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CI Management Series – Instill a Disciplined Approach to Project Execution

By Roger Price - May 8, 2015

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We at P5G often stress the importance of taking a so-called “comprehensive approach” to continuous improvement, which means addressing four major CI work streams that need to function in a highly integrated fashion to ensure that CI both serves the needs of, and generates value for, the business.  Those work streams include:

  1. Strategy deployment
  2. Improvement project execution
  3. Best practices implementation
  4. Performance analytics

The previous article titled CI Management Series – Two Critical Strategy Mistakes to Avoid addressed how to make strategy setting more efficient and strategy management more effective.  This second article in the CI Management series takes a closer look at project execution with a particular focus on two tactics to ensure that improvement projects are driven to completion and have real business impact.

The Inherent Value of a Disciplined Approach

It’s interesting that in many aspects of life success or failure is often determined by the level of discipline that is applied.  The best athletes are quite disciplined in how they practice and train in their sport.  The best business professionals tend to be highly disciplined on how they manage their time and do their work (Steven Covey built a career on this truth).  The best students are often those who are disciplined in their study habits (if I had been half as disciplined in college as I need to be to do my job today, I would have graduated top of my class at Wake Forest).

Just one practical example…I recently came across an article from a Doctor at the Cleveland Clinic who said that one of the keys to successful weight loss was to keep a food journal.  She pointed out four reasons why keeping a food journal is so important – (1) it builds individual accountability, (2) it forces the dieter to think through their choices, (3) it enables better food portioning, and (4) it connects the dieter’s eating habits to his/her emotional state.  In other words, those who are disciplined about documenting their food consumption are more likely to experience positive results than those who are more casual in their approach.

To use perhaps a more relevant example, those of us who have ever led an effort to implement 5S know the importance of discipline.  The easy part of a 5S implementation, no matter how dirty or disorganized the operation may be, is doing the initial sort, set-in-order, and shine activities.  The hard part is instilling a culture whereby everybody holds themselves and their peers accountable to a common set of workplace organization standards.  However, without that discipline the operation will return to its previous state of disorganization in no time.

So if the evidence argues strongly for taking a disciplined approach most every aspect of life, then why wouldn’t we be highly disciplined in how we manage improvement projects that are important to the bottom line of the business?  The answer to this rhetorical question is that, of course, organizations need to be disciplined, but the more relevant question is what that means in practicality.  Let me offer a few ideas based upon what we’ve seen work with our clients:

  1. Provide and require the use of standard tools and data elements for describing and characterizing all projects so the organization gets in the routine of documenting projects correctly
  2. Manage your project pipeline against pre-established criteria related to cost, complexity, and estimated return on investment.  In the absence of such criteria, decisions about which projects to fund will be inconsistent and not serve the best interests of the business
  3. Assign ownership for all projects to a Project Lead and ownership for each task/action item to a single person.  No project action items should be assigned to a group of people as this generally leads to inertia, confusion, and delays
  4. Clearly define the categories of value capture that the organization wishes to track (e.g., hard benefits, soft benefits, cost avoidance, etc.) and build those in to the list of data elements mentioned above
  5. Explicitly link each improvement project to a strategic objective of the business.  Project management and strategy deployment should not be managed as separate “swim lanes” within the business
  6. Define criteria for project health (i.e., on track, moderate risk, serious risk) and use that criteria as the basis for your organization’s project status review process

The instinctive reaction when looking at the list above for many is to feel overwhelmed by the seemingly large amount of additional work that is required to be disciplined about project execution.  I’ve written on a few occasions about the inherent tension that exists between time spend “doing the work” and time spent “improving the way we do the work,” and that tension certainly comes in to play in this case.  That being said, there are at least two critical questions to consider on this topic:

  1. What does it cost the business to be undisciplined in project execution?
  2. Is the organization being appropriately selective about the projects it chooses to fund?

Question 1 is a foundational argument for “doing things the right way” and could be applied to a host of other aspects of business management that require discipline and follow through.  But it’s relevant in this specific case because there are typically real dollars at stake, so the consequence of failure is tangible.  Long story made short, poor project execution creates waste and costs money.

Question 2 gets to the larger issue of how organizations create their improvement agenda.  Business leaders (myself included) have a tendency to overwhelm their workforce with improvement work because they are unwilling to make hard prioritization decisions.  In other words, if you want employees to be more disciplined on project execution, then you need to give them a manageable improvement agenda with which to operate.  There’s certainly a tradeoff to be made, but I contend that your organization will be in a much better place if it’s executing an achievable improvement agenda in a highly disciplined way than an overwhelming one in a haphazard way.  

Instill Discipline with the Right Tools

There’s another way to infuse more discipline into your organization’s project execution, and it involves giving your workforce the right tools for the job.  EON’s project tracker is highly effective because it both helps individual Project Leads and Project Teams to manage their projects through all stages, including developing project plans with assigned ownership and due dates, and provides business leadership with one click access to the entire pipeline of current and future projects.  Additionally, EON has embedded standard criteria for evaluating projects based on their cost, complexity, and ROI and visually comparing projects against those criteria.  Finally, all projects can be explicitly linked to a corresponding strategic objective to create enterprise alignment and visibility. Simply put, the management and decision support benefits from EON are tremendous.

To learn more about EON and Phase 5 Group, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

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