BlogTaking Time to Speed Up a Project

Taking Time to Speed Up a Project

By Gary Stokes
May 5th, 2023

Today I have a jumble of ideas in my head that I’m going to attempt to congeal into a coherent post. You’ll notice from the Featured Image that I’ve settled on a book that I first read years ago as a primary source for my conclusions, but it’s not the only source. So let’s get to it.

I was thinking about the key differences between the most successful projects and those that aren’t as successful. Not surprisingly, the most successful projects simply had better communication between all of the players. And what made the communication “better” were consistency and efficiency, with the right “pause points” (more on that later) and the right reminders to do the things that often get missed (more on that later, too).

All of us have been on projects where the sheer volume of meetings and Teams calls give the appearance of consistent communication, where overweening displays of knowledge (relevant or not) and willingness to speak up or even dominate a conversation masquerade as useful contributions to the success of the project. That’s clearly not the type of communication to which I’m referring. The very best communication results in the things that have to get done actually getting done when they need to get done. Pretty simple, right?

At Pendant, part of our project execution process includes a meeting we call the Pendant Pre-Project Briefing, or 3PB for short. We hold this meeting with our project team shortly after we receive an order, and the team reviews and discusses the relevant info, and then we take the time to conduct a pre-mortem in which we imagine a disastrous future for the project and imagine what could have caused it to be disastrous. Executed well, it’s a great discussion and gets us off to a good start. But it’s not nearly enough.

Atul Gawande wrote “The Checklist Manifesto” for release in 2009, coming at the problem of building effective systems from the perspective of an ER surgeon. In this video of a TED Talk he gave in 2012, he shares a few thoughts on the importance of getting team collaboration right.  In his case, it was truly a matter of life and death. As you might guess, he advocates strongly for the use of a simple, low-tech tool called the checklist. I hope you spare a few minutes and watch it, and then go beyond and read the book (even if you’ve already read it).  You’ll see why and how to create great checklists.  Atul Gawande TED Talk

Here are a few takeaways from both the book and the talk:

  • The best care arises from efficient use of communication systems, and the best care also comes with lower cost. I belive it’s likely the same in project execution. We all get the idea intuitively, but how often do we take the time to build and then actually follow the systems we’ve built? We don’t have time for that?
  • Building a great system takes time, and is not easy.  Simplifying complex things is not easy.
  • A great checklist is not a step-by-step “how-to”. It is simply a reminder of crucial things that are often forgotten or overlooked.
  • A great checklist includes what Gawande calls “pause points”. Think about, for example in a warehouse automation project, the myriad points in time when the team should pause and complete a checklist review prior to moving on to a next step. What if our PM meetings focused on a structured approach like that consistently?
  • One sobering statistic mentioned in the talk is that two million people annually, once in hospital, acquire an infection they did not have before they were in the hospital. Think about that – hospitals in these cases are achieving the exact opposite of what they are trying to achieve, largely due to people forgetting or overlooking critical hygiene protocols. The protocols are in place, but sometimes people just don’t follow them. How many such negative results in warehouse project execution come from the analogous root cause?

I read something else totally separate today that struck me.  Every thought has a cost associated with it, due to the fact that our brains can only process one thought at a time.  Therefore, every thought has an opportunity cost, meaning that when you are thinking about something, you are not thinking about other things. In the context of a project, if what you are thinking about (talking about, focusing on) at any point in time is costing you time to think about more important and productive things, you are by definition building more (unnecessary) time and expense into the project, and probably detracting from quality as well.

That’s where the value of simple systems and checklists comes in – the focus and attention they put on the things that matter.

So, do you have the time to create effective systems (that are actually followed), or do you have other more pressing things to do?