Back in the 1950’s, Dr. Edwards Demming was one of the main proponents of the Shewhart Cycle, more commonly known as PDCA. PDCA, which stands for “Plan-Do-Check-Act,” is a four-step management model that strives to promote continuous improvement through constant iteration. It admittedly is not the most cutting-edge or sexy construct in this age of the balanced scorecard or services packaging. Nevertheless, PDCA remains a timeless and effective foundational concept that can help improve best practices in the project delivery process.
Easy to define but challenging to implement, best practices help professional services organizations (PSOs) ramp up new employees, standardize delivery processes, and scale their business more efficiently. Many PSOs struggle to implement best practices in an efficient and flexible manner. Without some type of structure in place, they can quickly become a casualty of business buzzword bingo – all talk and no walk. Services organizations that use Projector’s Professional Services Automation tools are well positioned to address the problem of loosely implemented best practices. In this blog post we will use the PDCA cycle to explore how Projector’s PSA software can help improve the project delivery process.
Common sense dictates that up-front project planning is a good idea. The reality is that it often gets sidelined when other more pressing tasks arise. An effective way to encourage project managers (PMs) to compile more complete project plans is to reduce the friction of the process as much as possible. PSOs that use Projector are able to do this by creating project templates containing task plans and resource requirements that act as a baseline for project planning. PMs can then modify plans for the specific work they are going to deliver, instantly build a budget based on that plan, and solidify the resource requirements needed to complete the project. Historically, PSOs have performed these three tasks—planning, budgeting, and resourcing—in three disparate systems; increasing friction and reducing the willingness of PMs to participate. Projector ties these activities together in a single workflow to make a more streamlined and accurate planning process.
Professional service firms usually have little trouble when it comes to doing work. In fact, the problems usually start when they do too much work. A leading cause of doing too much work, or going over budget, in a professional services firm is a lack of visibility in the project delivery process. Projector can help PSOs gain visibility by automating feedback loops and providing flexible dashboards and alerts that deliver real-time project data to management teams.
Instead of forcing PMs to spend hours surveying their team to get a handle on where a project stands, Projector can automate the data collection process by allowing resources to report more than just the time worked on a project. They can also pass along how much time is needed to complete a task and notes on where that task stands, all from within one consolidated time entry interface. PMs can take this data and use it in Projector’s configurable dashboards and reports to spot problem areas in their projects. They can view the actual amount of time, revenue, or cost to date on a project and combine it with the projected amount needed for completion. Projects and tasks that are slipping off the rails will identify themselves much earlier, allowing PMs to prescribe gentle nudges to get them back on track instead of desperate actions when it may already be too late.
Even with up-front planning and excellent organizational visibility, it’s no secret that projects don’t always go according to plan. The fluid nature of projects is a fact of life for project managers and is one reason why PSOs place so much importance on creating accurate estimates from the start. A great way for PMs to improve their estimating abilities is to continuously review the discrepancies between their plan and the executed reality. Through this practice PMs can rely on their previous experience to put together more reliable and competitive project plans in the future. To do this properly PMs need to have a clear understanding of the original plan proposed to the customer, how that plan changed during the course of the project, and the end result of the project. Projector can help project managers collect this information through the use of Task Plan Baselines.
Task Plan Baselines are used to plan and track a project’s performance on each individual task. Project managers can create multiple Task Plan Baselines to track how the plan evolved over the course of the project and how accurate their estimates were. By highlighting problem areas in a project’s plan, PMs get the data they need to avoid similar problems in the future.
With Projector organizations can take this practice a step further and look at estimated and actual effort for certain task types across all of their projects. They can quickly see if, for instance, they are overestimating the implementation effort and not budgeting enough time for the quality assurance portion of their engagements. This type of analysis helps organizations streamline and standardize their project planning process and supports a data-driven decision making culture.
In true best-practice form the benefits received from up-front project planning, real-time visibility, and continuous plan review are far-reaching. As time marches on project managers will start to develop more accurate project plans, leading to more competitive sales proposals, productized service offerings, and higher delivery success. Both the executive team and PMs will have instant visibility into their projects, making problem areas easier to spot, and the delivery team will feel closely integrated into the delivery process.
Perhaps one of the strongest advantages of having a system in place to support best practices is the expediency with which PMs can see results. They can get the answers to their questions, sometimes before they even ask them. They can focus less on executing the mechanics of measuring their projects and more on developing innovative new services, fine tuning their delivery, or actively managing their team. They can concentrate on what they do best—delivering great services—and not get bogged down by the monotonous data collection and organization that is essential to professional services work.
Regardless of what best practices are being implemented, continuous improvement models like the PDCA cycle are probably not frameworks that service firms concern themselves with on a daily basis. The reason for this is because any service firm worth its weight in salt is continuously trying to improve; the service innovations of the past are fully engrained in their DNA. They might not being thinking exactly in the context of PDCA, but they are looking for strategies, systems and tools that can help them continuously improve their bottom line.