering five more questions:

  • 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.

Common Pitfalls to Completing Improvement Projects

pitfall

As I’m sure you are aware, to get and stay ahead of the competition, it is all about how to improve further and faster. But sometimes, despite the best intentions, our continuous improvement efforts can get bogged down.

While there can be a number of reasons for delays and the related under-achievement — such as failing to identify root causes — we have identified common pitfalls that every improvement leader should avoid.

Here’s a list of the top three along with some ideas on how you might avoid them:

  1. Pace: The most common cause of delay in achieving results is the pace. Some teams schedule an hour a week to work on the project, so that under the best of circumstances, two months will pass before the project gets one day’s attention. But far more often it will take three or four months to complete one day’s effort on the project because meetings get cancelled, or start late, and then a portion of each meeting is spent going over the status or covering old ground for a member who missed a meeting. And, of course, the current pandemic has complicated meeting schedules and effectiveness. Regardless of reason, when a project progresses this slowly, priorities may change or resources might be reassigned without ever completing the work and gaining the improvements.

    The secret to avoiding this trap is, to the fullest extent possible, employ the Kaizen approach. Kaizen requires planning and data gathering up front and then all the necessary people are pulled off their jobs for one day or several days to completely solve the problem: designing, testing, stabilizing solutions usually in under a week. The Kaizen approach requires good planning on the part of the leaders and facilitator, but makes good use of the entire team’s time while accelerating the benefits of the improvement effort.
  2. Scope: The second most common trap that slows down progress is a poorly designed project scope. The scope may start out too large — i.e., trying to take on all locations, departments, functions, product lines, etc. all at once. When the scope is too large, you have too many aspects of the problem to track down, analyze, and address, and too many people to consult, inform, an persuade. A team’s progress can also be inhibited if too much of the scope falls beyond their sphere of control. For example, if a receiving team wants to address a Purchasing process or a Manufacturing team wants to address an Order Entry process.

    Sometimes a project begins with the intention of being short and sweet, but gradually the scope keeps growing until the project is in danger of crumbling under its own weight.

    Avoid the scope-trap by explicitly raising and resolving as many questions about scope as possible. Define the scope so that improvement results can be realized as quickly as possible. Decide what locations, functions, departments are in scope by identifying the one or two that will provide the biggest impact (you can do this by stratifying the data you used to quantify the opportunity). Decide what types of problems are out of scope. You may decide that systems design issues should be out-of-scope if the organization already has a multi-year waiting list for systems changes. An area that is slated for major change in the near future often should be deemed out-of-scope. Be clear about the expected project deliverable. Sometimes improvements can be implemented, verified, stabilized. In other situations, the project team may be chartered to merely gather, analyze, and report data about the problem.
  3. Poor communication: Sometimes delays are caused by insufficient communication, especially today when many of us are working remotely. When a team leader does not communicate regularly with the sponsor, many delays can crop up: the team leader misses out on useful information that the sponsor has on the topic; a team struggles with obstacles that the sponsor can move out of the way; a team becomes set on a solution that the sponsor feels is untenable or does not understand well enough to give it full support. Many things can go awry when the team and the sponsor are out of touch.

    This pitfall is easy to avoid by discussing these risks up front with the sponsor and agreeing how frequently to communicate about the project. The frequency really depends on the speed of the projects. If you are executing a Kaizen, you should communicate in advance and update the sponsor at the end of every day. If your improvement team is meeting an hour a week, perhaps too little happens to merit a weekly update, but a team leader should not go more than three weeks without updating the sponsor. Agree on the update schedule and put it in your calendars for the expected duration of the project.

Will My Project Succeed?

crystal ball

Every organization has more processes with opportunity to improve than they have organizational capacity and management attention units to execute. That’s why it is so important to identify the best opportunities and to work on the right things.

Over the years we’ve compiled a list of eleven factors that can predict, with a fair degree of accuracy, if a project will be successful. A successful project certainly does not need to score 10’s in all of these, and some of these eleven are more important than others and carry more weight in the prediction:

  1. The potential benefit of the project to the organization is clear, substantial and quantifiable. (10 = very clear, quantifiable, substantial)
  2. The problem to be solved is clearly defined and quantifiable, and the project scope is focused and well-defined. (10 = very clear, focused, and well-defined)
  3. The project has top management’s commitment and support (resources, sponsorship and follow-up); no influential person is actively opposed to the project. (10 = very strong support)
  4. The sponsor and team leader are clear about each one’s role and partner effectively to ensure the success of the project. (10 = very clear)
  5. The team leader and key resources are devoting enough of their time to the project to complete it very quickly. (10= full time)
  6. The team is staffed and led by the right people for the job, and they are determined and capable to quickly achieve results. (10 = very determined and capable)
  7. Meaningful and accurate facts and data about the process are available. (10 = very available)
  8. H. The process to be improved is repeated frequently enough to efficiently study variation in the current process and to and test and measure improvements. Hourly? Monthly? Annually? (10 = very frequently).
  9. The processes to be improved are within the team’s span of control. (10 = under control).
  10. J. The expected time frame for completion of the project or for achieving concrete and measurable milestones. (10 = 4-8 weeks to completion or measurable milestone)
  11. The processes are stable, that is not undergoing very recent or imminent major change (10 = very stable).

Careful consideration of each of these eleven factors will help you focus your capacity on those improvements with the best chance of long term success, moving your organization further faster down that never-ending road of Continuous Improvement.

3 Reasons Continuous Improvement Efforts Fail

Why Projects Fail…

During one of our Partners In Improvement forums it was noted that in approximately 80% of the cases organizations embark on a path of Continuous Improvement, they abandon the effort prematurely.

The reason? No results.

The Partners went on to the discuss “why” so many CI efforts fail to succeed, and agreed that the following three causes are among the most common:

  1. Lack of buy-in from both managers and participants derails many improvement efforts. Management support is required to free up the resources to work on improvement, without which meetings tend to get pushed out and progress slows. The slower the effort moves, the more likely it becomes that priorities will change, or new opportunities or problems arise that decrease available resources further. When projects fail to produce good results, buy-in deteriorates rapidly. Unless serious intervention counters this adverse reinforcing loop, subsequent efforts become less and less likely to succeed.
  2. Lack of data when defining a project is another common reason for failure. Without data the waste is not adequately quantified, thus increasing the likelihood of working on the wrong things and the likelihood that priorities will shift before the project is complete — leading to no results and subsequent lack of buy-in.
  3. Along similar lines, poor decisions about scope can cause stalls and frustration during implementation and can ultimately result in failure to achieve goals. If the project tackles too much at once, progress will be slow; and if the team substitutes opinions for facts/data about the problem and possible solutions in an effort to accelerate pace, they are likely to make a number of wrong turns — once again slowing progress and bringing the effort to an unsuccessful conclusion.

Fortunately there are some straightforward ways to avoid these three common pitfalls, which we will summarize in our next post.

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.