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Author: Pieter Den Daas

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

  1. 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:
    dendaas 07252018a
    *The KPI tree is also a great tool to derive actual focus areas in earlier stages of the project
  2. 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:
    dendaas 07252018b dendaas 07252018c
    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.

  3. 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
dendaas 07252018d

  1. Fixed agenda for each (daily) meeting
  2. Description of the new standard (process) that was created to ensure the project delivers the desired outcome (e.g. new working method)
  3. Quick response plan describing how to handle in case the standard cannot be followed and/or any of the criteria (indicators) are not met
  4. Tracking of the monitoring indicator  the status is updated prior to each meeting
  5. Tracking of the improvement indicator(s)  the status is updated prior to each meeting
  6. Signed handover form
  7. Open points list to track actions that emerged during/after go-live
  8. 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
  9. 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? 

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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.

Project Management in a Lean Manufacturing Environment

While many scholars have focused on studying LEAN and applying lean thinking and concepts on traditional project management…

(e.g. Basit Aziz 2012), very little is written about how project management is already being conducted in a lean environment. After all, lean manufacturing was never a ‘project management free’ environment. I personally joined a manufacturing company within the automotive industry 2,5 years ago and started running various improvement projects within their ongoing Lean Transformation program. As a result I have experienced first hand the differences between ‘traditional project management’ and ‘project management in a lean environment’. It is clear that project management is an integral part of lean transformation; without a project management approach there is even no lean transformation or continuous improvement possible. I experienced myself that for various reasons (a.o. stringent time requirements and a clear project derivation process) a different (‘leaner’) project management style is applied simplifying many of the traditional project management processes and increasing overall project effectiveness.

The History Of “Lean Project Management”

Ever since the success story of Toyota and the Toyota Production System (TPS) became commonly known to the world, “lean” has become increasingly popular. In the past decades, many companies in different industries have adopted (part of) the TPS concepts and have been able to experience first hand the benefits of applying lean principles and thinking in their organization, not in the last place by increasing value through increased productivity and waste reduction (Liker 2004).

Since then different project management scholars have also studied lean principles in a quest to improve project management practices by adopting aspects from the lean philosophy, yet with mixed results. Studies that focused on project management within the construction industry show clear application potential for lean concepts within project management AND consequently showed the benefits of applying lean in the form of improvements in value generation for clients and less waste in the process (Ballard and Howell, 2003), while other studies have more difficulty showing direct application potential and benefits (Aziz 2012). The term ‘lean project management’ was even born, yet till date no commonly accepted definition of this term could be found (Coster & Van Wijk, 2015, Basit Aziz, 2012).

One immediate observation here is that when one views project management as the production system of a company, as is the case with construction, the application of lean principles is more obvious. After all, such project based production systems include manufacturing (related) processes such as assembly and material supply, which can obviously benefit from lean manufacturing concepts.

With many other kinds of projects such as a software delivery project, an improvement project of an existing process, or an integration of a new business into a service organization, the applicability of lean concepts becomes less obvious and its potential benefits less clear.

Interestingly enough, most, if not all, studies so far always took the approach to study lean concepts and thinking and then try to apply these concepts to traditional project management. Surprisingly little to no research is focused on how project management is already being conducted within a lean environment.

After all, lean production was never a ‘project management free’ environment. On the contrary, projects in different size and shapes form an integral part of any (successful) lean production system. The A3 method, for example, is essentially a project management method and the Small Group Activity (SGA) improvement teams are essentially project teams (Liker 2004).

I have personally managed various improvement projects the past 2,5 years with a global (tier 1 and 2) manufacturer of automotive parts, following their lean methodology and believe there are clear takeaways that could be applied in general to project management.

Case Study: Project Management Within Lean Manufacturing

The company in question is actively driving a lean transformation program inspired by TPS. A crucial element of this program is that a fixed number of improvement cycles take place every year (2 – 4 per year, depending on the ‘lean maturity’ of the manufacturing location). Each cycle has a fixed start and end date during which a certain amount of improvement projects take place. The topics for the projects are decided at the start of each cycle, following a structured derivation process based on the latest business requirements, resulting already in quantified target conditions for the projects. An often-used method of such a derivation process is the use of a KPI-tree.

Representation of all departments and management layers are present during this kick-off, and will continue to meet monthly during fixed ‘lean transformation days’ until the closure of the cycle. Project progress and status will be discussed in each of these sessions. The program is further characterized by making use of global standard templates, such as a standard layout for weekly presentation boards and -last but not least – a standard process to hand over the project outcome from the project organization to the line organization in a proper and structured way that includes a joint evaluation period of affected KPI’s.

Project management and execution in such a setting implies a different approach and carries various advantages compared to traditional project management:

1. Clear and Simplified Scope Management

As mentioned, project targets are set immediately during the kick-off of the new cycle – already setting clear boundaries to the project scope. The improvement cycle further more poses a strict time constraint, which is acknowledged by all involved, which creates a clear incentive to keep the scope small. One can even say that scope is adjusted to the available time, since the main goal is to implement an improvement within the available time. “Slice the elephant” is an often-heard remark in this context, and there is strong focus and support to stick to the project objective to enable a timely completion of the project. In case of doubts during any project phase, e.g. on which direction to take or to include a certain deliverable to the project, the main question asked is always: “will this contribute to reaching our target condition?”. If the answer is “no”, it will not be added to the project scope.

2. Reduced Complexity in Stakeholder Management

The project derivation process involves the key management stakeholders at the factory. Hence the management buy-in is there from the start, implying no need for additional steering committee or sponsor approval of the project. In fact, there is often no need at all for establishing a steering committee for these improvement projects. Moreover, since the projects are derived from the overall business requirements, there is much less need to convince other stakeholders: after all, the same business requirements apply to all of them, and the question “why do we do this project” is immediately answered.

3. Simplified Communication Management

Project updates to the entire management are provided on pre-defined moments during the improvement cycle (known as the lean transformation days). The methodology in place further dictates the used of weekly presentation boards following a pre-defined template, based on which a weekly project update is presented to the key stakeholders of the involved functional area (e.g. logistics or manufacturing). Hence there is no need to establish a communication plan during the project initiation phase. The weekly presentation board furthermore contains a fixed content structure to steer that the right content is being presented.

4. Crystal Clear Closing Processes

The methodology applied in this company includes a well structured, standardized process to both hand over the project outcome to the internal customer (often the line organization) and to monitor and stabilize the new or revised process after go-live. This process (or actually it’s a mini system on its own) includes a separate handshake meeting where the project organization reviews together with the line organization any new applicable working standards and where the project organization proves the new solution actually brings the desired benefit based on a previously done validation. Based on this validation the project is officially handed over to the line organization, which is formalized through the actual signing of a handover document.

After this handover the project is not closed yet. The ownership has changed to the former internal customer, and for a pre-defined period (usually a 2-4 weeks) the teams jointly monitor performance of the project outcome. Once the performance is within the pre-defined stability criteria, this last project phase is closed and the project outcome becomes part of daily management.

Conclusion and Key Takeaways

In my experience, applying the lean project management approach as described here hugely increase overall project effectiveness and efficiency. Although this approach is primarily applied within a manufacturing environment, there are several key takeaways that will apply in any business environment.

Have a clear “Why?” from the Start

In this approach the ‘why’ is answered during the project derivation phase and is immediately acknowledged by the management, since projects are derived by the management from the actual business requirements. Having a clear ‘why’ facilitates buy-in and support and can simplify stakeholder management.

Focus and Scope, Scope and Focus

Such an obvious one considering the project management triangle: Time is fixed in this approach, creating a strong focus on defining a realistic project scope AND helping the organization to stick to the scope. Needless to stay that having a realistic scope that everyone commits to will benefit any type of project! When in doubt, answer the question “will this contribute to reaching our project objectives?”.

Using A Clear Hand Over and Closing Process

For me personally the closing phase has always been one of the most challenging phases of project management, and making use of available standards in this regard has hugely improved the time and effort needed during this closing phase.
The methodology applied in this company includes both pre-defined handover conditions and dictates the crystal clear formulation of closing conditions (stability criteria). Project hand over and closing then becomes based on measurable criteria, with no room for arguments or different interpretations.

– Aziz, Basit, “Improving Project Management with Lean Thinking?”, INN Division of Project, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (PIE), LIU-IEI-TEK-A—12/01272—SE, Department of Management and Engineering (IEI), Institute of Technology, Linkoping University, Sweden, 2012
– Ballard, Glenn and Howell, Gregory A., “Lean project management”, Building Research and Information, 31(1), 1-15, 2003
– Coster, Coenraad and Van Wijk, Sjoerd, “Lean project management; An exploratory research into lean project management in the Swedish public and private sector”, Master thesis, Umea School of Business and Economics, 2015
– Gabriel, Eric, “The Lean approach to project management”, International Journal of Project Management Vol. 15, No. 4, pp.205-209, 1997
– Harsha N. and Nagabhushan S., “Enhancing Project Management Efficiency using Lean Concepts”, IOSR Journal of Mechanical and Civil Engineering, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp. 20-22, 2013
– Liker, K. Jeffrey, “The Toyota Way; 14 management principles from the world’s greatest manufacturer”, McGraw-Hill 2004.
– Tan, Willy, “Managing Lean Projects: Understanding the Structures of Lean Production”, The International Journal of Construction Management Vol. 11, No.3, pp. 67-78, 2011