Project Management: The Deja-Vu Problem

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Faculty Member, and Vice President, OpEx and Continuous Improvement, CRST
With extensive experience in Continuous Improvement, I am focused on helping companies to achieve new levels of performance. I partner with business leaders to charter and oversee continuous improvement projects using methodologies such as lean, six sigma, and agile. In addition to executing on individual projects, I am passionate about building organizational structures to supercharge and sustain the benefits from Continuous Improvement efforts. I have become increasingly active in the application of enterprise-wide Business Process Management, which is a field of continuous improvement that focuses on the design and monitoring of stable, predictable end-to-end processes. The benefits of BPM implementation have already shown higher levels of employee engagement with their work, improved process performance, and greater agility & flexibility when responding to changing customer expectations.

Too often in Project Management roles, we experience a sense of deja-vu: the unshakeable feeling that we’ve been here before and we’ve done this already. After we successfully complete projects, we charter new ones with a never-ending focus on continuous improvement. However, astute Project Managers often start to notice that these new projects are re-runs of the same patterns. Teams face the same obstacles, solve the same problems, and even re-trace the footsteps of earlier projects that didn’t “stick” after the previous project team had declared victory.

The conversation between friends that follows below will be familiar to Project Managers who recognize these patterns. I hope that by sharing our conversation about Business Process Management, you will also have success in disrupting the deja-vu problem we faced.

A Project Manager’s Struggle

“My job is going well. The work is important, my bosses appreciate my skills, and there is a new challenge every day. So why can’t I shake this feeling that my career is stuck? Where do I go from here?”

Hearing these words, my heart went out to my friend as we sat down to lunch. She is one of the most successful Project Managers that I have had the pleasure to work with, a type-A personality who has checked all the elusive boxes to be happy, content, and satisfied with her never-ending list of accomplishments at work. What advice could someone in her shoes possibly need? Thinking she might just be looking to vent some frustrations out loud, I settled into my seat as she continued.

“I was rated as ‘Exceptional’ in my last annual review. My merit increase was higher than the average, and my director told me that I am usually the first person considered for the most critical projects. This wasn’t really a surprise, because they keep naming me as the lead Project Manager for new initiatives, even though the old ones haven’t wrapped up yet.”

“Are you burning out?” I asked, wondering if she was starting to feel the early effects of overachiever syndrome.

“No, that’s not it,” she quickly replied. “The extra work isn’t a problem. And it feels great to be valued. In fact, I’m being asked to develop my coaching and mentoring skills so that I can show some of the newer Project Managers how to be more effective.”

I was failing to see the problem. “It doesn’t sound like your career is stuck at all. What more are you hoping for?”

She paused for a moment, as she struggled to find the right words. “I can’t shake this feeling that I’m working inside an infinite loop. A project gets chartered to fix a problem or to capture some new opportunity, and they assign it to me or another Project Manager. We work our magic, celebrate our success, and then move on to the next project. Over and over. Rinse and repeat. I can build a very lucrative career being an expert firefighter until I retire, but I’m starting to feel a deeper calling. I mean, where are all these problems coming from? Who chooses which opportunities are worth chartering into new projects?”

With a smile, I finally understood. “It sounds like you want to be the boss! Move over CEO, your replacement is here!” I was only half kidding. This friend had the right stuff to move up the ladder quickly if she wanted to.

She crinkled her nose at me, as if the lunch that had just arrived at our table smelled awful. “No, that’s not it either. I’m not just chasing a title. I want to know that I’m making a difference. I want to know that my work lives on, beyond the life of my project.”

I knew the feeling too well. I had felt similar frustrations as a Continuous Improvement practitioner. My training had taught me that no Continuous Improvement project is complete until a control plan has been developed and delivered to the business owners upon completion. However, it was all too common that my control plans were not followed, and worse, the problems that we had solved with so much fanfare and celebration re-appeared a few months after our attention had been re-directed to the latest “flavor of the month” project.

Business Process Management: The Next Level for Project Managers

Knowing how discouraged she was feeling, I decided to jump quickly to the point. “You already hold a certification for Project management. Have you ever considered pursuing certification in Process management?”

“I’ve seen that Process Management acronym in your e-mail signature,” she replied. “I’ve always meant to ask you what that meant. I just assumed it was some variant of a Project Management certification?”

“Not the same thing,” I continued. “I’ve found that Business Process management seems to pick up naturally when a Project is finished. BPM teaches you how to document and formalize processes as standard work, and how to implement governance structures that set the Process Owner up for success after the project concludes.”

I saw a glimmer of recognition on her face. “Oh yes, I think I remember learning about this in one of my undergrad classes. Is this the ‘Business Process Re-engineering’ movement that was big in the 1990s?”

“Process Management has had many names over the decades. The ‘Re-engineering’ movement you’re remembering is just one of many versions that have exploited a simple truth: knowing how to design, document, improve, and maintain processes are the keys to building predictable work that scales well as companies grow. Process management is also the foundation of several other methodologies like Total Quality Management, Lean, Six Sigma, and even Agile for the software development process.”

I continued with some of my favorite quotes to make the point. “W. Edwards Deming, who is one of the forefathers of the modern Quality movement, had a famous quote about process. So did Taiichi Ohno, who basically invented Lean at Toyota decades ago:”

If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.”

-W. Edwards Deming

“Without standards, there can be no improvement”

-Taiichi Ohno

These quotes hit home. “I absolutely agree,” she said. “When I’m working projects, it never fails that I have to spend 80% of my time just to capture and understand the current state. Only 20% of our time goes towards implementing the improvement that the project was chartered to accomplish. Even worse, we often have to expand our scope because one project will become several projects when we discover that different people have different current states. Maybe that’s why it feels like I’m on a hamster wheel!”

“I think you may be on to something,” I encouraged. “Let me show you some of my favorite materials on Process Management.”

A Process Manager is Born

After six months, I sent an email to check in with my friend. “We’re about due for another lunch,” I offered. “How are things going?”

Her response was music to my ears. “Things couldn’t be better,” she wrote. “I have really turned a new leaf in this job. Instead of focusing on problems to be solved, we are making huge improvements by proactively managing the processes that create our problems in the first place. I’m spending a lot less time chasing after issues, and a lot more time helping Process Owners learn how to foresee possible problems before they even happen. And my boss is recommending me for a new Process Owner role that the governance committee is recommending to be created this year. I hope I get it!”

I have no doubt that she will, and as I closed the e-mail, her new signature line caught my eye. It read “Certified Business Process Management Professional.”

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