Agile Operations & Technology Consulting



How to Continously Improve Project Delivery

by Dr. Jerry Julian

A major high-tech medical device manufacturer lost millions on a massive project that required multiple business units to coordinate their efforts for a single customer installation. Time delays, rework, cost overruns and contractual penalties ultimately combined to produce a monumental failure that the company’s executives wanted explained and remedied.

Ed, the leader of the Project Management Office (PMO), launched a post-project review and asked the team to develop a case study with recommendations for future projects. A few days later, the PMO received a call from someone in Sales: “Ed, we’ve got a project that’s going off the rails over here. We need your help.” Ed realized the project she was talking about had all the hallmarks of the previous failure. Within 24 hours, the management team put the case study recommendations into action and avoided millions more in potential cost overruns and penalties.

The above story is an example of how PMO leaders can help their organizations

  • improve quality,
  • boost productivity,
  • trim delivery timelines

by conducting post-project retrospectives and transferring improvements to new or existing projects within the same organization. But this example is the exception rather than the rule.

The Phenomenon of "Red Light Learning"

Our research shows – similar to the above example – that PMO leaders get involved in project retrospectives primarily when there’s a runaway project – when the traffic light on the status report is flashing “red”. Most of the stories we heard from the 20 PMO leaders we interviewed involved interventions to re-align a troubled project. This is good news and bad news. The good news is that there is value in performing retrospectives on projects that didn’t go well. After all, projects often share the same organizational environment, including tools, platforms, people and processes. That means improvements can have an impact across other projects as in the above example.

The bad news is that, because of this “red light learning” phenomenon, holding a “lessons learned session” has become something of a slap on the back of the hand for project managers and teams. Although most organizations have policies in place that require lessons learned to be identified after projects, project teams rarely hold these sessions, and when they do, its often done in a perfunctory way. That is, people typically just “go through the motions” knowing that their lessons learned will likely go unused, forgotten, or ignored after they are stored on the internet portal or in the organization’s knowledge management system.

The result is that the knowledge, experience, innovations and solutions gained on one project may never get to other projects the next time around. Improving from one project to the next is left to chance – or left to project managers to figure it out on their own. Improvements that could shorten project delivery time, improve productivity, reduce cost, or improve quality can go unexploited and forgotten. You could call this a “project amnesia” of sorts. As a result, the organization winds up spending countless more time, dollars and personnel on future projects. In the extreme, that means each project team reinvents the wheel every time they start a new project. The chances are even more likely this will happen in environments with poor cross-project communication and stressed out project managers and teams.

Continous Project Improvement is Transformative, Refreshing and Measurable

Because of the way the practice “lessons learned” has been promoted, designed, and executed in organizations, we need to throw out the concept altogether and replace it with something new, more engaging and more effective. We suggest calling it Cross-Project Improvement rather than “lessons learned”. After all, that’s what lessons learned are for. They’re to get improvements from one project and transfer them to the next project so the organization continually and systematically improves its ability to deliver projects.

Cross-Project Improvement (CPI) is transformative, refreshing, and measurable. As the diagram below shows, CPI begins with a facilitated retrospective midway through each project and upon closure. Yet rather than spending most of the time looking back at mistakes, failures or past events, the focus of the session is on the future:

  • What can be done next time to improve on the result?
  • What are specific, practical, and measurable improvements that can reduce delivery time, improve productivity, reduce costs or improve quality?

    Continuous Project Improvement Diagram

The ideas that result are then prioritized and refined by the project management community to ensure they make sense to the people who have to make it happen the next time. Once the top improvements are selected, the team that developed the improvements engages other project teams in transferring them. Improvements are then transferred across other projects and tracked by the PMO to ensure benefits are realized.

Outside, Objective Facilitation is Critical

And rather than being facilitated by a project manager or other person in a position of authority within the organization, the session is led by an outside expert with no influence over team member performance reviews. That provides a more level playing field, eliminating the problems associated with unskilled facilitation and political bias.

This kind of discussion can be a transformative experience for project teams, something that is more engaging, forward-focused and serves the purpose of continuous improvement more effectively than the “blamestorming” that comes along with fixing red light projects or the inattention paid to lessons learned documents stored in knowledge management systems.

So what does this mean for you and you’re your organization’s project management capabilities? You may be perfectly satisfied with the way projects are executed within your organization. Or you may be utterly frustrated. Either way, its likely that there’s vast opportunity for improvements that could deliver business transformation projects faster and more effectively.

Contact us to learn more about Continuous Project Improvement.


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