Category Archives: Productivity

Project Management Monsters Around Us

Monsters aren’t just for Halloween. The undead walk among us all year round. Only on Halloween do they show their true faces. If you know what to look for, you can recognize vampires, ghosts, zombies, and Frankenstein’s creation (he’s not really a monster, just misunderstood).

In this article, I will teach you not only how to spot these undead creatures, but also how to vanquish those who haunt your nights and bring life back to those who suffered an untimely demise.

This doesn’t take the skills of a slayer, just a disciplined product development process.


Zombies are the most common undead creature you’ll see walking the halls of your office. (We’re talking about the slow George A. Romero style zombies, not the fast variety of 28 Days Later or World War Z.)

They continue moving and sucking up resources, but they have no life in them and they never will. They produce nothing, and all they want to do is eat your brain. They need a shotgun blast in the face to put them out of your misery.

I once worked in an R&D group of about a dozen engineers, with about 20 active projects. On average, these projects would have required a couple of engineers to move forward at a reasonable pace. There were no clear priorities, so everyone worked on whatever they felt like or responded to the most recent request. The team’s effort was so diffuse that practically no projects were ever completed.

The way to deal with zombies is having a product development process that includes stage gates. As a project moves from one stage to the next, a review with the stakeholders is held. If the project isn’t on a path to success, this is the time to either rescope to something that can be successful or kill the project.

If a project just wanders around aimlessly without progressing to the next stage, you need to put it out of its misery and apply your resources to projects that can be successful. No project moves on to the next stage unless the resources needed are available.

Vampires and Ghosts

Vampires are projects that suck the lifeblood (i.e. resources) from other projects, preventing them from staying on schedule. Unlike zombies, vampires are worthy projects capable of being successful; they are just consuming more resources than they should.

Ghosts are the opposite, just a whisper of a project, starved of the resources they need to live. With sufficient resources, the ghosts can be resurrected.

I once worked for a company leading a critical project redesigning the flagship product. When I checked in with the engineers, I often found out they’d been redirected to work on a pet project (i.e. a vampire) of the CEO. I was unable to stay on schedule, and my project became a ghost.

Both of these monsters can be slain by agreeing to priorities and assigning your team based on these priorities.  If resources are to be reassigned, the leader of the project losing the resource needs to be engaged and the impact discussed.

Does it make sense to move the resource and delay a critical project? Leadership must understand the implication and make the tradeoffs based on the best-available information.

Frankenstein’s Creation

You’ve probably seen these creations: an arm left over from one project, a leg from another. These appendages don’t go together as part of any design. The result reminds you of what you wanted when you launched the project, just like Adam (the name of Frankenstein’s creation) reminds you of a human being.

When you’re trying to solve a problem similar to one you’ve solved before, it may seem like a good idea to reuse your early work. And sometimes it is. Other times, shoehorning an old solution into a new problem creates more problems than it solves.

To tame the creation, one needs only a solid design process with requirements. Start with the problem you’re solving and build up requirements from there.

If an existing solution meets the requirements, then by all means use it. If it doesn’t, can it be modified to meet the requirements? Whatever solution you use, it must meet the requirements.

Polyphemus, the Blind Cyclops

In Homer’s “The Odyssey”, Odysseus stabs the cyclops Polyphemus in the eye, blinding him. When Polyphemus lets his sheep out of the cave to graze, Odysseus and his men are then able to escape by hiding under them.

Similarly, we are often blind to what’s happening under the surface of our projects. We often don’t ask the right questions because we’re moving too quickly to take the time to pause and ask them. Or we don’t want to hear the answers, like “the customers want something different than what the product manager thinks they want”.

I once worked on a project where the laws of physics suggested that we would likely fail FCC certification testing due to high levels of emissions of radio frequency noise. So the experts in the team did a detailed analysis, which confirmed our initial fear, and they recommended putting the electronics in a Faraday cage, which would dampen the emissions.

Management didn’t want to slow down the project to allow a cage to be designed until we had actual measurements to prove that we needed a cage. Six months later, we were able to build a prototype that proved we needed a Faraday cage, but by this point the design was locked.

The resulting mitigation needed to fit within the space available, increasing cost and putting the schedule at risk. None of that would have been needed if management had looked carefully at the situation when the issue was first raised.

Once again, the weapon of choice is a solid product development process:

  • Risk assessments that force you to sit down and ask, “How can this project fail?”
  • Stage gate reviews, where the stakeholders come in and ask the tough questions before the project moves forward

Many Monsters, One Weapon

We are often in such a rush that we waste energy on a feeding vampires or zombies that are unworthy. We overlook that which is just beneath the surface. We settle for something that’s handy, rather than a solution that solves our problem.

A disciplined product development process can give sight to the blind, strength to the ghosts, and oblivion to zombies.

Ask a Project Manager: How Can I Be More Productive?

“Dear Elizabeth: It feels like I’m spending so much time just staying on top of things. I have systems, but I don’t think they are the best. Otherwise, I wouldn’t feel like I’m never getting anything done. Does that make sense? How can I be more productive when working on a project or task?”

It makes perfect sense to me! I’ve certainly had times when I’ve worked really hard and had nothing to show for it at the end of the day. They weren’t productive days, and they made me feel like I wasn’t achieving anything.

I don’t know about you, but as a project manager, I don’t like to feel as if I’m not achieving anything. I get a buzz out of keeping my projects moving forward in the right direction, so unproductive days zap my motivation.

The thing is, productivity looks different for different situations. You’ve asked about being productive on a project and also on a task, and they are different beasts. Let’s break it down.

Task Productivity

It’s hard to be productive if you don’t have a clear understanding of what is required. I was doing some work recently where the briefing from the client was vague, I didn’t have access to the right files, the files I did have were the wrong versions (and they told me that).

I wasn’t productive when that job started, I can tell you. It took a while to get clarity on what was required, how they wanted me to do it, what resources I needed access to, and who was going to give them to me.

And all the while I felt bad because I wasn’t producing anything for them.

Get complete clarity on what the task is. Even if that means asking the stupid questions, or asking the questions again and again until you get the answers you need to start work.

Then, make sure you set aside enough time to actually do the work. Much ‘unproductivity’ comes about because we are too squashed for time.

When you don’t have enough time to do the task, you start to worry about the output – will it be good enough? Can I get it done? And you don’t focus on the work that you can do.

Then, do the work. This is the most important part! If it’s a long job, document where you are, track your progress, and provide updates to your manager (or do them for your own benefit) as you go along.

I wish there was some kind of magic formula for being more productive, but at the end of the day it’s all about focus. Know what you have to do, don’t lose focus, and just get on with it.

Focus, focus, focus.

Project Productivity

Productivity sustained across a whole project is a different matter. You’ve got to facilitate the work of others. Your project needs a clear definition, just like you would need for a task. You need to think about the overall structure of the work, breaking it down into component tasks.

Then you need to structure the tasks in a way that makes sense for the flow of work, ensuring that there are realistic estimates for the work required. Those tasks need to be allocated to the people who can do them best, and who agrees that it is their job to do them.

There’s nothing more unproductive than someone who feels that a task isn’t their responsibility.

Your aim is to set up your task owners for success by helping them be productive. You’re creating a foundation for them to be able to do their work with the right resources and the right inputs (hence why it’s important to have the tasks scheduled at the right time in the flow so that pre-requisite tasks are complete).

It’s a lot easier to be productive over a project or task if you enjoy the work. If you don’t enjoy what you do, you’ll find reasons not to do it, and it’s not difficult to find things that you would prefer to be spending time on!

I know it’s not realistic to love everything you have to do in the office, but the more fun you can build into your day the better it will be for you and your team members. It’s easier to get stuff done when you are hanging out with people who think about work in the same way as you do and are nice to be around.

I’m guessing your next question is: What can I use to help me do all this?

To start with, you can use your common sense to block out your time to do your work in a productive fashion. So no social media. Put your phone on silent if you need to and turn off email pop up notifications. Get into the ‘work zone’ and set yourself up for productive success.

Second, make the most of the project management tools given to you for your own personal productivity too. Track your time so that you know what you are currently spending your day on. This is incredibly important. In my experience, the most productive people know what their priorities are and work on them, without distractions. And they know how they are spending their time.

The tasks you are working on might not fit neatly within your project schedule, but you can still use enterprise project management tools to manage your personal tasks. OK, not collecting the dry cleaning. But tasks related to your work that don’t fit within a project structure, like preparing a quarterly update on the project management team’s training needs for your boss or remembering to track your monthly hours for the PMO.

With tools like LiquidPlanner, the functionality is just there: you can create new tasks, track time, and more. If you’re in a project management role, you likely have some tools that you use daily and are comfortable using. Start treating your personal To Do list like a project and track and manage it in the same way. That’s a sure way to give you clarity, keep you focused and boost productivity.

6 Things You Can Do to Keep Challenging Personalities in Check

It doesn’t matter what field you operate in, as soon as you bring in creative experts the potential for both personality and technical conflict increases. The why is understandable: truly creative designers and engineers who have established themselves as experts will tend to have a very strong mental model of what should happen on a project. Sometimes this vision of the future conflicts with the reality of the project scope, schedule and cost.

When this happens, it’s not a human resources issue. It’s a leadership and a project team issue that you need to resolve.

So, let’s start with why some creative-types generate so much drama in the project team. Coming from the perspective of a “creative-type”, I can understand why some skilled engineers and designers can be difficult to work with:

  • Feelings of not being heard has led them to become the loudest voice in the charrette.
  • They have a sense of entitlement built on a track record of success in their designs. This has now gone to their head and they let their ego run rampant.
  • The individual is truly a savant who happens to have a low emotional intelligence (EI) functionality.
  • They are a product of their past, with previous project managers allowing them to behave outside team norms because their technical or aesthetic designs are astounding.

Challenging Creative People Make for Better Project Deliverables

I developed my project management and leadership bona fides in an organization where you didn’t have the chance to simply drop people from the project team. It was my job to create excellence from the people presented, no matter their technical or interpersonal skills. While you may operate in an environment where you can vote challenging people off the team at the first sign of resistance, don’t.

Leadership isn’t about eliminating dissent in a team, it’s about forging a team that accepts and thrives on supportive dissent. What’s that? It is dissent intended to challenge or eliminate group-think and to ultimately lead the project team towards delivering the best quality design that meets scope, schedule, cost and quality. This isn’t going to happen in a homogeneous team where no one questions the design approach or unique risk mitigation strategies.

It’s important to have a status-quo-challenging creative person on the team. It is equally important to ensure that you set parameters, expectations and keep the creative team member on vector.

How to Lead a Creative Team Member for Team Success

In my mind, project leadership entails maximizing the effectiveness of each person on the project team. Most situations will not give you the luxury of selecting each member of the team, so you will be faced with forging an effective team with the people you’re assigned.

Even in situations where you recruit and hire specific team members or bring in outside consultants, you can miss the challenging personality trait and be faced with a challenging personnel problem.

Short of kicking the challenge off the team, let’s consider some actual leadership actions you can take to set up the creative person and entire project team for success:

Establish Expectations Early. Have a one-on-one meeting with the person to explain the norms of behavior, language, etiquette, and meeting protocols. If necessary, set up some type of sign that you give the other person when they are starting to agitate or stir the pot too much – e.g. tugging your left ear lobe or saying a phrase like “that’s interesting” while you stare directly at them.

Main point: ensure they know you will not tolerate disrespect of your project team members.

Prepare the Project Team for Personalities. If you know that a particular incoming project team member will be a personality challenge, don’t surprise the project team. For instance, let’s say you have a design or engineering consultant attending an upcoming charrette who you know to be a challenging personality.

It’s incumbent on you as the project manager to make the project team aware and to let them know why this person is being brought in. Talk about how you’ll react, as a team, to awkward situations (e.g. hot tempers or open challenges to opinions or technical ideas) so everyone is prepared.

As the project manager, visualize how you will react to these situations and at what point you’ll intervene to call a coffee break. Main point: prep the team for the personality and keep your eye on delivering a successful project.

Set a Strict Agenda in Meetings and Charrettes. If you have a full-time project team member who is a personality challenge, ensure meetings are run with a very strict agenda. This means both topical (what is discussed) and time (how long).

Don’t allow a meeting to run any longer than scheduled and if the challenging personality starts to pontificate or derail the meeting, give them the “sign” the two of you established in your one-on-one. If that doesn’t work, simply tell the person that the issue at hand will go “off-line”, meaning it will be discussed outside the current meeting. If you have a temporary team member participating in a charette, such as a consultant or individual on loan from a different division, consider having an outside facilitator run the event.

This person needs to be one with the skills for working with creative designers or engineers, and thus understands how to manage technical personalities and still deliver highly effective results.

When All Else Fails, Document. Not every situation with challenging people works out and you need to be prepared for this. That preparation starts with documenting the individual’s outbursts, inability to work collaboratively, or other instances of friction.

Be certain to highlight what the specific, negative impact is to the project in each instance. You can’t simply indicate that on “Tuesday at 3 p.m., Ted was a jerk”. Be specific and concise, while also being unemotional.

The reason you’re documenting is so that you have a record of performance you can use in private consultation with the challenging individual. If the person is part of your company, make certain that the individuals supervisor (and yours) are informed of the general situation as it develops.

Bad news isn’t like a fine wine, it doesn’t get better as it ages.

Limit Contact. Depending on your project, you may be able to limit the number of people who have to work directly with the challenging person. For instance, let’s say your project has multiple sub-components.

An outside consultant with a challenging personality is only involved in one of these sub-components and that only involves three members of your ten-person project team. Don’t expose everyone to challenging person! Limit the friction and keep the team moving forward.

When All Else Fails, Fire the Person. If, despite your best leadership efforts you can see that the project may fail because of the friction the challenging person is generating, sack them. Terminate their project team membership and ship them back to their division or terminate their contract.

If the individual is part of your company, and you have been documenting performance and sharing your concern with their supervisor, arrange a meeting with HR and their supervisor to close-out the situation. If the individual is an outside contractor, terminate the agreement with specific details on why and the negative impact on the overall project.

In the end, successful, challenging projects require subject matter experts who themselves can be challenging. Effective project managers expect that some people will bring challenging personalities into the project team and visualize how they will handle these situations. Treat this preparation just as you would treat developing risk mitigation strategies. By doing this, you will be prepared for channeling the creative energy people bring to the project while at the same time minimizing the potential for collateral damage that might derail your project.

Looking for more project management and career advice?

How Manufacturers Can Gain Competitive Advantage Through Servitization

In a fiercely competitive global market, manufacturers’ product margins face increasing pressure, forcing them to look for ways to differentiate their businesses. Many are going down the servitization route, a digital transformation that enables them to provide services and solutions that supplement their traditional product offerings.

It also means gaining a better understanding of customer needs by forging closer working relationships with them, overwhelmingly the main reason for adopting servitization, according to the 2016 Annual Manufacturing Report. Three quarters (74%) of manufacturers surveyed cited their main reason for offering servitization was to build “closer relationships with customers”. Almost half, (46%) were seeking to boost profitability through the provision of added-value services, while 44% were looking to increase revenue.

This transition from making goods to selling services represents huge change that creates major challenges for many traditional manufacturers, as their product effectively becomes the platform from which to deliver those services. For some, the solution will lie in developing product-service systems, combinations of products and services, to deliver the outcomes their customers want and value. They will also need to bring in new technologies.

[Further Reading: 5 Project Management Trends for Manufacturing Teams to Watch in 2017]

A study on the future of servitization, carried out by the University of Cambridge, found consensus among capital equipment manufacturers (CEM) on five key technology requirements to enable servitization in the future. These included predictive analytics to anticipate specific failure modes, remote communications to resolve issues from a distance, consumption monitoring to create customer-specific service offerings, pushing information to employees, suppliers, sub-contractors and customers via mobile platforms or the internet, and mobile platforms to access business software remotely for maintenance techniques, production outputs, etc.

Servitization involves digital transformation on a massive scale, and not surprisingly it has created a huge demand for project management skills.

[Further Reading: How to Be a Project Team of the Future]

There are plenty of examples of manufacturers that have been successful in moving to servitization, including Rolls Royce, which famously stopped manufacturing aero engines and instead contracted with customers for its ‘power by the hour’ service. In this model, the customer buys the power that the engine delivers, and Rolls Royce provides all of the support to ensure that the aero engines can continue to deliver that power. It was a seismic shift in business model, but the result was a much closer alignment between the interests of the customer and the provider.

Rolls Royce is the poster child for servitization, contracting with customers for its ‘power by the hour’ service.

In its manufacturing heyday, global technology firm IBM was churning out a range of products, including computers, data storage devices, and software. It also offered a number of services, including networking and related services. When the company began to flounder in the early 1990s, it switched strategy and focused on its services, which included supplying integrated IT solutions to business. The result? IBM became a one-stop shop IT service provider, a move that strengthened its position in the market.

Of course, these global enterprises have the internal resources needed to make the switch from product to service focus.

Can smaller manufacturers achieve the same? Many already are, selling products that are combinations of manufactured goods and services. In the digital age, however, the servitization journey is largely driven by new technology that will take them beyond the bundling of manufactured consumables and spare parts with scheduled product maintenance tasks to forging much closer relationships, some would say partnerships, with their customers, where they know in real time what they need, and can respond in real time to provide it.

For many traditional manufacturers this presents challenges that require the digital skills and expertise of project management professionals to facilitate their transition to a servitization model.

Modern technologies, particularly in the project management and ERP (enterprise resource planning) spaces, are great enablers of this. In some organizations, effective servitization relies on the use of sensors embedded in products, so IoT applications and platforms will have a role to play in this process.  They will need the capability to record and control the services they are offering, which requires data analytics expertise.

Successful project managers are already using technology as an enabler for delivering successful servitization projects, achieving maximum efficiencies in the process, delivering the best outcome for the manufacturer and their customers.

[Further Reading: How Contract Manufacturing Teams Keep Up With the Speed of Innovation]

There are many business benefits of switching to a servitization model; the most obvious being the opportunity to increase revenue streams from selling services as well as selling manufactured products. Delivering consistently well on service contracts will boost customer loyalty and retention and create further opportunities for upselling of additional products and services.

There are also potential risks. Moving to a servitization model needs the buy in of leadership, and that can require a significant shift in corporate mindset – designing services is quite different to designing products – as well as a shift in culture, from ‘make it, sell it’ to ‘support it throughout its business lifecycle’. Investment in skills training may be required to ensure that staff can deliver a customer-centric service, and there is always the possibility that customers may initially be deterred by a new offering, which comes with different contracts and payment models, etc.

If they are to survive in a global market, manufacturing companies need to increase their competitiveness. Servitization is seen by the industry as an effective way of doing that, with a third (33%) of manufacturers polled by the 2016 Annual Manufacturing Report citing it as a means to “shut out the competition”. Around a quarter (26%) see it as a route to improve competitiveness through faster product development and a smaller proportion have identified it as a way to improve cost monitoring and management.

With the right resources available, integrating value added services into their full portfolio offerings would enable manufacturers to achieve these business objectives, but also to become successful digital businesses focused on the complete customer experience.

Time Tracking Woes? Blame Your Tool, Not Your Team

Does your team struggle with time tracking? Your tool might be to blame.

As a project manager, you clearly see the benefits of time tracking. It allows you to monitor the cost of projects, accurately bill customers, and forecast future project timelines.

But getting your team to feel the same appreciation for timesheets? Well, that can be a challenge.

If you’ve sang the praises of time tracking but your team isn’t listening, it may be time to dig deeper to get to the bottom of the issue.

Read on to understand how your tools and processes could be holding your team back and what you can do to fix the problem.

1. Your outdated tools weren’t built for today’s workforce.

In a world with self-driving cars and supercomputers that can win Jeopardy, why are so many still completing timesheets by hand?

Outdated technology is one of the most common issues that teams face, says Geoff Hash, an employment law attorney. In his practice,Hash sees a number of cases related to wage and hour issues, specifically issues related to tracking time.

“The technology that is made available to employees is not keeping up with their workstyles,” he says. “For example, I have a lot of [clients] that have remote employees now, but they don’t have online timekeeping systems.”

Some of his clients still use punch clocks and written timesheets. In this age of multitasking, that can be problematic, says Hash. “People don’t track time while they are actually working a project, and time gets lost. That’s lost revenue for the employer and potential lost income for the employee.”

2. You have a tool, but your team doesn’t know how to use it.

Hash has seen companies invest money in a tool, but never train their employees how to actually use it. That’s problematic for obvious reasons. “Training is a big component,” he adds. “Often times, employees, especially hourly employees, don’t have an understanding of what the expectations are.”

3. Your team fear retribution from management.

Another barrier to accurate time tracking is fear of judgement, says Hash. “Employees are afraid they will be criticized if they spend too much time on a certain project or if they’re working overtime.”

That leads to not reporting time accurately, even if that means they won’t be paid for the work. Employees too often have a mindset of, “If I go over what my boss thinks is reasonable, I’m going to get dinged.”

4. Your team thinks timesheets are a waste of time.

Having to recall how every minute of the day was spent can be incredibly time-consuming. Ironic, considering time tracking is supposed to boost productivity.

How to Remove Bottlenecks and Make Timesheets Less Painful

1. First, seek your team’s perspectives.

When blogger and community manager Chad Renando asked employees at his studio about timesheets, he discovered that: his team was frustrated with the tracking interface; multitasking made accurate tracking a challenge; employees did not know which task to assign the time to; and oftentimes, they didn’t have enough time to record their work.

With this feedback in hand, he was able to pinpoint and systematically resolve the issues. And, surprise surprise, timesheets became less of a pain.

As you’re having these conversations, listen for clues. Is the software difficult to use? Is the process time-consuming? Note which issues continually come up in conversations and make a plan to remove these barriers.

2. Audit your timekeeping processes and software.

Have you documented the beginning-to-end process for your team’s timesheets? It may be more time-consuming than you think.

When I was working the agency trenches, my process went like this: Throughout the day, I’d track my time in 15-minute increments on a printed spreadsheet. Sometimes I’d get caught up in the whirlwind that is agency life and miss a few hours. Then I’d have to go through my emails and meeting calendar and take a guess at how long I spent on each task. (Bad, I know. But it happens.)

On Friday, I would open our time entry software, add up the totals from my spreadsheet, and manually enter the time. Every task had a unique client and project number. If I didn’t know the numbers, I’d have to search my email or track down the account manager. Sometimes I’d have more than 20 different jobs I’d need to track time to.

I usually blocked off 90 minutes every Friday for this manual entry. That’s in addition to the time I spent during the week. At the rate I billed, those two plus hours each week added up to more than $300 each week, $15,000 every year.

These types of inefficiencies could be lurking in your own team’s process. Conduct an audit to identify bottlenecks and the issues that are preventing your teams from reaching optimal timesheet efficiency.

3. Automate, automate, automate your process.

What would have made my agency process faster? Automation. Timers that run in the background make it easier to track time as employees switch tasks.

At LiquidPlanner, I’m tracking time again, but it’s much easier than my agency days. No pen and paper required. When I begin a task now, I start a timer in LiquidPlanner. That timer is connected to the task I’m working on (no more searching for job numbers!). When I’m done with that task, I turn off the timer. The time is automatically added to my timesheet and tracked within the task. I track as I work, and it’s directly tied to the projects I’m working on.

See how LiquidPlanner makes it easy to log and report time→

There are hundreds of time tracking tools out there. The key is finding one that meets the needs of your team, is easy to use, and won’t add unnecessary work to your team’s plates. If you’re looking for ideas, check out Zapier’s comprehensive rundown of the top tools on the market.

4. Review the data with an open mind.

As Hash said, fear of judgement is often a top barrier to accurate, completed timesheets. Instead of jumping to conclusions, managers need to take a step back and observe the larger picture. For example, if someone is working overtime week after week, it may be an issue with staffing and not that particular employee, says Hash. It’s on the employer to evaluate the overall project needs and match the project with the right skill levels.

5. Tie timesheets to a greater mission.

Let’s all just agree right now that timesheets aren’t fun, okay? No one wants to do them. To motivate your team team to complete them, you need to tie it back to a greater mission. Explain how timesheets help the company make money or cut out inefficiencies. And explain why these things are important to your employees, e.g. they get a paycheck.

At my agency, every employee had a coaster on their desk that read, “Do great work. Bill great work.” Every time I sipped my coffee, I was reminded of how every 15-minute increment I recorded contributed to the agency’s profitability.

Project managers — what strategies have helped you motivate your team to track time?

Looking for more project management tips and advice? Check out this eBook by PM expert Elizabeth Harrin.Over 30 pages, you’ll get Elizabeth’s take on a range of project management and workplace topics, including:

  • Ways to get more resources for your project.
  • Strategies for juggling multiple project tasks
  • How to manage a micromanager
How to Manage Chaos: Advice on Project Management and Workplace Conundrums

7 Steps to Build a Continuous Improvement Culture

Kaizen is not flashy, nor instant. But it can have a profound impact on your business. Lean expert Andy Crowe offers seven steps to get you there.

After World War II, new theories about quality began to be implemented. Many of these ideas were brought to Japan and embraced by the country as it rebuilt in the years after the war. These ideas would ultimately change manufacturing and the world.

“Continuous improvement” was one of these ideas. The Japanese distilled the essence of this idea to a single word: “kaizen.” It is a quality philosophy that includes improvement of the product, the processes the design and produce them, and the way the teams carry out those processes.

For example, the old way would take a product, get it into its category, optimize the process, and sit back and make money. In fact, we even talk about mature products as being a “cash cow.” Or, something you milk for cash as long as it produces.

Kaizen, however, is part of a different way of looking at things. A product or a process will likely never be “good enough.” As the name implies, the goal is to never stop improving.

This idea can make a tremendous difference in the product you manufacture today and how you do it. But what if your company doesn’t practice kaizen? In this article, we will explore seven ways to create a culture of continuous improvement in your organization–even if you’re starting from scratch.

It’s important to remember that changing the culture of an organization is notoriously difficult. Companies are (in)famous for starting an initiative and then quietly abandoning it, and that is especially true for something like continuous improvement.

Kaizen is not flashy, and it’s not instantly transformative. It takes time to implement, and the benefits realization can sometimes be agonizingly slow.

This isn’t just some new initiative. It’s a culture change, and changing the culture is one of the most difficult things a leader can undertake.

In the 1990s movie “What About Bob”, Bill Murray plays Bob, a man paralyzed by decisions until his psychologist suggests that he practice “baby steps.” While this strategy backfires for the psychologist, those looking to implement a culture of continuous improvement will benefit from the advice.  It takes baby steps.

If you are ready to try to implement a culture of continuous improvement in your organization, these seven steps will help you get there.

  1. Commit throughout the organization. That is a big part of what makes this work. It’s not just the people at the top or the bottom of an organization that make continuous improvement possible. There is no more “us and them” mentality. Everyone needs to be moving toward the same goal.
  2. Make kaizen part of the new routine. At some automobile factories, small teams meet before work each week to talk about one tiny change they are going to try to implement in order to improve their process. Continuous improvement is something that needs to be revisited regularly. The routine is key to sustaining it.
  3. Tie it back to everyone’s job. Some people will almost certainly look at this as just one more new initiative that they simply need to outlive. To take it seriously, they may need to incentivized.
  4. Measure the results. (If it’s done right, these should be positive, and these are usually cumulative). Continuous improvement is metrics-driven. This means that terms like good, bad, and better become very objective. Continuous improvement works, but it takes time. It’s like saving money: at first, the benefits (e.g., interest) you earn is barely noticeable. But once you have enough, the interest income starts to add up. Before long, you are earning interest on your interest.
  5. Communicate. Unlike some initiatives, you may not have quick wins. It will probably take time, because continuous improvement is not instantly transformative. Keep everyone aware of what is going on while you are waiting for the results to speak for themselves.
  6. Be deliberate and patient. Creating a culture of continuous improvement is an exercise in demonstrating continuous improvement. You need serious commitment and sustained energy. Many of us make a practice to look for the quickest, highest value wins. Kaizen is more like the effect of oceans on the beach. It’s relentless and disciplined. It can take time to produce the results that many organizations want. A company with this kind of mindset may not be completely ready for kaizen. Also, keep this in mind: even if you have a healthy organization, it will likely be resistant to change.
  7. Repeat. These are baby steps, and this is the real heart of continuous improvement. Go over these steps again and again. This is continuous; you will never really be finished.

Creating a culture of continuous improvement will not only help make the product better. It helps make the teams and the organizations better, and like compounding interest, the benefits keep coming.

Looking for more tips to help you save time, increase productivity and motivate your team? Check out our guide, “5 Practical Habits for Today’s Project Manager”, as well as our productivity toolkit.  

5 Practical Habits for Today's Project Manager

eBook: How to Manage Chaos: Advice on Project Management and Workplace Conundrums

Every month, project management expert Elizabeth Harrin fields readers’ questions about the challenges, risks, and rewards of project work on the LiquidPlanner blog.

We’ve compiled our favorite columns in this eBook. Over 30 pages, you’ll get Elizabeth’s take on a range of project management and workplace topics, including:

  • Ways to get more resources for your project
  • Strategies for juggling multiple project tasks
  • How to manage a micromanager


Download “How to Manage Chaos: Advice on Project Management and Workplace Conundrums.”


What Does a Project Management Tool of the Future Look Like?

We’ve been reading and writing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution—or Industry 4.0. Radical technological advancements combined with manufacturing are taking us into an exciting future: robotics, automation, 3-D printers. As a result, productivity is predicted to be on an upswing, even though manual resources aren’t keeping up. This translates, for some teams, into doing more with less.


Whatever your current situation, productivity is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Everyone’s trying to produce a lot of meaningful work. As a consequence, project management tools are going to have to reinvent themselves to keep up with the speed of doing business. Using static spreadsheets and other platforms that require manual updates aren’t supportive enough or agile enough to keep teams competitive and ahead of the curve. Instead, you need a new world tool to support the new industrial revolution.

What does an Industry 4.0 project management tool look like?

  • Flexible and nimble
    Smart software moves with the unpredictability inherent to manufacturing projects—and moves work forward.
  • Schedules automatically update
    No more time-consuming manual updates. The new world demands software that keeps up with every project change along the way.
  • Radically collaborative
    All team members and teams have an unprecedented ease of communication and project tracking to see the small and big picture at all times.
  • Data driven
    Every touchpoint of progress creates a rich vault of project data used to make important decisions—even on the fly.
  • Supports more innovation, less administration
    Smart software trades in the time-consuming job of wrestling project schedules for strategic thinking and using skillsets in meaningful ways.
  • Lets you track progress and allocate resources in real time
    Software of the future integrates availability into schedules—to show managers who’s working on what and make the needed adjustments

In our latest eBook, “Are You Ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?” we take a look at it means to thrive in Industry 4.0, and what tools are necessary to keep up with new world market demands. We’re going there right along with you!

Are You Ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

How to Succeed in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Vector illustration. Turning oil barrels into gold bars.

Many organizations and their teams aren’t prepared for the future. We’re talking about a future that’s being heralded as the Fourth Industrial Revolution: an exciting time where technology-meets-manufacturing to change the way we work and live.

Every industrial revolution throws the incumbent modes of productivity into turmoil. Take the First Industrial Revolution for example. The transition to move from an agricultural economy to an industrial one started in 1760 in Great Britain and took more than a century to roll out in the U.S. Going from hand-made to machine-made products ushered in a new age of increased productivity—and created a higher standard of living around the world.

And now we’re on a new Industrial brink. We’re entering an age of customizable mass production; where parts travelling between factories all over the world could be a thing of the past. Instead, Industry 4.0 could evolve into smaller regional factories that will mass produce made-to-order products—requiring fast and flexible processes to keep up with demand.

Change brings with it an awakening to a new way of doing things. Then comes the transition process. And then it’s time to adapt. “Adapt or perish,” said H.G. Wells, the father of science fiction.

Using the New Tools to Solve New Problems

There will be requirements to adapt to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Business leaders need to be ready and teams need to use responsive software in order to keep up with new world challenges. A problem that many companies are struggling with right now is that current project systems can’t manage the influx of productivity that Industry 4.0 demands of us.

Here is what’s needed to succeed in the new world of doing business:

Agility and speed: Time will move exponentially, not linearly. Automation of assembly line at warp speeds.

To accomplish more with fewer people: AI, robotics and automation will perform repetitive jobs. Already, studies are showing that as we head into a period of increased productivity, employment is down.

Only the lean and mean will survive: Cutting costs and maximizing growth is the name of the game. In a recent LiquidPlanner survey with over 100 manufacturing companies, one of the top initiatives for business was to cut costs and drive growth.

Flexible processes: Some futurists are predicting that factories will be smaller, more agile. Scale will give way to customization at a mass production speed.

Are you ready?

In our latest eBook, “Are You Ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?” we take a look at what this revolution is made of; what it means to thrive in Industry 4.0, and what tools are necessary to keep up with new world market demands. We’re going there right along with you!

Download the eBook now!
Are You Ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

4 Ways Project Management and Lean Manufacturing Speed Up Processes

lean and project management intersection

Lean manufacturing has become a popular way to eliminate waste, reduce costs and improve efficiencies. This philosophy originated, largely, at Toyota and is used to better align customer needs with manufacturing operations.

The challenge with lean is that, despite its attraction to many executives who want to cut costs and increase productivity, a lean process doesn’t happen overnight. There are plenty of obstacles to overcome—obstacles that are almost identical to the challenges of implementing projects successfully.

Even though lean and projects have these implementation challenges in common, my clients waste quite a bit of effort debating whether lean and project management can work together, or whether they’re at odds with one another. Of course, this conversation goes against the point of lean—to eliminate unnecessary waste—yet it occurs frequently. After 25 years of leading manufacturing operations, implementing lean principles and conducting hundreds of projects, I can assure you that the opposite is true:

Lean is supported by the basic tenets of project management.

The intersection point: a vast opportunity!

There is a point of intersection for lean and project management that will deliver substantial bottom line business results—growth, profit, cash and margin. But there has to be a level of commitment for this to work. Lean requires continuous, short spurts of excellence in execution and focus to accomplish results. To achieve this goal, you need resources, team involvement and collaborative goals. The reality is that most lean programs fail as executives lose interest.

Instead of creating these lean execution systems from scratch and letting the excitement wear out before meaningful success, the most successful organizations leverage an already-existing base that springs from project management fundamentals. Strangely enough, teams rarely follow this path because they think that lean and project management cannot play in the same sandbox. Those companies are losing out on a vast opportunity!

How do you take advantage of this opportunity? By knowing when lean and project management approaches work together, rather than in opposition. Here are four examples of how lean manufacturing principles and project management approaches intersect, and make your process faster and better:

1. Focus on the customer

One of the most important aspects of lean is the focus on the customer. Instead of creating elaborate systems to figure out demand, the idea is to find the most direct route to the customer and pull the demand. Here, “customer” doesn’t necessarily mean the end-user customer; lean principles view the customer as the next person to receive your work. Your customer can also be the person on the line if you’re a support role to the line (thereby including management). In other words, focusing on the customer can flip thinking upside down.

My most successful projects followed this same rule. When following the critical path, you should be thinking of what your customer (next person on the critical path) needs and when they need it by. Ask yourself: “What can I do to provide value within this critical path and how can I make sure work continues to move (flow) through the critical path?” These are project management principles.

2. Focus on value

Another of the key tenets of lean is the focus on value. Instead of getting caught up in non-value added yet wildly popular fads of the time, the idea is to focus on what will create value. Actually, lean manufacturing in itself is sometimes viewed as a fad. For example, I’ve had clients who want to implement lean principles, and at least 60 percent of the time these executives see it as a quick fix: Coordinate a few kaizen events, and the company will be in great shape. This is never a successful strategy!

Project management is the same. Spending days on project charters, complicated project plans and different resource task lists is useless if value is not at the crux of the plan. In project management, the key is to focus on the critical path. The critical path will align with those tasks providing value that will add up and achieve your end objective. Following the critical path aligns with how to implement the future state value stream map.

3. Be more Agile

Agile is at the intersection of lean and project management. An Agile approach allows you to break down lengthier projects with complex components into reasonable chunks. Agile yields a quicker process, as you’ll gain rapid feedback on the first chunk of work (which could relate to a milestone), rather than waiting to the very end and making complicated changes to the finished product. With Agile, you can incorporate continuous feedback into each chunk of work, or sprint, so that you continually improve the process as you go along.

In lean manufacturing, this same principle applies as you perform a kaizen event. The objective is to have a reasonable and achievable amount of work that will provide an end result that aligns with a step towards your end objective within a short period of time, typically a week. Once you perform the first chunk, you incorporate feedback and lessons learn into the next chunk. As chunks are added, layers of complexity are achieved. The bottom line is that smaller batch sizes of work are performed in an iterative fashion for the most successful lean and Agile approaches.

4. Give projects visibility

Lean manufacturing programs are known for making the process and associated metrics visible. For example, an aerospace manufacturer client I worked with had lead times of 6 -13 weeks involving several operations. It was complicated but critical to know if they were behind schedule long before the item didn’t ship on time and showed on a past due list. Thus, we chunked the work load into smaller buckets and hung work order packets on the wall by the machine or machine group. This provided visibility into whether a certain group of machines were getting overloaded. We also put problem orders into a separate section so they were immediately visible to everyone. Last but not least, we started showing the age of the work orders with color coding. This enabled us to manage work orders successfully.

The same is critical in project management. I’ve worked on countless project plans with hundreds of pages. Who can keep track of all that complexity (similar to the piles of work orders at my client)? Thus, my most successful clients have found a way to communicate project progress in relatively equal chunks of work with clear progress towards objectives in a visual way.

Often, this is supported by a project management tool with visibility into schedule. The result is a clear picture of a simple timeline with critical milestones in weekly or monthly buckets—and effectively show progress visually. Tasks that are ahead of schedule or behind schedule pop out immediately so that action can be taken. And, importantly, tasks that have been idle (no progress for a period of time) can be color coded so they’ll emerge and be visible.

A strong partnership for projects

Using lean and project management approaches together can take your production process to the next level. Instead of wasting time debating whether these two approaches can work together, look for the common elements. I see lean as uncommon common sense. And, in my experience, the most successful projects also followed uncommon common sense. If you focus on putting the best of both of these methodologies together (customer, value, Agile and visibility), business-winning results will follow.

In our latest eBook, “Are You Ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?” we take a look at what it means to be lean and thrive in Industry 4.0, and what tools are necessary to keep up with new world market demands. We’re going there right along with you!

Download the eBook now!
Are You Ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?