Author: Lisa Anderson

10 Ways to Stay Focused on the Critical Path

Remaining focused on any one strategy, project or task can prove challenging in today’s new normal. Volatility is the new norm, and so it becomes easy to get caught up in the highs and lows of organizational life. For example, if your company is having a rough month due to volatility, management can begin to panic which causes deviations from the critical path to the latest crisis.

Soon, you are deterred from the project altogether as resources are lean and can only focus in so many places at once. Most major change initiatives, new product launches, cost savings programs, customer collaboration programs and the like are accomplished through projects. Thus, it behooves us to remain committed to the critical path – and ultimate project success.

What can you do to increase your chances of success? Stick to the critical path. The critical path includes the essential tasks that have the ability to delay the entire project and make it veer off the path. Thus, my most successful clients find ways to ensure the focus remains on the critical path. Some of the successful approaches include the following:

Related Article: Eyes on Target

  1. It starts at the top: As with success overall, it is most easily deterred from the top. Make sure your executives know the critical path. Often, by taking the step to make the critical path clear to executives, the project has a significantly greater chance of success. For example, if a manager has a conflict with a critical path item, the executives will support the critical path if they understand the importance.
  2. Communicate the critical path to the project team: Certainly the project team has to fully understand the critical path. When it comes to fighting the daily battles and focusing attention, the project team is in the thick of it. If they understand the priority of the critical path, the project has a much greater chance of success.
  3. Make it visual: As is popular in Lean circles, make the critical path visual. The more it is apparent to everyone what tasks are a part of the critical path and the progress on those tasks, the more likely they’ll be to gain attention and receive priority. Put them on the walls. Be creative in how you make the critical path visual.
  4. Follow up with task owners prior to starting dates: The project manager should follow up with critical path task owners prior to their task starting. They should ask about resources, potential bottlenecks, etc. I find that critical path task owners know many of the likely issues ahead of time; however, if no one asks, they might not be communicating them. Ask questions in advance.
  5. Remind task owners just prior to start dates: Even if you engage with the task owner to talk through what is upcoming, doesn’t mean they will remember at the “right” time. Typically task owners have multiple jobs and responsibilities. If they aren’t thinking about the critical path at the time, they are likely to delay until the issue or project their boss is asking about is complete. A personal reminder can go a long way!
  6. Critical path transition: When moving from one critical path task to another, think about what would make it a smooth transition. Similar to running a relay race, it is important to have a code worked out in advance and to know each other well enough so that you can make up time or modify based upon the critical path task before or after you. Have you thought about the importance of collaboration?
  7. Critical path post completion follow-up: One way to ensure communications throughout the critical path is to complete a post-task follow-up. What was successful and helped to speed up progress or improve the result? What happened that could be improved? If you gain this type of feedback rapidly, you can incorporate it into later critical path tasks. Why wait until the next project?
  8. Monitor metrics: As with all projects and business, remember to focus on metrics. What core metrics should you measure to get a feel for whether the critical path is on track and whether the project team is achieving the objectives thus far? Put your heads together to identify these metrics and find a way to measure progress. It could be as simple as talking with critical path owners or talking with the recipients of the critical path tasks. Or it could be slightly more complex with numerical metrics. Find something that is meaningful and measure progress.
  9. Critical path milestones: Although it is easy to get caught up in a maze of tasks and to-do lists, don’t take your eyes off of your critical path milestones. Which tasks are more important and signify an output? Keep them in mind and focus on those actions that will contribute specifically towards achieving these critical path milestones.
  10. Final result: Last but not least, remember that you must be getting closer to the end result of the project. Whether you complete 2 or 200 tasks, it won’t matter unless the end result occurs.

Since executives consider projects a critical contributor to growing the business and delivering bottom line results, remaining focused on the most important tasks to achieving these end results is vital. Thus, leverage these strategies to keep focused on the critical path and continually search for additional options. Success will follow.

Interested in Growth? Beef Up Systems & Project Management

Companies are in growth. Every single client is growing – many quite dramatically while others a bit slower, yet growth just the same. Although rapid growth is exciting, it can also be one of the most challenging. Systems can provide the perfect tool to leverage for success – and project management is your ticket to ensure success.

Growth can be challenging for companies both large and small. Whether the client is still relatively small and concerned with cash flow or whether they are much larger and trying to purchase buildings and machines, growth will bring growing pains. Customers do not care what you have to do to service them, whether they are large or small. They expect you’ll have what they need where they need it and when they need it. For example, Amazon has next day, same day and Sunday deliveries as options. E-commerce capabilities and mobile-friendly apps are expectations for all types of companies. Thus, a solid systems infrastructure is not only valuable but a requirement for survival to support growth.

Similarly, larger companies also can benefit from systems. One of the best ways to gain new customers, develop and sell new items, and to expand your product line by cross-selling is to upgrade your capabilities. You’ll need to leverage systems to be successful and efficient with these endeavors. There are a few reasons why: 1) Volume. 2) Best practices. 3) Automation

Systems will provide access to volume. Certainly, one of the key advantages of growth is the ability to leverage additional volume over the same or minimally larger infrastructure. This brings profit to the bottom line. A system does not care whether you perform ten transactions (or calculations) or 10,000. A person does!

Systems also provide the ability to leverage best practice processes. These processes can be embedded in the system.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen clients (and people) who have the latest and greatest technology available to them yet they fail miserably. The reason this occurs is that they do not take the time to think through the optimal processes the system can utilize. One way to think about this is “garbage in, garbage out”. A system will only calculate errors faster if you don’t focus time and attention on your processes. How can you set up your daily, weekly and monthly routine to best support your business? Build these into your system, and your system will become invaluable to growth.

Systems provide the opportunity to automate. There are countless opportunities to automate in every business. I’ve yet to walk into a new client without significant potential to take steps out of processes by having the computer perform steps and calculations within a set of guidelines. For example, instead of manually calculating what you need to purchase in order to meet your customers’ needs, an ERP system will figure that out for you and provide you with a recommended plan for review. Then, our job becomes managing exceptions and adding value instead of performing routine tasks.

Related Article: Project Execution Paramount for Success

Solid Project Management Ensures Systems Success

As valuable as a system can be in supporting growth, it will be meaningless if not backed by solid project management. Certainly, I’ve seen more issues arise in implementing and leveraging systems than almost every other type of project. Thus, it is of utmost importance to focus on the critical project management techniques required to ensure systems success.

Reviewing those successful systems implementations, upgrades and projects to further leverage existing functionality, the vast majority have these tenets in place:

  1. A strong project leader – it must begin and end with leadership as my HR mentor used to say. Interestingly, the best projects with weak leaders fail whereas the weakest projects with strong leaders succeed.
  2. A well thought-out project plan with a clearly defined critical path and milestones – it is easy to get lost in system implementations; thus, simplifying the focus to the critical path is essential to success.
  3. Tracking mechanisms – it is too late to discover an issue once 50% of the project has elapsed. Instead, find ways to build checkpoints into the project plan. Make sure there are plenty of short tests so that you can rapidly discover issues and plans can be adjusted.
  4. Senior leadership support – similarly to project leadership, no matter how strong the team and plan, it will fail without executive support. Undoubtedly, a conflict will arise that will require support from senior leaders. Be prepared upfront for this need.

There are countless reasons to consider implementing a new system, upgrading your system or further leveraging your system to support growth. First and foremost, consider whether you want to grow by 5% per year using your current infrastructure and systems or whether you want to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Many of my clients have opportunities to grow by 20%, 50%, and 100%.

Next, why not increase cash flow and maximize profit while growing the business? Since it is often a no-brainer to further leverage systems, make sure you are prepared for success. Beef up your project management and success will follow.

Strategies to Keep Your Project On-Track

As easy as it seems to keep a well-planned project on-track, it isn’t! In working with hundreds of project teams over the course of my career, I’ve found that projects do not fail in formulation; they fail in execution. The best results follow those projects that are well-managed and kept on-track. Results are not just substantial in terms of monetary gain, but are also important to customer satisfaction and loyalty. In today’s Amazon-impacted marketplace, a leg up on the competition can be a vital competitive strategy. What are you doing to ensure success?

There are several powerful strategies to keeping a project on track. Some of the most impactful are as follows:

  1. It starts at the top: As with success overall, keeping your project on track starts at the top. Leaders can make or break success. Thus, selecting the best project manager is key to success. Of course, it is beneficial also to have the best project sponsors and executive support; however, the 80/20 of success is putting the right leader in place.
  2. Put time in upfront to understand the project plan: Although it is a common desire to jump into the project and start performing tasks, it is significantly more successful to take the time to develop a strong project plan. Make sure to coordinate with all relevant parties and incorporate input. Ask questions and consider potential issues. Be clear on your plan, and results will follow.
  3. Focus on the critical path: One of the secrets to success relates to focusing exclusively on the critical path. It is easy to get deterred on all the project plan tasks as they all seem important; however, the most successful projects consider the 80/20 as the critical path. In essence, the focus is on the tasks that are most likely to hold up the project from progressing at the optimal pace and those which are likely to impact whether results occur.
  4. Follow up with task owners: Following up with task owners can ensure success. I’ve found that a quick check in with task owners to remind them of upcoming tasks, especially critical path tasks, can be invaluable to making sure the owner is prepared to start on time and that they have the resources available to successfully complete the task. Ask if there are any concerns and work to address them prior to the start date.
  5. Embrace project supporters: Whether a project sponsor or a peer to the project team, project supporters are integral to project success. Identify project supporters and keep them in the loop. Make sure to provide information so that they understand how they help to contribute to the project success. Make it easy for them to support your project.
  6. Celebrate successes: An important part of any project is to celebrate small wins along the way. Don’t wait for the project to be completed to celebrate success. Success breeds success. Find people doing right. Look for indicators that the project is moving in the right direction. Recognize the progress and celebrate the contributions of the team.
  7. Simplify: Complex project plans do not deliver success. Contrary to popular opinion, I’ve found that more often than not, success stems from simplification. Simplify to the tasks required to deliver your end result. Avoid complexity. It will become easier for the team to understand and execute.
  8. Monitor metrics: Do not wait until the end to evaluate project success. Identify milestones. Keep an eye out for critical path milestones. Monitor progress towards these milestones. For the critical milestones, develop interim checkpoints so that you can monitor progress along the way. That way, you’ll have the opportunity to adjust as needed.
  9. Don’t take your eye off the prize – results: Although it is easy to get caught up in a maze of tasks and to-do’s, don’t take your eyes off of your desired end results. Keep them in mind and focus on those actions that will contribute specifically towards delivering end results.
  10. Communicate, communicate and communicate: Just as in real estate where location, location and location are the three most important attributes of a new house, communicate, communicate and communicate are the three most important attributes in keeping your project on track. If all team members, supporters, sponsors and other related parties are not aligned, the project is likely to veer off track.

Since executives count on projects to deliver the vast majority of improvements to company performance (such as growing the business, increasing margins, and accelerating cash flow), keeping the project on track is essential. Those who follow these ten strategies will succeed significantly more often than those who don’t. Why take a chance on what’s vital to business success?

Project Leadership Remains #1 Key to Success

In thinking about the hundreds of client projects I’ve completed over the last ten years, if I had to pick one key to success, it would be project leadership. For example, I worked with one client on multiple projects simultaneously with several project leaders over the course of many months. The same senior leadership sponsored every project. A few were downright frustrating as we struggled to move an inch a week whereas others leaped forward a mile in the same timeframe. Of course my focus was to accelerate progress on the ones that inched forward; however, significant acceleration could go from an inch to 5 feet; still slow as molasses as compared with moving a mile.

While leading and/or participating with hundreds of projects with manufacturers and distributors across multiple industries, geographies and company sizes, several keys to project leadership success emerged. What successful leaders have in common is worth noting. Thus, it seems discussing top strategies for success would be of value. Instead of limiting it to the top 3, I thought I’d share a longer list that arose during observation.

1. Vision: As all executives know, having a vision is essential to success. What do you expect your project to accomplish? Why is that of value to the organization? How does it fit with strategy?

2. Communication: Having a vision does little for success if no one hears about the vision. Communication skills are essential. This is the bedrock for any leadership role. However, it tends to be even more critical on projects as the majority of team members might not report to the project leader for their day job and so communications might be limited.

3. Energy: It helps to have a project leader with energy. Being excited about what the project can achieve goes a long way to making the team interested in being a part of that objective. Demonstrate excitement through your tone of voice, language, through promotion, etc.

4. Competence: As effective a communicator you might be, it is still essential to be competent in the subject matter related to the project. There is no need to be an expert; however, you need to have a basic knowledge to be able to lead effectively.

5. Ability to ask questions: One of the keys to success is the project leader’s ability to ask good questions. I have worked with horrible project leaders who asked “stupid” questions – it was obvious to the team members that they weren’t capable and/or was annoying; thus, no matter what other qualities they had, their project progressed slowly at best. On the other hand, I’ve seen people with zero knowledge of engineering successfully lead a group of engineers by having enough knowledge or logic to ask a few good questions to keep the process moving.

6. Ability to think of the critical path: One of the most important aspects of project management is to know what is important to the success of the project. Not all tasks are created equal. In today’s busy world, there is rarely time to focus on all tasks to the desired degree; thus, focusing attention on what’s important is critical. The critical path will make it obvious which tasks should be the focus as they will hold up the rest of the project.

7. Ability to facilitate teamwork: It is important for the project leader to facilitate teamwork. Typically the project team might be from multiple disciplines/functions who might not know each other and who might be in conflict in terms of daily objectives. Thus, the project leader needs to facilitate the common objectives and find strengths to leverage while making all team members feel included in the process.

8. Ability to push back: The best of managers, when all is proceeding smoothly, can become the worst of leaders if a roadblock arises. It is critical for project leaders to be able to address issues head on in a respectful and proactive manner. This often requires pushing back on executives who might have conflicting interests. Turning it into the best interest of all parties helps the leader push back successfully.

9. Follow-up: No project is successful if follow-up is lacking. A key part of the process is being proactive about which tasks are coming up and making sure the task owners are ready and potential roadblocks are resolved. Checking in with the project team, sponsors, related / impacted employees and the like is key to success.

Since project leadership proves to be #1 to successfully achieving objectives, it is worth additional focus. Are you assigning whoever is available with some level of competence to your project as resources are scarce or are you carefully considering the options? Since the vast majority of cost improvement, new product introductions and the like are accomplished through projects, it is worth extra focus to ensure project leadership success as these results will impact growth, profit and cash flow.

Project Execution Paramount for Success

Businesses do not fail due to poor strategies; instead, they fail due to poor execution. The same is true for projects. My most successful clients understand the critical importance of execution to not only their bottom line but also to the success of their company.

Even though I typically am called into clients to help elevate business performance derived through topics such as preparing for growth, improving service levels, reducing lead times and dramatically improving inventory turns, my technical expertise on those topics rarely if ever relate to why the preponderance of my business is repeat business. My best clients call me back because I partner with them on execution. People are engaged, and results follow.

When I look at the most important factors in success execution, I can boil it down to these four: 1) Leadership & Culture. 2) Focus. 3) Exemplars 4) Follow-up

  1. Leadership & Culture: Have you ever seen a successful company over the long-term with weak leaders? Never! Solid execution requires exceptional leadership – no exceptions.

    What does this entail? Leaders must start by communicating where the company is headed. Explaining the vision is the cornerstone to success. Discuss its importance and how each team and individual employee can add value and contribute to the vision. Next, collaborative goals must be established. It should not be a dictation of goals or left completely to the employee; instead a collaborative process is optimal. Performance management systems should be in place. Immediate feedback (both positive and constructive) is a must. Training, development, and career paths should be a natural part of the performance management discussion. Leaders must ignore the temptation to focus on inputs (# of hours worked, tasks and activities); instead focus on outputs. Help employees develop plans, gain resources and overcome roadblocks to achieving the results. Celebrate success.

    Culture shouldn’t be an afterthought unless you’d prefer failure. What set of beliefs govern behavior? What does your culture support? Does your culture appreciate collaboration or individualism? For example, are you compensated and rewarded for team contributions or individual contributions even if at the expense of the team? Do leaders say one thing and do another? Don’t bother executing until your leadership and culture are in sync with your goals.

  2. Focus: It’s amazing what focus alone can accomplish. For example, a few of my clients have suffered for years with persistent problems. Of course, they tried many alternatives to resolve the issue and were frustrated. After we were able to resolve the problem by working together, they often said that although they thought my technical skills would help to resolve the problem, it had little to do with it. Instead, focus was the secret weapon.

    Once executives focus on a select few root causes, seemingly insurmountable roadblocks disappear. The interesting thing about this is that it is as simple as it sounds, but it is not as easy to implement as it sounds. Why? Designing and improving processes and leveraging systems and technology will require focus; however, aligning people takes an exaggerated focus. How do we align disparate functions and people with conflicting goals and managers with a common focus? Go back to point #1!

  3. Exemplars: Another secret ingredient to execution success is to identify exemplars. Who are the influence leaders in the organization? Who sets an example that others will follow? They’ll come from unexpected places and positions throughout the organization, and so keep an eye out for those people who others call or ask for advice after the meeting. Look for those who are not typically visible because they do not have issues. Ask people who they would be comfortable talking with if they wanted further clarification on a particular topic. You’ll find them.

    Bring the exemplars into the fold. Ask them to trial the new program or process. Incorporate their feedback. Ask for their support. Empower them. Soon the rest will follow.

  4. Follow-up: I’m fondly known as a pit terrier when it comes to follow-up. We can attribute or blame this on my mom! However, it is a key reason for my success; I cannot count the times I’ve succeeded through determination alone. If you’re interested in execution success, follow-up isn’t an option.

    A few tips from the pit terrier gene pool: 1) Start with a solid plan. 2) Ruthlessly identify priorities. 3) Ask questions about the priorities. 4) Listen. 5) Do not shy away from roadblocks and conflicts. 6) Continually improve your communication & presentation style as it’s essential in handling conflicts. 7) Be upfront and trustworthy. 8) Track metrics but only focus on the key ones. 10) Be vigilant.

Execution is essential in today’s new normal business environment. Improving business performance can be a constant struggle. Thus, what could be more important than being known as a rare person or company who consistently delivers results in a collaborative and engaging manner?

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