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It has been almost ten years since I first started thinking about Smart Projex. The single biggest reason why this all began was that I was fed up with the project waste that I was regularly seeing. What did it take to reduce project waste? It was a question that led me to spend many, many hours dissecting entire project management processes and analyzing what is truly needed, and what can be discarded.

Whether you agree with me on the value of Gantt charts, standing meetings, duration estimating, the critical path method, or earned value management, I hope we can agree that we need to constantly look for ways to reduce project waste. And so, I offer five ways.

Clear project scope

I suspect that scope management has been a problem since the Great Pyramids were built. I can hear the Egyptians arguing over how to cut the stones, what size they ought to be, and where they should be stored. It’s the nature of humanity that people’s wants and needs evolve over time. And technological advances have certainly hastened the rate of change. This has made it imperative that we find a way to embrace change.

On many projects today, we begin with no clear understanding of what is really needed, or how to go about the work. Instead, we take it one step at a time – each step in response to the outcome of the previous step. But if that’s our approach to projects, then how in the world can we create a clear project scope? Is it even important?

I contend that your understanding of scope needs to be in line with the nature of your project. If you’re building an addition on your house, I’d strongly recommend waiting until you have a clear plan before beginning. I’ve seen homeowners go without a kitchen for months and months because they demolished their old one prematurely. Any contractor can tell you that changes to a construction project can be quite costly.

On the other hand, if your project is to create a new cancer drug, you truly may have to take it one step at a time and accept that there will be some waste. That’s the nature of trial and error.

Suppose you are creating a new website for your company, what do you need to nail down before you start building? I’d recommend getting the basic architecture down with before building. But as you see the home page take shape, I suspect you will make some changes. Little changes here are there are ok. It’s the costly one you need to avoid. And you can only do that by thinking ahead. For more on scope management, check out the blog I wrote about walking the line between scope management and flexibility.

Defined activity details

I typically recommend that project leaders use a work breakdown structure to outline new projects. Once you’ve identified your activities, the challenge is to get clarity on the details. How many times have you seen a list of project tasks and realized that no one really agreed on what each task description really meant?

Get clarity on what each task requires. Talk to the client, if there is one. Talk to your sponsor. Agree on the budget for each activity. That one step can make a big difference in your quest to reduce project waste.

Identify quality objectives

This is a step that many untrained project managers skip. Big mistake. In the project world, one popular phrase is that it’s cheaper to do it right the first time. If quality control is built-in, you’ll save the costs it will require to fix something once the project is done or still underway.

For the untrained, quality refers to the degree to which a deliverable meets the requirements. It does not mean that everything produced is of the highest quality. It means determining what quality is needed. Not every client can afford the highest quality on everything. This is true whether you are talking about software code, building construction, non-profit fundraisers, or advertising campaigns.

What matters is that you determine what is required on each activity through conversations with the client or sponsor. It doesn’t matter to me whether you call them requirements or quality objectives. Write them down, determine how you will measure compliance, and who will do that. Let’s take a few examples of how understanding quality early will help you.

Suppose you are the leader for an activity to create an auction brochure for a fundraiser. Are you supposed to produce a draft that then goes to a committee for review, or are you supposed to shepherd the document all the way into a glossy print publication?

Let’s say that you are the leader for an activity to finalize the kitchen appliances for a home renovation project. What does that mean? Are you supposed to order the appliances, submit an emailed list of the selected ones, or buy the appliances? Who else is supposed to sign off on the decision? Are you responsible for negotiating the price or availability?

And, if you are in charge of developing a new software feature, find out who is going to test the code, and how and when it will be done. For example, will testing be done by a client on the staging server, or on a production server? Talk about the impact the code release is likely to have on other related pieces of code.

Read more on quality management here.

Frequent client check-ins

This seems so obvious, but it is so often forgotten. While it takes time and energy to arrange schedules for check-ins, and also scary to show something that is unfinished, there is no substitute for walking through a project and getting first-hand feedback from the client. That’s why I often recommend a standing time and date for client check-ins. Every client is different. Ask them what they want. Avoid going longer than a month on anything that is moving forward, without a client check-in. The same is true of sponsor check-ins.

Stop doing what doesn’t matter

This is another place where you can make great strides in your effort to reduce project waste. What are you doing that is unimportant? Some years ago, I worked on a project where I was contractually required to send a weekly status report. That may have made sense when the project activities were moving at gangbuster speed, but after the pace slowed (for good reasons), it made no sense. And no one was looking at the reports. And they kept paying me to produce them. What a waste!

Are you spending a lot of time on Gantt charts or earned value reports for a project where durations cannot be fairly estimated, where progress can’t be accurately assessed, or where the environment is facing rapid change? That’s a huge waste of time.

Look around on your project. Talk to the people involved. Do what matters. Produce great work. Have fun. But don’t waste time doing things that don’t matter. You may be surprised at the number of opportunities to reduce project waste.

Share them in the comments. Maybe someone else will be inspired by your thoughts.