How do you ensure that one person doesn’t derail your entire project? Most of us have been there before, unfortunately. Maybe it’s a co-worker who doesn’t work well with the team. Maybe it’s your boss, who has to oversee every single decision even though he’s an overtasked bottleneck. Either problem poses a critical risk to your project: Delays, mistakes and rework because one person isn’t part of a streamlined process.
Probably the most difficult situation is the latter — a boss that’s too hands-on, or perhaps an external resource that is too busy, yet absolutely must approve every decision. The story usually goes something like this: He’s a great guy, pretty easy to get along with when it comes right down to it — but he’s also insufferably “hands-on.” He’s just got to review every critical decision, contributing, fine-tuning and tweaking until it’s just right. This micro-managing mentality is causing all kinds of bottlenecks: Decisions are held until the last moment, changes are made late in the game, and your entire department suffers — staying late to “catch up” after your boss delivers his final word on any given issue. But here’s the real kicker: He’s good at what he does, and even though it creates internal chaos the finished product is that much better for his input.
Consider the image to the right: A critical “quality spike” representing the single project resource that is overloaded. This resource does raise project quality, but the spike also represents a huge bottleneck to the project.
Your department has tried everything: Getting him involved earlier in the game (it doesn’t work, his schedule is booked and it always presses to the last moment); Involving other review sources so your boss’ input is minimized (that helped a bit, but the other sources don’t like it when your boss overrides their contribution); You tried publishing the “departmental cost” figures that show all this inefficiency (but the powers-that-be seem to feel this is “just the cost of doing business”).
This is not a simple problem. It gets right to the root of the dynamics created in working teams. How can the situation be improved, realizing positive gains in a habitually entrenched process that some recognize as painful, but overall is regarded as good enough?
There are really two issues that need to be dealt with here. One is obvious, one perhaps a little bit less so. Most strategies up until now have focused chiefly on the primary goal:
“How can we minimize the negative impact of a critical resource (our ‘hands-on boss,’ for example) that doesn’t work efficiently with your team?”
The problem with this approach is that it attacks an entrenched problem head-on, and often does so using a single head-on approach to solve the problem. When an attempt fails, that approach is discarded and another tried. The principle flaw here is that each attempt to solve the problem is, in and of itself, not effective enough to get the job done. A secondary flaw is that each separate attempt tends to get lost in the chaff of day-to-day operations. We all know there’s a problem, but nobody is really tasked with studying it, compiling the entire scope of the problem and its impact, and somehow bringing about a solution.
For example, when your department produced some figures on costs to the organization, those figures clearly showed that, through inefficiency, rework, and last-minute changes, your team suffered. You even went so far as to tie it to actuals, a dollar figure that represented all that overtime and rework — but, it was accepted as “the cost of doing business.” Since it didn’t work, it was discarded — but the fact is, it’s only part of the overall puzzle.
So the head-on solution won’t work. Let’s consider a more subtle approach to the problem:
“How can we make the critical resource less critical?”
This would achieve the same result, but it’s really an entirely different problem — one that can be attacked somewhat obliquely. Rather than focusing on how to change the way your boss works (aka “the critical resource”), try focusing on changing what your boss needs to work on.
The first step toward a solution is realizing that solving this problem is a project, just like any other. It needs a project lead and sponsor. It needs to be handled as an iterative project, and the team needs to recognize that incremental improvement toward an ideal is acceptable. You aren’t going to discover a single silver bullet that solves the whole problem — that’s just not the nature of human team dynamics.
Make it a project initiative
Once your “quality improvement project” is up and running it will snowball. Here are a few steps that will get the ball rolling:
- Initiate the project. Don’t think of this as a “workplace problem” that needs to be fixed in the short term. Instead, create a project initiative around it and get some mindshare going. Someone is going to need to lead the project, even if it’s unofficial — that person will keep the forward momentum.
- Focus on making many small improvements across the board. For example, in the case I described above, consider how involving other review sources did in fact help, but not always. That’s an incremental improvement, and it raised the quality of the project a little bit.
Now, consider the impact of this approach over time. If numerous improvements can be implemented, and each one raises project quality just a little bit, it has an inevitable outcome: Your boss is going to have less to worry about, and less to be involved in. This is shown visually in the second image — as the overall quality matrix delivers improvement across the project, the “critical spike” that represents your boss’ workload begins to shrink. This is a quality matrix at work.
The goal is simply this: Dilute the need for your boss to be involved in every decision, by raising the bar in as many places as possible. You will gain a “double whammy” by not only reducing the amount of work he needs to contribute to, but also by increasing his own efficiency since he’ll have less to worry about. The bottleneck will begin to dissipate.
Assemble your team
Get involvement from everyone that’s affected by the problem — your team, your peers, other departments that might be affected. Of course, part of the finesse in this kind of project is to make it clear exactly what problem you are solving without making the project sound subversive or offending the wrong people. Your boss may be a terrible bottleneck, but also remember how valuable he or she is — this isn’t about cutting him out of the picture, going around him, or changing policies you don’t like. It’s much better to focus on things like qualitative improvement, streamlining projects to avoid inefficiency, or developing lean principles. Make it positive, in other words.
Identify key risks
Your probably already know what the main pain points are. Your team experiences them all the time: Loss of productivity, overtime, last minute changes, introducing new errors, reworking something that could already be finished. These are the lesser symptoms of an endemic problem: What are the potential risks if the problem goes unaddressed? Certainly continued loss of efficiency, higher expenses to the company and lower employee satisfaction come to mind. Perhaps there’s even a trend of some team members transferring out of the department to find a better working environment. More dramatic effects can include missed product deadlines, problems with released products or lowered perception of the department’s attention to quality. All of these can have a real financial impact on the company.
Identify those risks that are most significant. Those should become the focal point for initial improvement. This is a “risk driven” model, where high risk is identified — in other words, the most painful or potentially painful result of the problem gets the most attention as early as possible. Generally it’s best to tackle a few things at a time. While the list of risks could be very long, if you try to solve every problem at once it’s going to be overwhelming.
Once you’ve identified the top few risks, pull together your project team and identify candidate solutions. You’re designing something new here, so it’s going to seem like brainstorming — which is exactly what it is:
- Can more attention from outside experts improve the overall product, lowering your boss’ need to be involved?
- Would the quality assurance organization be a helpful partner in achieving this?
- Could changes in the project timeline better accommodate your boss’ hectic schedule? Perhaps driving for earlier involvement (or longer project schedules) would help.
- Can the team multitask, effectively putting several critical paths into play so that if one gets stalled waiting for your boss, the others move forward?
- Would better tracking systems and information management help solve the problem? Perhaps your boss would benefit from a system that brings more organization and immediate answers directly to him.
- Perhaps greater visibility into the project timeline and reasonable deadlines would both improve responsiveness and provide some firm schedule guidance.
- Information radiators (such as task boards, timelines and assignment lists) might help keep people up to speed on overall project status (and what has moved from “medium” to “high” priority).
- A widely accessible system that assigns tasks and prioritizes those tasks would increase visibility of current goals as well as get everyone united about what needs attention first.
Every organization is going to discover different solutions that help its specific situation. It will likely take time to hit on the first few steps that move in a positive direction — but those are the ones you want to hang on to.
Include a quality improvement element
Organizations that have the benefit of a formal quality assurance and improvement group should try to leverage the group’s knowledge. Quality assurance is about auditing and measuring progress toward improvement. Most quality assurance groups tend to be very good at measuring improvement over time, and putting that knowledge to use will help in gathering metrics and identifying what’s working, and what isn’t.
Track your progress
Measure, act, measure again, and adjust. This is the heart of most agile development methodologies — and most scientific methods.
The most important thing to do is realize when improvement has taken place. That means tracking information — metrics — about your organization’s efficiency. This can seem pretty amorphous when dealing with a problem such as this. Remember that it comes down to improved efficiency of individuals. Some teams will have simple metrics that are easy enough to track, such as number of projects completed on a monthly or quarterly basis, or number of cases filed. When all else fails, the number of hours committed to rework is a great metric, because it tracks directly to risk identification and mitigation up front. That is, if you properly identify a risk and mitigate it early in the project, the amount of time spent in rework related to that risk goes down.
This is one reason it’s important to have everyone affected by the problem involved: It’s going to require everyone to look for these signs of improvement. It might even require tracking hours spent in rework. Fortunately, with the goal in sight (less time spent reworking and fewer overtime hours) it shouldn’t be too hard to commit people to some moderate tracking.
Gather metrics on what works and what doesn’t work. Emphasize incremental improvement as a desired outcome: Track the results of each effort, and keep the best practices. The important thing here is to demonstrate improvement over time, so that everyone sees each action as contributing to the solution, not as a failure in delivering the end result.
One of the most important goals in creating a project mentality is the positive group effect. Seeing each practice as part of a solution keeps it alive — as opposed to trying something and perceiving failure. As the team, department or company works together to deliver a solution it becomes a self-reinforcing effect. Even your boss might notice, and actively start to take part.