During 13+ years of managing projects and process improvements I have been exposed to change in many different contexts. This has given me fantastic opportunities to shape my approach. Below I give you an overview of how I do.
Firstly though, I want to stress that to me change approaches – be they Projects or Process Improvements – are essentially knowledge growing endeavours and secondly, they both go through 3 distinct fields of knowledge growth which I call Challenge, Scope and Learning Engine.
So, let me explain what that means – starting with Projects.
The purpose of any project is to achieve something new. Something not achieved before. It is the creative push that delivers the new to the value stream, the organisation or the team.
A project delivers the new by increasing knowledge and decreasing uncertainty. We grow awareness of knowledge gaps which we through learning activities conquer and at the same time risks which we through mitigation activities kill or lessen the impact of.
- Picture 1 – Knowledge and Uncertainty
- Picture 2 – Joseph and Harry’s Window
In the project initiation phase there are two key knowledge gabs and risk areas – Purpose and Priority. Purpose is related to the change we aim to achieve and Priority is related to both why we want to achieve the change and how badly we really want it.
Often I experience that we are not clear about neither Purpose nor Priority, and that we are totally unclear about the boundaries of what we initially consider Purpose and Priority. So, before giving commitments to run a project we need to challenge – a lot!
It cannot be emphasised enough. It is better to challenge when we have the opportunity to get expectations straight and uncertainty related to them killed, than in the middle of the project when lots of “Did we not mean?” or “We never asked for that!” drives the project over the cliff.
Several practices can be deployed to reveal both Purpose and Priority. Here are 3 examples.
Purpose Challenge No. 1 – Is it a Project or a Process Improvement?
Some of us have quite rigid ideas on how things should change, but few clues about the aim. So, a first challenge is whether we made a project out of a process improvement challenge.
We can use the Objectives Cross to check this with our stakeholders.
Any project is about achieving results, so if very clear process or output objectives exist, however no result objectives – then we are dealing with a process improvement challenge – not a project. In that case our process improvement approaches are needed (see below).
If we are clear on the results, typically there is a larger story at play and it is a good idea to get a solid grip on it – i. e. our vision and our evolving strategy on how we go towards it. How is the change our project needs to deliver related to that bigger change story?
Sometimes there are no objectives at all – just some tasks we call a project. However, everyone works towards objectives and by relating the tasks to the Objectives Pyramid we will discover better what the needed change is all about.
If the tasks mentioned aim to improve one or several of our output objectives – like quality, quantity, timeliness or cost effectiveness – then again we have mistaken a project with a process improvement challenge.
On the other hand we may discover that the tasks are indeed related to changes in market position and image, customer and employee engagement, new innovative solutions and business results. In that case we have a project and can drill deeper into what the project needs to deliver.
The Purpose Challenge No. 2 – Who is the customer? Where is the Value?
Another great approach is the Business Model. The questions are: What are we changing in our Business Model by performing the project? Why does this bring value to our customer?
Sometimes it is hard to nail down – especially for projects aimed to change process infrastructures or the organisation of work. However, we still must be clear about it as it pops up as a key meaning creating story all the way throughout the project.
The Priority Challenge No.3 – Who wants the change? What is the Motivation and the Ability?
It always pays off to be ahead of the game and interact with all key stakeholders before a project becomes a reality. A lot of the change management tasks in a project have to do with the field of motivational energy and the abilities surrounding the needed change.
Picture 6 – The Motivation Fork
It is always more difficult to move people back to the path of engagement when they have already – based on rumours, feelings or perceived facts – chosen the path of resistance.
Also – nothing works better than stakeholders experiencing the changed future in one way or another – be it through prototypes, communities of practices or similar work contexts.
To grow a solid understanding on the Priority of the change (the commitment to it), we must use a number of Motivation and Ability questions in relation to each stakeholder.
The learning we get from asking and listening we combine and depict using e.g. the classical Stakeholder Analysis Chart and now we know our crucial stakeholder mitigation tasks.
The heart of the project is filled with questions related to the Complexity and Details of the needed change, and hence what is in and out of scope?
We look at the change through several areas of concern. The question we ask for each area is: “When we want to achieve this bigger change, what do we then need to change in this area?”
Iteration back to our Purpose and Priority is often needed here – especially when key stakeholders are not clear in their perceptions on the needed changes or they stick to one or two areas of concern in the Change Star, and overlook the other areas.
For each area we add to our knowledge gap and risk lists, and we continue until we know the concrete change tasks and how to tackle them. We make also an „out of scope“-list!
Based on our very good understanding of what we need to achieve, why it is important to whom, what value it brings to the customer, which changes are needed and which risks are associated with them, we can plan the project.
A great approach is the classic Task Break Down structure, but don’t use more than 3 levels.
The Learning Engine
Even though we challenged, worked on growing knowledge and decreasing uncertainty, and planned the change task well, there will be something we did not realise, something that does not work out as planned and opportunities emerging that no one could foresee.
So – before we dive into project execution mode it is crucial that we create a learning engine of trust, action and transparency (visibility). That is a room and a practice to facilitate the communication, commitment and competences to drive home the project.
Picture 11 – Work streams of the Project Leader
This includes creation of clear expectations when enrolling the project team members to the project team, when working with the stakeholders, when communicating the change story, and when working in a trustful project environment that deal with the fun and the tough.
Key is that each project participant and stakeholder can flag risk, issues and change requests as they become aware of them as well as report task commitment and completions.
One great approach is the physical or virtual Project War Room.
Picture 12 – Project War Room
All project materials are available in the war room including project plan, easy logging of known project tasks, risk mitigations and issues, project team contact details, supplier contact details, vision and strategy the project is aligned to and stakeholder reporting information.
A last consideration for the learning engine, which I have experienced many times, is the question of how to organise the project. The question to me is instead how and where we want to grow knowledge of the new. Of course – if the change we aim for is local then knowledge needs to be grown locally, and hence we organise the project locally.
However, if it is a global change we aim for, then it is crucial that we deploy our global strength from the very beginning of the project. It may take more time in the initial phases, however we win that back easily in the execution phase and on top we gain a great global community that can manage knowledge deployment in the time after the project.
It is risky, slow and costly to go with the old head quarter pilot model. Besides losing out on the global knowledge effects, we risk growing not invented here syndromes, letting the sense of urgency dribble out and growing humongous transfer costs. There is no trying – only doing!
All in all – if the project leader has done the job well, then the learning engine will drive the project home despite the few bumps that the project will run into through the execution phase. Communicate, keep in touch, and have fun while executing the project!
The purpose of any process improvement is to achieve better flow in the activities we do again and again. It is the creative pull that brings us to a better stage of operation.
Picture 13 – What happens when we start new projects before finalising the old?
The improvement effort achieves better flow by experimenting with ways to attack bottlenecks and non value adding activities. It does so by continuously growing awareness of the combined value stream, managing process queues and decreasing process variability.
Some of us – especially us working in staff environments – have very artful approaches to what we do again and again, and hardly perceive the interrelatedness in what we do to what others do– especially not if the others are operating in different functions or locations.
It helps to get visual on what is actually happening again and again – like visualising our current order-to-cash or idea-to-product value streams.
Picture 14 – Value Stream
By doing this we grow awareness of our combined lead time, the number of iteration loops and process steps we perform as well as the combined quality our stream delivers. We realise obvious struggles and are able to challenge the properties of our flow.
Furthermore we can challenge our capacity – that is which capacity is actually needed to perform the value stream as it is right now? What is the real demand rate?
Typically, when we look, we find little knowledge on the demand rate and lots of hidden work-in-process inventory screaming to us of unbalanced capacity levels.
These unbalanced capacity levels are caused by demand push behaviour orchestrated by us and people managing us who want to look good – we sub-optimise. It can get really bad!
So, for any improvement initiative to get impactful it is crucial that someone is in charge of the big picture and is driving the value stream and the demand Pull agenda. Else stop now – we will just waste our good hearted improvement efforts!!!
When we have grown a more mature knowledge on our value stream, organisation and process improvement operation then key process improvement challenges are related to:
– balancing capacity to demand rate
– improving lead time and quality levels
– decreasing work-in-process levels
– growing idea deployment and skills levels
Most people have a million and one ideas about what we can and must improve right now – especially what the other ones need to improve!
It can get quite overwhelming and lots of hours can be burned in agenda alignment or negotiation meetings. These kinds of debates always circle around resource needs and power plays, and this even though many of us are not sure of our current capacity constraints or flow performance, and hence what is at play beyond our own egos.
A great way to put a light into the darkness is to deploy Lean Kanban practices which includes all that we are doing – operations, improvements, rush orders, change requests and defect fixing – the lot. I call these practices Problem Lean Kanban and Operations Lean Kanban.
Picture 16 – Operation Lean Kanban
We basically create a visible order step in our stream where order input requests are balanced with our current capacity. Work-in-process caps together with the team morning meetings control the release of “order materials” into our flow.
It is important that we make work-in-process inventory caps that fit with the expected service level on what we are doing. That is a key scoping question for our improvement efforts. For instance we can decide to always have some capacity available for rush orders and other “can’t deny”-demands like defects, whereas we enforce a strict work-in-process control on normal operations and change requests including improvement efforts.
In this way we slowly but surely replace operation push behaviour with operation pull behaviour in the value stream. We basically institutionalise a scoping mechanism or triage system that prioritises our efforts in relation to cost of delays, buffer capacity and maybe other priority ratings (difficulty, advantage, profit dollars).
This approach also helps us learn the level of “failure” demand that enters our flow and we can use this data to work with up steam process steps to take out causes of these failures.
Helpful in our improvement scoping efforts – besides making visible value streams and lean kanban – is to also deploy performance and idea deployment boards.
Performance and Idea Deployment Boards help us just like the Lean Kanban to visualise what is happening, and they help us in our efforts to scope and prioritise our efforts. The aggregation level on these boards is just a little higher than on the Lean Kanban Boards.
Based on visual awareness of our value stream and knowledge on its flows we can set targets to improve the flow, and through a performance process we can deploy these targets. That is all great, but not enough to create a learning engine of improvement.
Often I have experienced managers cascade improvement objectives to their employees and having no approach to what comes thereafter. The result of such behaviour has often been that employees have not understood the meaning of the objectives, perceived them as requests to run faster doing the same things or they have jumped to conclusions and cut corners resulting in devastating costs of poor quality.
Even worse, some eager employees lacking a learning engine approach have taken on the improvement targets and then engaged in a brainstorming frenzy spewing out random ideas on what they could do to achieve the target.
This has led to a phase of prioritising ideas, employee conflicts and at best a shotgun blast of doing resulting in little learning or improvement. What a waste!
The learning engine of improvement is instead to engage people in an approach that create the future one step at a time and in the process grows our skills. We do that by deploying target conditions and coach each other to release our creativity.
What the target conditions approach implies is that we work on our current flow and bottleneck – we ask what we NEED to do to remove or mitigate the current bottleneck – not what we CAN do sometime in a faraway future.
Lastly, we use very rapid cycles of improvement, sometimes several cycles per day. In the improvement cycle we deploy “go and see” and “show me” observations coupled with coaching to drive learning.
This also means that managers and specialists must be on location to support the employee with the improvement idea!
To facilitate the learning engine of improvement and to capture the knowledge growth as we progress there is a great approach we must use – that is the A3 learning practice.
Picture 20 – A3 learning practices
Projects and Process Improvement
This was a little peek into my present approaches to projects and process improvement and how I facilitate the growth of our knowledge through the fields of Challenges, Scoping and Learning Engines.
For sure my approaches can further develop and I am always open to new experiences and experiments. Do not hesitate to get in touch if you have something to share or you want to engage me in a new Challenge!