Project managers have the difficult task of bringing together a team and delivering something exceptional, often within a tight timeline and budget constraints. In these pressure situations, project teams need to be able to perform together as optimally as possible. While newly formed teams often need time to establish their rhythm and develop efficient processes, even an experienced team with several projects under its belt can probably find ways to make their work get done more efficiently. With the seemingly constant demand to find better ways to do things, how can a project manager properly invest time to get a team to perform better?
One approach is to try and find major inefficiencies and implement big, sweeping changes. These types of changes are often the most difficult to achieve, regardless of whether your project team is two people or a thousand. Big changes are met with fear, doubt, inertia, laziness and many other barriers. Our initial enthusiasm for the change can dwindle if there aren’t immediate results, and in the end there may be a conscious or unconscious decision to abandon the change. This is why so many of us fail our New Year’s resolutions; often they are big visionary statements that involve a large amount of change.
Instead of trying to make big changes, we can focus on implementing an incremental development process that allows project teams to continually improve with small but meaningful changes. The Japanese term “kaizen” means “continuous improvement,” and methodologies have been developed that implement kaizen in small, incremental and purposeful steps to yield dramatic changes over time. Kaizen has been used in lean manufacturing methods at companies such as Toyota, Intel and Lockheed Martin. While this methodology has been used mainly in manufacturing operations, it is focused on helping individuals and small teams become as efficient and effective as possible at the job they do.
Some of the main principles of a kaizen approach to continuous improvement are:
- Thinking of ways to make something happen rather than reasons why something can’t be done.
- Do not seek perfection; start change right away and build on that change over time.
- When something doesn’t work as expected, take the time to understand the root causes of why things went wrong.
- When faced with hardship, take the wisdom gained and look to apply it to your next task.
- Measure your successes and failures so you actually can tell if you are improving.
Here are some steps to implementing kaizen as part of your project’s standard operations:
- Develop the mindset: When you first arrive at work, take 30 seconds to remind yourself that today is an opportunity to find ways to do your work better. Review what you will be doing today and your plan to get things done. When you get your project team together for status report meetings, start off the meeting with a similar statement to reinforce this mindset with everyone in the project.
- Document performance: Project teams often track their time spent on activities and use methods such as earned value to determine how well the project is progressing. See if there are other performance measures that are relevant to your project team. For instance, if you are working on a software project, perhaps the number of rounds of review for a requirements document can be used to assess the performance of a business analyst. In construction, the number of safety incidents can be an important measure. Work with your team to find ways that are meaningful to demonstrate progress, and use those periodically to assess how your team is doing.
- Reflect on your activities: At the end of the day, quickly review the work you and your team has performed. Reflect on what went well and what didn’t go as ideally. Make some quick notes and associate them with the relevant tasks to which they belong. For areas that didn’t go as well, write down 1-2 things that could have been done differently that would have improved the outcome. Have your team come together every day or two to review what people are thinking is going well and what can be improved. Agree on at least one item that can be implemented immediately, no matter how small. If there are larger items that will require some time to implement, brainstorm how you can integrate those activities into your plans so you can realize the benefits of the improvement.
- Experiment with new ideas: Find interesting things that you think will help improve the quality or efficiency of your team’s work and try them out. Bring up those ideas as part of your periodic group assessment. Depending on the size of the team, it may make sense to develop a prioritization method to choose which item(s) to implement, as you likely won’t be able to try everything out. Once the idea is in place, track the performance measures that you thought would change and compare them to the previous results. A qualitative assessment may also be warranted (e.g., if everyone on the team is happier with their work because of the change). After trialing the idea for a reasonable amount of time to judge whether it’s helpful, have the team decide whether to continue with it or kill it.
- Share with others: Aside from having your team collaborate on kaizen ideas, you can look to other projects within the organization for lessons learned and different ways of doing things. Speaking to other project managers through your local PMI chapter is also a way to find ideas that can help your project teams become even more successful. If there is no chapter in your area, online PM communities with forums give you an excellent chance to collaborate with peers from around the world.
As noted above, this approach ideally works in relatively small teams so that all individuals feel they are an integral part of the process. If you have a larger project team, you can split the team into sub-groups to practice kaizen. Cross-functional kaizen groups can often find inefficiencies across organizational boundaries that otherwise go unnoticed, so if possible, get your teams to combine various skill sets and backgrounds. If you end up having multiple sub-groups, give representatives from the sub-groups a chance to get together every now and then to share ideas that are proven to increase productivity.
These steps can be performed to help you improve your own processes as a project manager as well. A kaizen approach to personal improvement can take away the fear and risk of big changes to your practices while giving you a chance to regularly review your actions and think about ways to increase your effectiveness as a leader. When combined with performing kaizen at the team level, you have an excellent approach in place to quickly address any issues that your project may face.
Having big goals can be an incredible motivator to help teams achieve success. Sometimes it can be so easy to visualize what we want to accomplish that we attempt to make huge changes in order to reach our goal as fast as possible. However, as an old Chinese proverb reminds us, “It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward.” Having a kaizen approach to improving your projects and your project manager skills provides an opportunity to make small but purposeful changes each day that can bring about incredible results.
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Jarett Hailes is President of Larimar Consulting Inc. Over the past 10 years, Jarett has worked in a wide variety of industries as a management consultant, business analyst and project manager. Jarett’s passion is to help organizations realize the potential of their staff through efficient processes and an open culture that encourages and rewards innovation at all levels.