Project managers today face a challenging task in bringing together diverse teams to deliver projects on tight schedules, with dynamic requirements. Often new teams are formed comprising of specialists from varied departments, to deliver different aspects of the project. Such teams require time to establish rapport and develop efficiencies. Project managers often find themselves at cross roads having to choose between focusing on immediate deliverables versus properly investing time to create efficiencies. This is made more challenging with the average project lasting just a few months to a year, and on completion the teams are dismantled and the specialists assigned to other projects.
With a culture focused on big wins, the common approach is to identify major inefficiencies and attempt to fix them with big sweeping changes. However that can lead to resistance and also involves higher risks. A good alternative in such cases is to include Kaizen principles in the project management approach. Kaizen is a Japanese philosophy, and literally translates to “good change”. When applied to project management, whether in information technology or manufacturing, Kaizen refers to small, incremental activities that improve functionality, and involve employees at all levels.
Jon Miller, CEO of the Kaizen Institute shares “One of the fundamental principles of Kaizen is to improve from standards. In the context of managing projects, perhaps the greatest need we have observed for standards is in how meetings are conducted. Meeting standards can be simple as what to review, the duration, agenda and outputs. Ideally these meetings are run on Kaizen principles and are based on facts, highly visual and face-to-face. Although it may be counter-intuitive, frequent meetings translate to small review cycles, expose problems early and often – while problems are still small and corrective action is possible. This contains and reduces delays and overruns”
With Kaizen, Small is Big
Small, continuous purposeful steps to improve each stage of the process can eventually add up to dramatic improvements over time. Drawing from his experience as a management consultant, Bill Gaw, founder of Business Basics and author of “Back-to-Basics (How to Integrate LEAN with MRP)” states “Too many times project managers can’t see the trees because of the forest. They’d be well advised to remember the old saying, “How do you eat an elephant…one bite at a time.” Yes, Kaizen is a process of small incremental improvement but when mastered it yields not only valuable improvements it inspires dramatic breakthroughs. What project doesn’t need that? “
In this aspect, Kaizen blends in well with the Agile approach to short, incremental work cycles. Says Mike Micklewright, Senior Business Consultant at the Kaizen Institute, “Kaizen principles and cultural aspects are applicable to Project Management in so many ways, and Single Piece Flow as well as Visual Management are just two of the ways. Single Piece Flow should be instituted in the sense that project management reviews should be conducted frequently (i.e. daily, every other day, weekly … depending on the project) rather than in a batch at the end of a long phase during a gate review. Why? To avoid any surprises at the end of a long phase and address issues briefly and immediately as they occur. “
Humanize the work place for better results
The purpose of Kaizen goes much beyond improving efficiency and productivity. It is more of a mindset – to do a little better each day – instilled in each member of the team. Kaizen encourages each employee to scientifically analyze their role and the processes they are involved in to identify ways to eliminate waste and improve efficiency. This includes eliminating any unnecessary or unproductive hard work or “muri”. Since every step is a small one, and originating from the team themselves, it meets lesser resistance and is easily incorporated, producing results faster. The involvement of team members in this manner leads to successful, longer lasting improvements.
Using Visual Management methods also helps foster a sense of involvement and greater ownership amongst team members. “Visual management should be instituted so that progress and problems and actions and accountability and due dates are visible to all involved, everyday and every hour, rather than hidden in a spreadsheet that is accessible, but not always visible” adds Micklewright.
Kaizen is a mindset
The Kaizen mindset is about focusing on ways to make improvements and solve problems, rather than why it can’t be done – something that project managers would do well to imbibe. It advocates a scientific approach to finding and implementing improvements – taking the time to understand why things went wrong, measuring successes and failures, and documenting them along the way, so that the wisdom is accessible to others as well. The Kaizen approach is to start the change, or the improvement, and build on it over time, rather than to expect perfection from the start.
“The expression, “There is never time to do it right, but always time to do it over” reveals that people sometimes prefer to ignore problems and keep working, rather than stopping to take action. The role of the project leader is to create an environment that allows team members to raise issues early” confirms Jon Miller.
Each of these principles is remarkably relevant to the dynamic projects that businesses are faced with today. Though the Kaizen philosophy is distinctly Japanese, it could serve project managers well to embrace the concept and “do a little better each day”. Small changes, each day, could add up to dramatic results over time.