Do you want your organizational initiatives to be completed on Time?

If your strategic initiatives have made it a habit of being late or are falling by the way side, you may need to fundamentally relook at how you are managing them. More than 80% of all initiatives cleared in the boardroom do not see the light of day because they do not get completed on time. Ever come across a situation when the organizational initiatives are drastically pruned in the last quarter of the year, so as to try and complete the remaining few on time?

Treating your key initiatives as time bound projects and applying the principles of Theory of Constraints and its project management methodology, Critical Chain Project Management is the way that many organizations have found to significantly improve their On time or even before time completion of initiatives, thereby providing the sharp edge to their competitiveness. 

While strategies are usually defined in the boardrooms of large organizations, significant gaps emerge in implementing these strategies at the operational or the proverbial “ground” level. Initiatives derived from these strategies frequently do not see the light of day and the organization is back to square one . . .or even worse, on the eve of the next “yearly” strategy formulation session. Why does this happen? Let us examine a few reasons which will sound familiar:

  1. The linkage between the initiatives and the organizational goal of improved financial performance is either not robust or is so indirect or complex that there is little shared understanding and therefore buy in among the middle and junior executives, who are responsible for the implementation.
  2.  The initiatives are not clearly defined – who, what, when and how. Consequently, there is sometimes shared responsibility across departments, but no single entity that is clearly accountable for the implementation and the results.
  3. Balanced scorecards used to allocate these initiatives often encourage multiple initiatives and local optimization for each department or function. The Inevitable result is bad-multi-tasking with the same set of people taking up a number of initiatives all at the same time and then crisis fighting among them.
  4. There is no structured mechanism to monitor the progress of these initiatives. As a consequence, student’s syndrome, (last minute efforts) are prevalent, leading to sub-standard quality and incomplete scope of each initiative.

In this article, I propose that each strategic initiative be treated as a time bound project. While many readers of this article may argue that is exactly what is done in their organizations, I beg to differ. This is actually a myth. Project management needs a very specific and disciplined approach which is lacking in almost all strategy implementation efforts today. A dip stick research conducted by us across more than 50 medium and large organizations revealed that less than 15% of them have any kind of structured project plan in place for the initiatives embarked upon.

Resources required are not firmed up. Accountabilities are not identified. There are no clear “owners” and measurement either in terms of progress or impact on bottom line or top line is non-existent in the medium term. Milestones and decision gates are not transparent. The rationale for the initiative in terms of linkage with the organization goal of making more and more money is not obvious to the implementers. Finally, there is really no regular, frequent, periodic monitoring that progresses the initiative and facilitates removal of obstacles.

Just take the example of the New Product Development: function of most organizations and one can easily see what I mean.

Do they know what the impact of their initiative is in monetary terms (even within a wide range, given the uncertainty of introducing a new/modified product in the market)? Do they know how to prioritize among the numerous new product opportunities on the table? What is the time line committed and what is their past history of completion in time? Are there specific gates and events when key decisions have to be taken on continuing, discontinuing or course correction of an initiative? How are they incentivized to complete their initiatives in/before time? Is there a structured mechanism to monitor the progress of each initiative and to provide early warning signals in case of anticipated delays?

I propose below an overview of a step by step approach that can significantly improve the chances of successful initiative implementation in organizations:

I. Step 1: Project definition – determine the following clearly

  • The Why? How will this initiative contribute to the current Throughput improvement, Inventory reduction or Fixed expense control/reduction for the organization. By how much (an intelligent range is admissible).
  • The What? What key dimensions define the initiative – what are we going to do?
  • The How?

      i) How will we know if the initiative has been successfully implemented?

           ii)  What could make the initiative fail?

  • The Who? Which single entity/ person in the organization is accountable. He or she may subordinate resources from within or outside the organization but ultimately it is he or she who is going to stand up for the results. Such a person is usually the project champion.
  • The When? The final completion timeline for the initiative
  • Key Inputs. What are the key resources (both monetary and human) required to make the initiative successful.

This is also the Project Frame and needs to be clearly documented and aligned with the project sponsor – the person who is going to set the direction, provide the resources and facilitate the removal of obstacles and challenges. Such a person is usually from the top management. Now, and only now (and not before) can the  initiative be called a project.

II. Step 2 – Project Planning and structuring: This will use the Critical Chain Project management (CCPM) approach of Theory of Constraints (TOC) to enable a resource transparent, aggressive timeline for the project and set up the base for effective project monitoring.

  • Role of each key project resource: Each person involved in the project must have clearly defined tasks and roles for each he or she is accountable, although they can again subordinate resources from among each other or from outside the project system. Resource staggering is a part of this step to ensure that there are no in-built conflicts for resources. This will also highlight if too many projects are being run concurrently, leading to resource contention among projects. In that scenario, it is vital to stagger the projects by choking the start of some projects till the resources are freed up.
  • Stagger the task starts: Often enough we make the mistake of starting a number of tasks together, despite the fact that they require common, specialized resources. A very critical part of planning is to stagger the tasks in a single project and in a multi project environment, stagger the project starts. In case, there are a number of projects/tasks already running, an important planning activity is to freeze a significant proportion (thumb rule as  many as 50% to 75% tasks/projects to be frozen).
  • Aggressive Timelines for each task: As per the CCPM approach, excessive safety needs to be removed from the tasks. Aggressive timelines (usually 50% of the initially quoted task timelines) are incorporated into the project plan with a project safety buffer (half of the cumulative safety that has been removed from the tasks) at the end of the critical chain of tasks. The non-critical chain also had a similar feeding buffer to protect the critical chain from the non-critical tasks.
  • Decision Gates: If it is a project that necessitates key decisions to be taken at some points in the project life cycle, these need to be clearly defined, along with the accountability of who will take such decisions, what will be the basis for such decisions (parameters) and how the decision will be implemented within the project map.
  • Plan for Full Kit: Create the checklists for full kit for every task at level 1 and even level 2. These full kit checklists ensure that all inputs are thee in place before a task is initiated. Most of the rework or hold ups in a tack in a project are due to the lack of full kit. While the Full kit will be implemented in the execution phase, the necessary activity is to make comprehensive checklists at the planning stage.
  • Risk Register: Any project is vulnerable to extrinsic or intrinsic risks. In order to identify, plan for contingencies and execute the contingent plans, it is imperative to maintain a risk register from the planning stage itself

Prasun Chowdhury