Why Your Project Teams Need to Focus on Incremental Continuous Improvement
What is incremental continuous improvement? Some groups call it continual improvement. Most people think of continuous improvement as a process of focusing on doing better. While that is correct, I suggest that we also think of it as a mindset that can permeate the entire organization. Some people are always looking for ways to improve. Others are not. Encourage your workers to look for ways to improve. When suggestions come from your teams they are typically easier and cheaper to implement.
Put aside projects done specifically for the purpose of enacting a major change, which I wrote about in a blog on continuous improvement projects. There are two ways to think about continuous improvement: breakthrough and incremental continuous improvement.
Breakthrough continuous improvement is the process of making major changes. These typically take lots of planning and communication, as adoption of the change can be critical to its success. Incremental continuous improvement is the process of making small incremental changes that slowly add up to improved efficiency and effectiveness, and higher sales and/or profits.
While the concept of continuous improvement began as a way of improving manufacturing, it has since morphed into ways of improving all kinds of processes, including project management.
To build an organization-wide mindset of incremental continuous improvement, keep these seven tips in mind.
1. Motivation, by itself, is not enough.
Sooner or later, even with highly motivated teams, a project will get old, or hard, or just a bit boring. It happens at work, home, and in our communities. I’d like to believe that a very inspiring reason for the project and a motivated team is enough. Maybe sometimes it is. But in my experience, there are just times when motivation is not enough. And so, we need habits.
At regular Checkpoint and standing meetings, teams are focused on how they can embrace incremental continuous improvement. That focus can remind the team why they are working so hard on the project. These meetings are a time when weaknesses — whether in processes, procedures, or decision-making — come to light. Activities are more clearly understood before execution, and as problems and risks are identified earlier, waste later in the project is reduced.
2. People and teams are like plants; they’re either growing or dying.
As I mentioned, some people are simply not interested in improvement. It’s a sad reality that no one can change. But as teams that do show continuous incremental improvement are rewarded and gain visibility in the organization, there may be some peer pressure that helps.
As I have said to others, people and teams are like plants. Do you want to grow and thrive, or die?
3. High performing teams are more fun to work on.
As one who has worked on both high and low performing teams, I can attest to the fact that it’s just much more fun to work on a team when you are making progress, enjoying the work, and can get excited by those gains?
It’s not too different from the theater, ballet, or musical groups. There is nothing like the high of leaving a great rehearsal or performance. When the show is going well, there’s an energy that lights up the space. You can feel it in the audience’s applause.
It’s hard to capture this excitement when the performers don’t see the regular progress in rehearsals or when bad scenes or measures aren’t fixed. In manufacturing we might call this eliminating the bottlenecks. In Six Sigma, we might call it constraints and preach the need to eliminate the weakest point in the process.
4. Encourage a perspective of abundance, rather than scarcity.
Traditional project management often looks at resources from a perspective of scarcity. Project managers bargain with functional managers for the “best” resources (in this case, people) and may complain that they can’t get the people they need when they need them. It can be considered a badge of honor to be wanted by these feisty project managers who fight on behalf of their projects.
There is another perspective. When we change our mindset, we can view our projects and organizations with a sense of gratitude and abundance. Even in the most cash-strapped and resource-lacking organizations, viewing resources from the perspective of abundance refocuses the conversation from frustration to gratitude, from lemons to lemonade, from resource availability to available resources. Managing resources becomes a question of how creatively you can think, and how you value or treat your resources.
Think about how hardship forces companies to get creative. Businesses undergo complete pivots, often changing processes, procedures, and resource structuring. The less creative companies have often been forced out of business. How can you use your resources more creatively? And how can you build incremental continuous improvement into the process?
5. Build small wins and regular celebrations into your process.
To increase motivation on your teams, set up your sprints so that you can accomplish something meaningful every two weeks or so, depending on the nature of the project. Ideally, you are delivering something valuable to your client at the end of every sprint. Regular deliveries of something to the client will build energy and excitement. After all, returning to my artistic comparisons earlier, who wants to practice a symphony, ballet, or a play without performing it for the audience.
There is a reason that art, theater, and music teachers schedule frequent shows. There must be times in your growth when you feel like you’ve accomplished something big. The same is true of projects and business work. The same old song just gets boring after a while.
6. Communication is critical.
Whenever change is occurring, communication needs increase. How will you account for the communication needs in your project plan?
One reason that communication is critical is that there is always a risk that when you improve something in one area of a company that you harm something in another area. The only way to ensure that your changes benefit the entire company is to pay close attention to what others are saying as you issue your communications.
It’s not just about sending out the email telling people about a change, it’s about the conversations that you spark by that email. Talking with people is critically important and in these days of email, texts, Slack channels, and bulletin boards (both digital and analog), it’s easy to forget that communication is a two way street.
7. The quest to stay competitive demands it.
It’s very simple. As time marches on, and technology changes rapidly, it will be the companies that employ people who think most creatively, work together most effectively, and deliver the best results for their customers and clients who succeed.
Employees and any gig workers that they hire will be the key distinguishing feature that cannot be replicated by technology.
When you face decisions during the project journey, consider whether fear is driving your decision or whether you are excited about the next opportunities in the project. As you focus on the competition, are you seeing other businesses as sources of anxiety or are you seeing them as opportunities to focus your teams on growth and improvement?
How are you building a mindset of incremental continuous improvement into your organizations? If you are looking for more ideas, please read my book, Herding Smart Cats: Project Management Reimagined.