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Too Important to Fail: How to Ensure Improvement Projects Drive Sustained Success

30 Jan 2019


“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”—so goes this paraphrase from a poem by Robert Burns. This is particularly true today when it comes to project planning.  Why do some projects succeed, and others fail? How can your company increase the chances of success?

Whether a large project across many global business segments and years, or a small quick improvement project taking less than a quarter, there is a high risk of failure. Even if successful, the results may not be sustainable.  

The Project Management Institute found that 28% of strategic initiatives are deemed failures by the companies implementing them. –Project Management Institute, 9th Global Project Management Survey: Pulse of the Profession 2017, www.pmi.org.

The most critical factors leading to success are people, structure, and discipline.  You can’t throw money at your project.  You can’t read your way to a better business.  You can’t delegate your project to non-decision makers.

Best practices  

Project management succeeds when these three elements, part of best-practice methodology, are incorporated into the planning:

1. Readiness Assessment: Don’t invest in a project the organization is not ready to implement, own, and operate.

2. Governance Structure: Put in place a process for raising issues to senior leadership before problems threaten a timely and successful implementation.

3. Wellness Checks: After implementation, create an assessment and reporting system to ensure sustained results, even when people and leaders change positions.

I became familiar with the Oliver Wight Proven Path while helping companies with improvement projects.  It has been used successfully by companies large and small for more than 40 years, and follows the path of leading, transforming, and then owning the change you have created, using these critical elements.

Keys to success

Absolutely necessary when trying to create change is buy-in on the part of senior leadership. Projects driven by middle management fail outright or achieve suboptimal results, at best, without it.

Beyond leadership, people must have a desire to do things differently. If creating awareness is not enough for a team to want to do things differently, I would not recommend investing in the improvement project. Not only is the project likely to fail; it will also be a waste of time, money, and resources.

How to measure success

The real measure of project success is whether the improvements become legacies to the business. Creating a legacy mindset involves planning how to develop—and sustain—competency in people, even with employee turnover and management changes.

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Crystal Lee


Crystal Lee is a principal with Oliver Wight Americas. Across her career, Crystal has held various leadership positions with power leader Cummins, and healthcare leader Adventist Health System. Crystal has led and supported multiple international deployments of Planning and Control and IBP, some of which achieved Class A.

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