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In my blog last week, I talked about contributions to the world of project management that we can glean from design thinking. This week, I want to focus on Kaizen. Kaizen is a Japanese term – meaning continuous improvement. To be more exact, Kai means change and Zen means good. There is a lot of crossover between design thinking and Kaizen. In this blog, I cover three specific areas for continuous improvement that can improve our projects.

How can people continually improve as individuals?

Hopefully, you work with teams of people who want to improve. If you have someone on your team who truly is in a rut (and you have made the decision to keep them on the team), and has no interest in personal improvement, these suggestions may not help.

For team members who are interested in improving themselves, here are three suggestions:

  • Start a book club on your team. You’ll have to gauge the level of reading interest on your team to understand what frequency works. Meet at the end of every book (or whenever you decide) – and enjoy a lunch or night out to discuss the book. Book clubs are like self-managing teams at work. They work best if you let them evolve according to the interests of the group.
  • Encourage people to sharpen their saws. Encourage  people on the team to spend a designated amount of time each week on activities that involve learning, reading, experimenting, and otherwise filling their brain with matters of interest. Encourage folks to write a paragraph on their most favorite article each week and disseminate. Just be careful that what everyone writes doesn’t add to the workload too much. The point is to encourage learning without loading people up with so much other work that they can’t get their project work done.
  • Lunchtime is a great time for conversation. Encourage team lunch discussions to explore areas of common interests. It can be about anything of interest to everyone.

How can teams continually improve their efficiency?

  • Track and analyze velocity. Velocity, in this case – a term borrowed from Scrum, is a measure of how fast work is progressing. Traditional project management uses earned value management (EVM), which I discuss here. Whether you use EVM, Scrum velocity, or have your own way to measure the speed at which your project is progressing, there may be opportunities to improve efficiency by analyzing velocity. To do that you have to start with tracking velocity.
  • Compare actual costs against budget at the activity level. Spending levels can reveal much about your project. To see what is going on, you have to track costs at the level of discrete activities that don’t overlap. That can be hard in business projects where there can be a lot of overlap and where people are working on multiple activities at the same time. It’s helpful here to distinguish between the little tasks, the bigger activities, and the entire workstream. Tracking costs at the smaller task level is just too much work for too little benefit. At the workstream level, tracking costs is much easier, but it won’t give you the insights. Tracking at the activity level gives you the most understanding for the least effort.
  • Analyze and track lessons learned. As you analyze efficiency, effectiveness, what has worked, and what hasn’t worked, document those lessons in some useable format. Pay attention to improving team effectiveness, particularly if you plan to use that team again.

How can teams improve the products they create?

  • Pay attention to feedback. The people who are using your product are key. Try videotaping them using the product. Watch what they do, as much as what they say they do.
  • Don’t pay too much attention to feedback. The now famous Henry Ford quote comes to mind. “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Teams and project leaders need to make themselves the experts. They need to know about the market, the competition, and the evolving trends. And then, teams need to weigh the all of that information in context with what they believe will make the product better.
  • Continually re-prioritize the backlog of work, so that you are working on the highest value work. Sometimes, there are activities on a project that simply must be done. You can’t prioritize putting in the kitchen appliances regardless of the value they will provide, without installing the wiring. Some activities are infrastructure activities. They do add value – it may be harder to assess. At the point that the infrastructure is in, then someone on the team has to prioritize the rest of the work, looking for the highest value. This is particularly true on technology projects, but it’s also true on change management projects. If you have a client, ask what will be of most value to your client now.

You can’t prioritize putting in the kitchen appliances without installing the wiring. Click To Tweet

Kaizen is about continual improvement. Sometimes, it is easy to get bogged down with doing the work, and to forget finding ways to do it better. It makes so much sense to always be looking for continual improvement, but so many teams miss that memo. Start 2017 right and sign up for our newsletter to get more improvement tips.