Are project tracking tools helping continuous improvement projects?
In June I presented a topic at a Project Management Symposium in Vienna which I believe many continuous improvement (CI) initiatives face at some point: “Are project tracking tools helping or complicating Continuous Improvement Projects?”
After the Symposium, when the hosting University of Applied Sciences BFI Vienna shared the pdf version of the presentation at their web page, it became apparent that without narratives, a lot of information was nearly lost or at least not complete.
That is why I decided to write the narratives down and share along with the presentation:
First time I encountered the question “Which tool to use to track projects” was almost 20 years ago when I joined Customer Productivity Program in GE Plastics. I was training and coaching B2B customers of GE Plastics in Central Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa to do improvement projects (At the Customer For the Customer). And every single one of them asked what kind of project tracking tool GE was using! (back then we had QPID, later named eQPID, and they now have QPTS – Quality Projects Tracking System).
Then, I moved to Mondi Group, where we started CI initiatives from scratch. Now, I was on the other side of the table and asking which tool to use? We ended up buying an off-the-shelf program (ProjX) and customized it to internal needs.
Later, in Western Union, we didn’t even think of developing or buying a tool, good old Excel and SharePoint was the solution.
Now, as an independent Lean Six Sigma trainer and coach, I see all possible solutions at my clients.
That 20 years gave me enough courage to get on the stage and share my experiences with the audience. But when the Symposium idea got real, I thought maybe the audience deserves more, and I started talking to my colleagues. I have done 15 interviews and got 45 responds to my online survey. What you will see in coming pages are thoughts of ~60 experts in this field from very respectable companies*. 40% have/had senior management positions, 70% Program Leader – MBB posts. Roughly 1/3 of them are consultants or were consultants at some point in their careers.
* Please note that I -on purpose- do not share the names of those companies as I got the professional thoughts and comments of the individuals but these might not reflect the formal opinion of the companies. Also note the people I talked to are either users of those tools or CI consultants - there was no solution (software) provider in the group. This document might serve as a summary of Voice of Customer for providers.
Starting in black and white: in the history, there were many great projects without project tracking software! The Egyptians built many Pyramids, the Romans constructed immense road and water systems, and the Chinese created the Great Wall without help from computers. So let’s face it: “tracking tools” are simply tools and only to be used if they add value.
How do you pick which tool to use in daily life? If you have a nail, you use hammer; if your challenge is a screw, you take screwdriver out of your toolbox; if you want to cut the bread, you find a knife… Now reverse the question: what is the need to use a “project tracking tool?”
That is exactly what I have asked my colleagues and here is the answer:
- Visibility / Transparency of projects
- Project portfolio management
- Ensuring project documentation
- Ease of reporting
- Accessibility of information
Also I did a slice and dice exercise after getting the survey results and grouped the respondents into three groups:
- Excel users
- Software users
In this question Excel users and Software users gave identical ranking for their needs.
Then, I asked the obvious next question: independent from your needs and expectations, where did you see the results and value add?
- Visibility / Transparency of projects
- Project portfolio management
- Ensuring project documentation
- Ease of reporting
- Best Practice Sharing
Now excel users and software users gave slightly different rankings but in the overall ranking, the top four were surprisingly the same as the top four needs. Only #5, “Accessibility of information” is replaced by “Best Practice Sharing”.
So, it is fair to say there is a balance between needs & expectations and the results and value add. But, that is only one side of the coin, we know getting a new software tool also means (1) investment and (2) new challenges:
“Investment” side is relatively simple: you need to invest
- Team resources (people)
Often forgotten is the 4th one: time of other people in the organization as you need to train the approvers (sponsors, finance people…) to teach what they should do, explain how to get reports from the tool and how to interpret them, align with IT people as you need them… and you need to repeat the same each time when there is a newcomer.
“Challenges” side is not as easy to foresee, but more interesting: All three groups named the #1 challenge as “Discipline of updating project information” – sounds familiar?
- Discipline of updating project information
- No tangible benefits of the tool for users
- User buy-in / acceptance
- Time requirements
- Customizing to internal needs
Meaning the equation is way more complicated than we think. There are many dimensions to consider.
Are the users happy?
When I asked if benefits justify the investment? I got good news for the software providers.
- 50% of software users fully agree. The other half agrees as well, but only partly.
- On the Excel side, 31% fully agree, 50% partly agree.
What about overall satisfaction?
- Software side scores better with 17% very satisfied and 67% somewhat satisfied
- Excel side has 63% somewhat satisfied and 31% somewhat dissatisfied
While changing gears, I want to highlight a best practice I learned during the interviews.
Avis Budget Group is a leading global provider of vehicle rental services which has more than 11,000 rental locations in approximately 180 countries around the world…
Avis is very advanced when it comes to Continuous Improvement. In one case, there was a small project in Frankfurt Airport which would generate $2,000 / year for the location. The “Change Unit” Team having the infrastructure and the mentality saw the opportunity and replicated the same improvement. Now, imagine if out of 11,000 locations, 100 replicate the same, you get $200K. If 1,000 replicate, you already reach $2M. Here is the power of using software, you can share the successes and multiply the benefits. And think of the person who did the small (!) project at Frankfurt Airport, she/he created a good $2M for the company.
With this approach, Avis addresses the top three challenges mentioned above and at the same time multiplies the project benefits.
The Avis’ CI program is obviously very mature as they also state “Energy, enthusiasm, innovative industry leadership and an ethos of continuous improvement have characterized the company for many years.” But not all the organizations are at that level. That brings us to another dimension: How do the needs change over the CI Program Life Cycle?
Easy to grasp that Pilot, Deployment, and Maturity phases are different in their nature, so do we really need a tool at all phases?
I have a clear answer for the Pilot phase:
If you are piloting the CI program, you have limited time to show results and proof to concept to get buy-in and go ahead. You have limited budget and limited people resources. You need to create miracles with this limited resources.
Remember a couple of minutes earlier, what we said about investment: Project Tracking Tools needs money, time and resources.
You need to set your priorities right: If you are in a pilot phase, just focus to get results. Stick to Excel or even a white board.
But for the Deployment and Maturity phases, the answer is not that crystal clear. There are many dimensions to consider here. I highlight the top four and add two tips.
- Location of team members
If your teams are collocated, consider yourself lucky and encourage the members talk to each other face to face. That is still the best way of communicating for the success of a project. If your teams are spread around in different locations, in different countries, in different time zones, an online tool might improve collaboration.
- Maturity of organization
Here we talk about project management maturity. If there is a formal PM job description and there are dedicated PMs, the chances are higher that they will use an online tool properly. If PM post is not defined or it is a part-time (even worse “add-on”) job or everything is called “a project” or everyone is considered as “a project manager”, consider using Excel.
Also, if leaders say they are supportive but you know they will not play their project roles, they will not approve toll-gates in the system, and will not use the reporting functions of the tool, but ask for special reports – better to use something basic. And if your organization is changing constantly, you will need to get the buy-in of new managers and train them after each change wave. Keep it simple.
- Nature of the business and projects
If your business has similar activities in various locations like car rental, hotel chains, or packaging production, it makes more sense to use a tool, at least for best practice sharing and knowledge transfer purposes.If the business is spread, but has specific purpose locations like two production facilities, one producing paper, the other plastic packaging, three small sales offices, and two warehouses, you better keep it simple.
- People factor
Last, but not least – and nothing to do with discrimination of any kind – if you are dealing with younger people, it makes sense to have an online tool or better still, an App. I met some weeks ago a young and successful PM in the financial industry in London.
He showed his brand new phone and added “if you are not in here, you don’t exist for me”. He is doing all his work through his “device” including finding his dates.
The chances are higher if you are working with a North European team that they use the tool versus a Mediterranean team (I can say that I am from the Mediterranean). A Moroccan Managing Director of a large international company during the interview told me that the project tracking tool they are using is restricting his freedom and an insult to his intellectual capacity.
Again, it is not discrimination, it is not who is right or wrong, it is knowing your people and what works best for them. At the end of the day, the tool is the tool, the person using it makes the difference.
Lastly, two tips if you decide to buy software:
1. Stand-alone vs Integrated tool: Get a tool which links your program and projects with the company’s strategy execution – not a stand-alone one. You should anyhow position your program as part of company’s strategy, and use all the means to support it.
In a similar manner, utilize the tool for formal documentation needs e.g. for compliance purposes, for ISO certification, for FDA or OEM audits. The tool can be used to store and to demonstrate your countermeasures and their results when something goes wrong – also to share that knowledge with the rest of your organization.
2. IT environment: First, IT is your key partner, not the enemy. Second, I did not see any organization where the IT team was not overloaded. If you want their attention, pay attention first. Involve them before buying the tool and listen carefully to their advice. Stick to the infrastructure they already use, try not to bring something completely new to them.
Also, consider data security. If you are in a sensitive business like financial services, you already know what that means (well I also thought I knew after 10 years in Western Union, up until I met a gentleman from Austro Control, the organization controlling Air Traffic over Austria).
Bottom line, each organisation and each CI program is unique. You should really do your homework before making a go – no go decision. A properly selected strong tool might help you to reach your goals, whereas a bad choice might create headaches more than anything else.
My last words
- A tool is only a tool, don’t expect miracles !
- A tool should add some value and/or make your life easier
- Your priority should be to get business results
- Great projects will be known by all, and poor projects won’t become better with a tracking system