Author: Lisa Anderson

Simple Tips for Project Success

Projects are instrumental in growing the business and making a profit.

Thus, it is critical that we find simple yet effective ways to make sure we are successful. In my 25+ years of project management experience, I find that the natural tendency is to make things complicated. The goal is typically to accommodate nuances in the business or project; however, I find that Occam’s razor is absolutely correct. There are simple strategies to increase your probability of project success.

Related Article: Winning Leadership Traits for Project Success

In trying out many project management techniques, I’ve found these to be most beneficial yet simple:

1. What’s the point? It helps to start the project by understanding why you are doing the project. What will be accomplished? Or why does management consider it a priority? How will you affect the company performance? For example, will customers enjoy the improvement? Or, will the company make additional profit? Be more efficient? What will be the outcome?

When I was VP of Operations and Supply Chain for an absorbent products manufacturer, we produced adult diapers. I led several critical projects while turning operations around. One of these was to redesign our #1 product line so that it performed better (was more absorbent) while reducing the cost to make the product – in essence, we were looking for a win-win. Why we were doing this was essential to rallying the team around the project. We imagined that the diapers were for our grandparents. We’d want only the best for our Grandma! And, since the CEO kept us informed on company performance, we also knew we needed to make money in order to increase the value of the company which would allow us to serve more people and eventually obtain bonuses.

2. Develops a simple plan: Don’t become overwhelmed with complex project timelines and worrying about “form vs. function”. Instead, put together a simple plan. Who needs to do what? And by when? Are there tasks that have to be done prior to other tasks starting? Or that need to be completed before other tasks can complete? Do we have these outlined somewhere? Although I find that Microsoft Project does a great job of managing timing and sequencing, it also has far more functionality than is needed for 80% of projects. Getting bogged down in project software details is the quickest way to ruin a project.

For example, while working on redesigning the #1 product line, we ran across several moving parts that crossed over department lines and even expanded to customers and suppliers. We could have become really complicated; instead, we took the simple route. It is amazing how the simplest of concepts can create positive momentum. What are the next 10 tasks that have to be completed? Who should be assigned? Never assign more than one person to the task. A team cannot achieve a task. A team might be involved, but there has to be one owner. Does the team understand the tasks? If not, who can we find to help explain them?

3. Prioritize and sequence the tasks: This can be quite similar to identifying the critical path; however, it is not as complicated. Start by identifying which tasks are most important? Just take a step back and think logically. Which tasks will have the largest impact on the success of the project? If you cannot decide, think about 3 things you could use to evaluate whether the task will have an impact. Then compare these criteria with the tasks on the simple plan. Priorities will emerge.

Priorities and sequencing are not the same. Sequencing refers to what order the tasks must be accomplished. Should you work on task A before task B or does it matter? There is no reason to get carried away. If the tasks can be done in any order, do not specify an order. It will be easier to accomplish if task owners can work in parallel. However, undoubtedly, some of the tasks will need to wait for predecessor tasks. Identify those tasks. Are there tasks required for several other tasks? In my book, these tasks are more important as they can hold up multiple tasks.

4. Follow up: It is impossible to wrap up an article on simple project management techniques without taking about follow-up. Follow-up will make or break success. You need to check in with task owners before and after your task. If you are dependent on an overloaded resource, check in more frequently and make sure you are re-aligning your work with this bottlenecked resource. Find out if there are any issues surrounding the simple plan. Asking a few simple questions can go a long way.

If common sense was prevalent, companies would probably double their profits. If you can focus on what is simple yet effective in project management, you will affect those programs that will have a direct benefit to your business. Take a step back and make sure you haven’t gotten bogged down in non-essential “stuff.”

Agile or Traditional Project Management – Which is better?

In project management circles, we hear a lot about agile. Agile is an iterative, incremental method of managing the design and build activities of engineering, systems, etc.

Recently, I ran across a firm that didn’t use an agile approach to ERP implementation – is this good or bad? Who is to say?

Related Article: Agile Project Manager – Traditional PM Triangle be Damned!  Keep Quality First!

There are some specific agile methods, and there are agile components to managing a project. From that point-of-view, although agile can gain results, I don’t see that the purist approach is necessarily better. On the other hand, I have seen many project successes without the use of agile. In my experience, using the common sense aspects of agile makes good sense. Beyond that, it can lose its value.

When it comes to ERP implementations, I have a strong bias to using the common sense aspects of agile, mainly because my focus is on results. Here are some of the main features that have proven effective:

1. Additive approach to the design: What could be more geared towards common sense? This frequently occurs with ERP projects. Getting the optimal design is one of the most important key components to success. Even with the most experienced process design and applications resources working together, I’ve yet to run across a project that could design everything in upfront. Similar to research and development, there could be 10 solutions to one problem. They will have different advantages and disadvantages. The only way to test these out with the users to figure out what will work most effectively in supporting the business is to use an iterative design.

For example, a building products client is in an ERP implementation process. In this industry, the use of configuration is common. Although using a configurator makes the process easy for the order fulfillment process (which is why it can provide a competitive advantage), it is far from simple behind the scenes. There are many scenarios and variables to think through. Starting with the base design and testing it through provides a meaningful, reasonable chunk that folks can wrap their mind around. Then with a common sense agile method, additional complexity and layers can be added down-the-line. On the other hand, every potential impact would have to be thought through upfront without this iterative approach. There is quite a lot of pressure on this approach – with a much lower success rate.

2. Root cause analysis: As designs are tested with a common sense agile approach, the idea is that there is just enough design completed to see whether the process is working; however, there isn’t “too much” complete so that you can’t figure out the root causes of issues that arise. If there is one thing that is a certainty, it’s that issues will arise – there will be speed bumps along the way. Undoubtedly, you’ll be able to figure out the root cause if you work on it long enough; however, it is a much simpler process if you limit the variables up front. Start with just those variables that are most essential to your project. Then, as bottlenecks arise, you’ll be more successful in determining and resolving the root cause.

3. Flexibility: Last but not least, in today’s Amazon-impacted world, customer expectations frequently change, company priorities are diverted, and global conditions evolve. Thus, flexibility is paramount to success. In our experience over the last several years, over 80% of projects have changed along the way. If the project team wasn’t flexible, they struggled, and results were slow. On the other hand, we have been able to speed up customer lead times, product development cycles and month-end closing routines by maintaining our flexibility. Certainly, there is no downside to maintaining flexibility.

For example, on a significant project to improve service levels, we planned for forecasted sales levels. We were successful in winning a big customer contract. Instead of going deeper into past due, we were able to support this customer contract since we had built flexibility into the system. We were able to move cross-trained resources to where they were needed the most. We were able to bring on a team of temporary employees for those areas that required less skill. We were able to ramp up with suppliers because we had provided them with advance notice of the potential and partnered with them to increase output.

Although traditional project management gains results, using a bit of agile common sense can provide two critical factors in the current business climate – speed and flexibility. There is no downside in pursuing it so long as you use common sense and adjust accordingly!

ERP Project Success: How to Be Part of the 20%

More and more clients are pursuing ERP implementation projects as executives realize they need better tools to support business objectives

– growth, service, margins, cash and the like.

When implemented well, ERP systems can support substantial business growth without the additional investment in resources. Certainly, as the minimum wage goes up and workers compensation and healthcare are such significant issues, it is something many executives are thinking about! However, ERP systems can do much more – they can help collaborate with customers and suppliers. Those with the best-extended supply chains will thrive in the end, and so it makes sense to take a look at upgrading ERP.

Thus, finding a way to successfully implement an ERP system is of paramount importance, yet the statistics dictate less than stellar performance. Typically 80%+ of ERP system implementations fail to achieve the expected results. As experts in this space, we can attest that several of these are due to unrealistic expectations without the associated resources and efforts to ensure success; however, either way, ERP success can prove elusive.

Therefore, understanding how to give you a leg up with strategies for success can be vital. Ignore all the best practice mumbo-jumbo and focus on what will really matter:

Related Article: 5 Keys to ERP Project Management Success

1. It’s all about the people: As with almost every business success, ERP success is no different. It goes back to the leader – and the team. Have you assigned whoever is available to lead the project team? Or have you put thought into it? Have you freed him/her up from their regular activities or made sure he/she can dedicate the time required? Are you saving your “A” players for growing the business and your day-to-day responsibilities instead of ERP? Sound odd? Well, we come across this on a daily basis in our consulting business. How about the software supplier’s project team? Why should you be worried about them? You shouldn’t unless you are interested in success.

For example, we’ve been involved in several ERP selection projects lately and have stayed involved to ensure the process designs would support business objectives in the best way possible, and, unfortunately, we can convey countless examples of the 80% that run into issues with people. For example, in one case, the project leader was on top of things – truly much better than the average project leader for the size company yet the project still struggled due to people issues. The software supplier ran into trouble with their project manager. You never know what can go wrong and so it’s smart to remember to keep your eye on the importance of people.

2. Focus on design: The reason we often stay involved with the design process is that this is one of the critical success factors to ensuring ERP implementation success. The quandary is that this type of role requires a broad and diverse skillset, rarely found in project managers.

The skills required include a broad, cross-functional process expertise, an understanding of database design, an understanding of down-the-line impacts of typical system transactions, an understanding of report writing/ programming and the ability to communicate effectively and bridge the gap between the technical and application resources. In our experience, we run across this type of resource 5% of the time in our clients. On the other hand, we run across this type of skillset perhaps 30% of the time with the ERP resources; however, the really bad news is that even though the capability exists 30% of the time, it is used perhaps 10% of the time. The ERP supplier does not want to dictate the design as it will be “their solution” instead of the “client’s solution”, and it is a trick to communicate effectively enough such that the client believes it is their idea or is accepting of the information.

Is it any wonder ERP projects fail miserably?

3. Focus on what could go wrong: It is often rather difficult to keep the ERP project team positive and moving forward because they are causing disruption to the day-to-day success of the business and pushing the envelope with new ideas (sometimes perceived to be threatening or ill-conceived) and process changes which might or might not be accompanied by organizational changes (another key issue with ERP success). Thus, no one wants to create more havoc by deliberately creating tension, thus, forcing practice when mistakes are made and transactions go awry is overlooked. However, this is exactly what must occur to ensure success. Deliberately try to screw up the system when testing. It is not to be a “naysayer” (which can sometimes be the perception) but it is to make sure the team knows how to back out of bad situations. It is far better to “break” the system in test than with your #1 customer!

We cannot tell you how much nonsense we’ve heard about “system XYZ” is set up to perform best practices and so the team just doesn’t want to deal with change. In 95% of the situations, this statement isn’t true. Instead, forget about all the hoopla about best practices and focus on these 3 keys to success; results will follow.

Winning Leadership Traits for Project Success

No matter the topic of your project, it will be more successful if the project leader utilizes winning leadership traits. As our HR mentor used to say, “It begins and ends with people!”

Therefore, leadership is the name of the game, assuming you want to win the game. In project management, this is even more critical because most project teams are groups of cross-functional resources who do not report to the same line manager. Thus, the project leader has to use influence leadership in addition to command and control leadership. Actually, command and control leadership doesn’t even work long-term for those who are “the top dog”; thus, these traits are even more important to learn.

Although there are countless traits that go into being an effective leader, these are the ones I’ve seen the best leaders across our clients employ:

1. Demonstrates passion

Even the most exciting of topics can become humdrum if the leader doesn’t show passion. Each project team member is typically working outside of their typical routine. Often, the project leader cannot significantly impact the employee’s pay or bonus. Thus, passion becomes even more important. If the leader is excited about the results that can be achieved, each team member is likely to become excited as well.

For example, when I was a VP of Operations and Supply Chain, our CEO was passionate about what we could achieve with new products, reduced costs, new markets and the like. At the time, I was responsible for a cross-functional team in the thick of whether we’d achieve these lofty goals. We had barely avoided bankruptcy and had to work long hours just to keep things going. Without his passion for these topics, it is likely we would have lost motivation as well. We knew there were no bonuses or raises until we got the ship turned around which wouldn’t happen overnight. What kept me from leaving was his passion and excitement about the future – and my contributions to it.

Don’t underestimate the importance of passion.

2. Creates a vision

Although passion is important, it cannot be successful without going hand in hand with the vision. Executives with passion but without vision are just seen as aimless and not worthy of following. Since leaders should forge the way, this trait is rather essential. Create a vision of where you are going and why.

In my last example, the CEO created a vision of being the best provider of incontinence care. Think about what type of diaper you’d want your Grandma to use. One that was absorbent and made her feel better and almost like she wasn’t wearing a pull-up or diaper or a leaky, inexpensive one. At the same time, since it is your Grandma, how much do we want her to pay for this pull-up? Perhaps we should find a way to make it better yet cost less for her. Now we are talking.

3. Focuses on the critical path

When it comes to projects, it is easy to work hard yet not get far. There are always hundreds of tasks that need to be completed. People to appease. How do we accomplish this with a part-time, cross-functional team of people who report to different leaders? Spend the time upfront to put together the project plan so that you can focus the 80/20 of your energy on just the critical path. Instead of wasting time following up on every task, follow up on just those on the critical path. These are the ones that will keep the most important elements going.

For example, in the cross-functional team that had to redesign the incontinence product so that it would perform better while cost less, there were countless tasks involving not only every department but also customers, suppliers and other partners. Since we had a small team (certainly not adding people, following a near escape from bankruptcy), we had to work smarter; not harder. Thus, we focused in on just the critical path. If these tasks didn’t get accomplished, the rest wouldn’t matter. You had to finish or at least make progress on these tasks in order for the next critical path task to be accomplished successfully. When we used extra resources, we focused them on the critical path. If we invested money, we would focus it on the critical path. The rest would have to sink or swim on its own. The bottom line was to focus on priorities.

Since no executive or project team has extra time, money or resources, we must make good use of what we have to ensure success. And, since leadership is the 80/20 of success, it has proven successful to focus in on creating, nurturing and encouraging winning leadership traits in our project managers. Give these a try and let me know how it goes.

Project Success Is All About the People

In reviewing project successes and failures, it turns out that project success has little to do with the technical aspect of projects. Instead, it is all about the people.

Within the last year, we’ve been called by clients struggling with issues ranging from poor delivery performance to sagging margins, while other clients want to ensure they are prepared for strong revenue growth. Every one of these clients required some sort of project to deliver the intended results – growth, profits, margins, cash flow, and efficiencies. Company sizes ranged from $7 million to $50 million to $250 million dollar facilities of multi-billion dollar companies. Industries ranged from building products to aerospace to food. Project scopes ranged from SIOP (sales, inventory, and operations planning) to a dramatic improvement in customer service levels to ERP selection to support the company strategy. Yet despite these differences, every project boiled down to people.

It is commonplace to think that project success has everything to do with whether the technical elements “add up” or whether best practice processes are utilized. Although these can be important, they are not the key driver to project success. Instead, it boils down to people.

Related Article: Project Leadership Remains #1 Key to Success

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Recently, we went into a new client to evaluate a group that was perceived to be struggling so that we could straighten out the challenges. Although there is always something to improve, this group alone was not the root cause of the challenges. There definitely were some technical challenges to resolve; however, the 80/20 related to connections and perceptions – in essence, the people element.

In another client, we have been working on an ERP project with multiple parties. It certainly hit some bumps in the road along the way. Some are typical bottlenecks with these sorts of projects, and some were atypical. What is sure is that 100% of the challenges resulted from the people equation, even though it was a technical project. Miscommunication and the lack of communication abound. Thus, our role became one of connector among several diverse roles and people. Again, the people aspect drove the “80/20” of success.

So, what are a few strategies to keep your project in the “green” when it comes to people?

  • Project leader: Since success begins and ends with leadership, start here. Project leadership is always harder than is originally thought and can be a thankless job. Be upfront and stay in front of this danger!
  • Don’t bother creating a team: Radical but true. A true team will sink or swim together. Unless you can affect each individual’s salary, bonus and workload (which is an extreme request in 99.9% of projects as they are cross-functional in nature), don’t expect your group to work as a team with the expectation that everyone has the same goal from their day-to-day manager. Instead, find a way to use these diverse backgrounds to your advantage. Bring the group together on specific tasks, engage individuals in a way that works for their particular situation and day-to-day manager.
  • Communicate the why: No matter what else happens, the number one priority should be to communicate the why behind the project. One way to bring this group of individuals together for a common purpose is to make sure the purpose is crystal clear – and the why behind the project is understood and energizing.
  • Follow up selectively: Since we know that cross-functional project teams run into many conflicting objectives and challenges, it is important not to waste precious energy on non-essential tasks. Focus selectively on what will move the project forward and ensure success – in essence, ignore everything but the critical path.
  • Celebrate successes: Don’t wait for the project to be completed successfully. Instead, look for wins along the way. If success or failure boils down to people, it is wise to think about what will keep people motivated. Ignoring them while they overcome daily obstacles might be commonplace but it won’t equate to success. Catch people doing right.
  • Get rid of poor performers: One of the most important things a leader can do is to address poor performers. It gives your top performers hope that you understand what’s required for success and that you appreciate top talent.

Without people, there are no projects. Since projects can drive substantial results, it is worth figuring out how to stack the odds in your favor. And, the great news is that there is no deep, technical understanding required to lead a project effectively. Instead, your ability to ask good questions and lead people are the keys to success as a project leader. Give us the best leaders with mediocre technical skills any day vs. mediocre leaders with excellent technical skills. Undoubtedly, the project will deliver dramatic improvements to your business instead of continually struggling.