The Art of Closing
To the untrained PM eye, the title of this article may sound like a sales training topic. But most of you will of course understand that I am here referring to the project closing phase.
For many years this phase was for me personally always the most challenging phase of a project, and I’m pretty sure many of you can relate to that. How often have you been approached long after the project was officially finished with questions or problems related to the project deliverables? And why was that? Perhaps you were still the only knowledge bearer with regards to this topic? Or perhaps not all stakeholders were informed the ownership of the deliverables was passed from the project organization to the end user? Or was it because the (internal) customer was still not satisfied about the deliverable and kept contacting you?
Whatever the reason, this can be avoided by applying a proper project closing method, and it was not until I joined an automotive manufacturing company a few years ago and adopted their closing methodology that I personally was able to master ‘the art of closing’. In my earlier article (Project Management in a Lean Manufacturing Environment) I already briefly described this closing process, and I can tell you already that in general the key success factors for project closing and handover essentially are:
1. Apply pre-defined project closing (or success) criteria, and agree upon those in writing before go-live of the project deliverable.
2. Organize a formal handover from project organization to (internal) customer, using a physically signed handover document.
3. Monitor these criteria jointly (i.e. project team together with customer) for an agreed upon time (the monitoring period). Visualize and track them clearly, for example using a ‘monitoring board’, and discuss the progress frequently in regular meetings during the monitoring period.
Now I can imagine that to some of you above 3 key success factors may appear to be listed in the wrong order of sequence. I can relate to that, as for many types of projects any (internal) customer would tend to accept a formal handover only once the closing criteria have been met.
But within this automotive manufacturing company the above order is applied. The formal handover from project organization to (internal) customer (3) takes place before the monitoring period (2). More specifically, the handover moment here also determines the start of the joint monitoring period. This leads to an interesting dynamic where the ownership of the project deliverable is transferred already before the closing criteria are met, meaning the (internal) customer is in the lead during the closing phase. Since most projects in this case are about transferring an improved way of working to the line organization this approach works here, but for other kind of projects the order could be off course different.
Case study: project closing within a tier 1 automotive supplier
- Apply pre-defined and agreed upon project closing (or success) criteria. These criteria are formulated by the project organization, but are pre-discussed and by the internal customer (mostly the line organization) and consist of a set of measurable KPI’s (e.g. order fulfillment success rate at 98%) combined with a stability period (e.g. max. 1 exception allowed in a period of 3 weeks). In my current company, we distinguish here between ‘Monitoring Indicators’ and ‘Improvement Indicators’.
a. A monitoring indicator essentially is the key indicator to measure overall project result.
b. An improvement indicator measures certain key steps necessary to achieve the overall project result. Essentially you should identify what are the buttons we are pushing to improve our monitoring indicator?
Let’s illustrate this with an example. Assume we run a project with the goal to improve customer satisfaction at a call center from current 90% to 97%:
• The monitoring indicator would be: Customer satisfaction rate of 97%, to be measured by a satisfaction survey after each call in a period of 3 weeks (= stability period)
• Depending on the solution chosen to achieve this goal, improvement indicators could include for example:
o 98% of phone calls answered within 10 seconds, for a period of 3 weeks (stability period)
o 98% of phone calls finished within 3 minutes (to measure the time needed to look for an appropriate answer), for a period of 3 weeks (stability period)
o 98% of phone calls answered adequately as confirmed the customer during the call measured by randomly selecting 100 recorded calls, spread equally over a period of 3 weeks (stability period) where the employee has asked whether the answer was sufficiently and the customer consequently confirmed.
These indicators are often visualized in a so called KPI tree* to provide a clear overview and storyline when explaining to stakeholders why we focus on certain topics:
*The KPI tree is also a great tool to derive actual focus areas in earlier stages of the project
- Organize a formal handover from project organization to (internal) customer. The formulation of the project closing criteria is one of the prerequisite before we can organize the handover. Within my current company this is done through a so called ‘handshake meeting’ governed by the use of a formal handover document. Since our projects often involve the introduction of new working methods or systems to the line organization, the ‘handshake meeting’ also constitutes the moment of formal handover of the project deliverable from project organization to the line organization (and thus the ‘point of no return’). But in other contexts such a meeting should at least always entail the formal kick-off of the monitoring period, for example when the (external) customer only agrees to take ownership after the monitoring period.
Although not completely relevant to the execution of a handover or handshake meeting, it is worth noting that in my company another prerequisite to perform the handover is that the project deliverable is validated and – where applicable – users have been trained on the project deliverable (e.g. the new working method or system). Validation implies here the proof that (a) the project deliverable (i.e. the new process) will reach the desired outcome (i.e. deliver the anticipated result), and (b) the project deliverable can be followed/executed by the involved users. Validation can be done, among others, by the project team itself or by running a small pilot first. With a successful validation, the line organization cannot refuse the handover!
In the handshake meeting both the closing criteria and the monitoring board are reviewed together, and final alignment (where necessary) is reached. The handover is confirmed by – of course – an actual handshake and by signing the handover document, see below pictures:
Handshake during the handshake meeting, in front of the monitoring board Physical signing of the handover document. In this case by the internal customer
The handover document that is signed contains the following:
– Description of the monitoring indicator and improvement indicator(s), including the agreed stability period, and the visualization of these criteria in a KPI tree.
– A check list to confirm the prerequisites that must be in place prior to handover have been completed (e.g. validation was done, users have been trained, instruction manual is available)
– Names and signatures of the project leader and internal customer.
- Jointly monitor the criteria for an agreed upon time and clearly visualize them using a ‘monitoring board’.
After the handshake meeting the monitoring period starts, where both the (internal) customer and the project team meet on a frequent basis (i.e. daily) to track the status of the monitoring and improvement indicators and discuss any other relevant topics. The monitoring board includes everything needed during that period and for each meeting. Let me illustrate with below example:
Example of the ‘monitoring board’ after successful closure of the monitoring period
- Fixed agenda for each (daily) meeting
- Description of the new standard (process) that was created to ensure the project delivers the desired outcome (e.g. new working method)
- Quick response plan describing how to handle in case the standard cannot be followed and/or any of the criteria (indicators) are not met
- Tracking of the monitoring indicator the status is updated prior to each meeting
- Tracking of the improvement indicator(s) the status is updated prior to each meeting
- Signed handover form
- Open points list to track actions that emerged during/after go-live
- Process confirmation document In this project context the line organization and other relevant stakeholders will do process confirmations to judge whether users are performing according to the agreed process. This is complementary to the tracking of the improvement indicators
- A problem-solving sheet is included as a tool to use in case a certain indicator is structurally not met.
When the agreed closing criteria are met (i.e. the monitoring and improvement indicators are met) the project is formally closed, but the monitoring period will run as long as necessary. So in the earlier example of the call center performance, all the indicators must be met within a period of 3 straight weeks before the project is formally closed. Since all indicators are measurable and visualized, there can be no misunderstanding about the status of these indicators! Interesting to note perhaps is since, in my current company the project is handed over to the line organization during the handshake meeting, the line organization owns the monitoring period and chairs the monitoring meetings. The project team is still involved in a supporting role. And for many kinds of projects, this set up actually implies that the line organization actually has a (more) strong incentive to close the monitoring period. For example when some of the improvement indicators are measuring the performance of the line organization on the use of a new process or workflow: they would want to make sure that they are performing so they can close the monitoring period and reduce the number of related review meetings! Once the closing criteria have been met the project deliverable becomes part of daily management with no further engagement needed from the project team. And isn’t that what we all want?
Summary: Clarity, correct ownership and unambiguity
Probably the key takeaways here are that it’s worthwhile to establish a proper, standardized handover and closing methodology and invest time in formulating the correct project closing criteria. When formulated properly, the closing criteria leave no room for different interpretations and provide a clear, visible, measurement of project deliverable success! Specifically, in the case with this company, the ownership of the project deliverable (i.e. an improved working process) is already transferred to the internal customer (i.e. the line organization), ensuring the correct owner is in the lead for successfully closing the project. Finally, with a formally signed handover, there can be no questions about ownership after project closing, or on the agreed closing criteria, making everyone’s life much easier.