Once is Misfortune, Twice is Careless – Continuous Improvement in Projects



Written by Sam Slesser, MSc, MA (Hons), APM PQ, APMP, CAPM – Facilitator at 20|20 Business Insight

In a recent blog post, I wrote about how we may perceive changes as being either ‘bad’ or ‘good’ changes to happen in projects. ‘Good’ changes were described as ‘good’ in as much as they came from changes external to the project and so the planning was not at fault for them. ‘Bad’ changes were described as bad as they were the result of errors or poor planning of the project and so are self-inflicted.

Click here to read this blog – Avoid Bad changes and be prepared for good changes

The previous blog got me thinking that the bad changes could also be described as the changes which could have been avoided. If so, then how do we avoid making the same mistakes again in the future? The answer is provided for within the best practice tools and techniques of course, in the concept of learning lessons from projects and implementing continuous improvement.
The key idea here is (hence the title of this blog), if something happens once, good management would make sure that it does not happen again. This could apply to ‘bad’ changes, unexpected risks or any other oversight or error.

A good example of this improvement process happened recently in the Mercedes Formula 1 team. In the final stages of the Monaco Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton was leading by a significant margin and looked certain to win the race comfortably. Then, entirely separate from the leaders, an accident occurred which meant a safety car had to come out. This is when Mercedes F1 team made their mistake which lost Hamilton the race. They panicked and pulled the leader in for a pit-stop partly in the belief that others would follow suit, partly in the belief they had enough spare time to come out in front anyway. Of course, the competitors didn’t pit and Hamilton finished third, losing the race amid much hand wringing. The management error here was in the strategic decision making under pressure and it led to Hamilton losing a race he should have won.

The interesting point in relation to this blog is an interview I saw with Niki Lauda at the next race in the calendar. Lauda was asked what happened within the team after the result. Unusually for Formula 1 and the media trained non answers we have come to expect, Lauda made a very interesting comment. What he said was along the lines of:
“In our post-race meeting on Monday, we identified that had we added an extra step in our decision making process, we wouldn’t have called Lewis in for a pit stop. So now we have added an extra line which is that the race engineer has to ask ‘Are you sure?’ before pitting in that situation.”
This is a clear example of an implementation of the lessons learned and continuous improvement process. Hold a post-race (post project) review to identify what went wrong, identify the cause of the error and then put in place steps to avoid that particular problem from ever happening again.

The biggest problem with lessons learned in projects is how to ensure that they are used and implemented in future projects. Mercedes clearly have very well defined processes in place that can be updated, in this case by the addition of a single line question (‘Are you sure?’) which is what made this improvement possible. The well-defined process in place served as a basis which was standardised to be able to improve upon consistently.

This is how we should be looking at the implementation of lessons learned, by having a standardised and measureable method in place for the consistent management of our projects, which can be updated when improvements are needed. In the case of our ‘bad’ changes, it could be that the ‘norms’ used for estimates are updated, that a checklist of risks is created and referred to or that any other aspect of the project management process gets an extra line such as ‘Are you Sure?’.

Therefore, again, the means to achieve all this exist within the methods currently available, but it depends on organisations which do projects to have a consistent and standardised approach and the commitment to make changes to increase its effectiveness after every project- continuous improvement.

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