Achieve knock-your-socks-off project performance in 7 steps

It's sad but true: Most projects are not completed on time and on budget. Lackluster project performance is about many things - unclear goals, under funding, low technical skill - but first and foremost, it's about lack of leadership. Here are seven actions that leaders can take to boost project success: 1.


It's sad but true: Most projects are not completed on time and on budget. Lackluster project performance is about many things - unclear goals, under funding, low technical skill - but first and foremost, it's about lack of leadership. Here are seven actions that leaders can take to boost project success:

1. Make a compelling business case for project management.

Team energy is best harnessed by clearly communicating the value of the project to the team. When a life sciences company found that projects were invariably completed behind schedule and over budget, management instituted a new approach to project management - one that demonstrated the value of project work. Every new project received formal senior management buy-in and was assigned a high-level manager as a sponsor. In the first year, on-schedule projects increased from 56.4% to 90%.

2. Make project management practical and value-added. Organization leaders must ensure that every team member sees the project management process and goals as practical and realistic.

The staff and contractors at a nuclear power plant were taking too long to complete maintenance during periodic shutdowns, resulting in unplanned millions of dollars being spent to purchase power from other sources.

Management implemented a project improvement program to improve the next - and all future - planned maintenance shutdowns. Facilitators helped project teams prepare weeks in advance in workshops that addressed project management concepts, tools and techniques, and application. Actual work began in class and continued in the two weeks that followed each session. When the plant was shut down and the plan was fully implemented, the well-defined and planned maintenance projects were performed quickly and on time.

The plant was brought back online rapidly, minimizing the revenues lost while the plant was offline. This practical approach focused attention on the work, not the tools. Maintenance was completed with no incidents, in less time and at less cost than ever before.

3. Make project management an adventure in learning by doing.

Unless the organization's leaders build bridges from skill development to application, skill transfer will wither.

The director of research for a manufacturer of fine chemicals was concerned that its new-product development processes were largely ineffectual. Two key factors were sabotaging development efforts: Researchers lacked the skills to effectively and efficiently conduct projects, and they did not understand the process.

Management initiated a program to build the project management skills of those responsible for directing and driving new product development projects, and to establish criteria for screening potential products before adding them to the portfolio of new products. During training, research unit managers and research team members began applying their new skills to their major projects. After training, they were asked to develop project plans for their projects.

Research managers are now able to predict the project workload and have a new confidence in a their teams' ability to complete projects on deadline.

4. Make systems and procedures project-management friendly.

At a cold roll steel plant in which we worked, process improvement projects were never completed. Data on the number and scope of projects revealed that the amount of project work was growing. For 18 months, engineers hadn't completed a single project, because each weekend the unit manager would read technical papers and then assign another project to his already-overloaded engineers. Progress halted as the six engineers attempted juggling 48 simultaneous projects.

To improve conditions, management asked the engineers to demonstrate how much work the projects would entail and to develop a method for setting priorities. The unit manager, his direct reports, and the engineers met to compare how much each project would contribute toward accomplishing plant objectives. With this information, projects could be evaluated and prioritized. Engineers were asked to finish defining and planning the highest-priority projects on their list. Project management software helped create a master plan.

With this approach, the engineers began finishing key projects. Now, new projects are compared to the existing plan to set priority, identify overlapping or complementary work, determine resource availability, and, if needed, change priorities.

5. Make project management an all-around win.

Leaders must ensure that all those who are involved in projects benefit: team members, project managers, and those to whom they report.

Production crews at a manufacturing plant brought process-improvement projects to a halt when they saw more potential for problems than improvement. Process engineers would do research to identify an improved mode of production by changing production variables. They would design ways to implement changes on a particular line and use a computerized model at a local university to test and debug them. Then, they would schedule a trial to operate the production line in the new mode.

Usually, projects would flow according to plan until the trial phase. Then, production crews would identify potential problems with running under the changed variables and exercise their prerogative to drop the trial run from the schedule.

To keep the process improvement projects on track, the engineers and the production crews needed to work closely together. Engineers were asked to meet in advance with key members of the crew that would be running the trial and analyze potential risks to production. The crew, drawing on their knowledge and experience with the line, helped the engineers identify likely problems and plan preventive and contingent actions.

The approach was an all-around win. Improvement projects increased the capability of the production line to accommodate new products, increased throughput, and reduced material and equipment costs.

6. Make project management a continuous learning experience.

A manufacturer of household appliances had a production line consisting of 12 separate areas. Every two months, one of these areas would be shut down for maintenance for 36 to 48 hr. The work was planned and performed by ad hoc teams made up of plant personnel from many functions. Initially, the planning by project leaders consisted of high-level to-do lists. This superficial planning resulted in incomplete work and equipment that had to be operated past its lifetime.

To get project planning and production back on track, project leaders were required to complete formal project closeouts at the end of shutdowns and then plan for the next shutdown. During planning, production crew members met with unit management and key contractors to identify potential problems that could arise during shutdown and built preventive and contingent actions into the project plan.

After just two shutdown cycles, all work was done on time, on cost, and on performance.

7. Make success public.

Celebrate project success. Make good news travel fast, and before long there will be greater willingness to work on project teams.

The management of a large Australian producer of cement and associated products put a great deal of thought into unique ways to publicize success on projects among its five manufacturing sites and 1,500 employees. They decided to post project plans in a "war room," where they were visible to all who were involved in the project and to anyone else who stopped by the room.

Having the milestones and progress against them posted for all to see made it easy to engage in discussions about the progress of the projects-and to see and celebrate success as it occurred.

Author Information

John Ager ( ) is a master trainer and organization consultant and Holman T. (Cap) White ( ) is director, Leadership Development Institute, North America, for Kepner-Tregoe, Inc., (

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