Avoiding the Groundhog Day Syndrome:

Improvement Projects that Achieve Results

Michael Couch
President
Michael Couch and Associates Inc.
Pittsburgh, PA

I was recently contacted by a company that had fallen into their own version of Ground Hog Day*. They tried over and over to solve a significant business problem that was affecting revenue growth but each new day brought the same result – nothing. They held multiple meetings to clarify roles, hired new people, changed leaders and restructured departments. Nothing made a significant difference. Now things had reached a crisis level and the Board was taking notice. Once I had a chance to learn more about the situation, the reasons for this Ground Hog Day Syndrome were clear.

First and foremost, an improvement project must have clearly defined goals and objectives for which a small Project Team is held mutually accountable. The business case needs to be outlined and supported by specific improvement targets. The goals and objectives must be confirmed with a top leader(s) to whom the results of the project results will be delivered (the Project Owners).

The Project Owners must also assure that the Project Team has the resources, expertise and accountability required to be successful. The Owners work with the Team to confirm the “what” and “why” at the start of the project. They then must get out of the way and let the Team figure out the “how”.

The properly charged and resourced Project Team then needs a step-by-step project plan. This sounds obvious but it’s surprising how often improvement work is not based on a plan. Teams drift from meeting to meeting, repeating the same discussions, talking about “I think’s” and making little if any progress. A basic project plan has clear milestones with owners assigned to specific tasks, agreed to time frames and identifies additional resources that may be needed along the way. Work gets done outside of meetings because assignments are clear and progress is reviewed when the team does meet. Having a plan also allows the Team to be able to troubleshoot unexpected issues and deviations from the plan.

Improvement projects often fail because people jump to conclusions on improvements that they “think” will work. Leaders sometimes meddle in the work of the Team and foist their improvement ideas on them. Random problem solving does not work on complex business issues. Problem solving must be systematic and based in solid measurement, rigorous logic, and honest analysis. Only that will allow the Team to identify and implement the most likely, high impact improvements.

Another common failure mode in improvement projects is insufficient consultation or participation in the project by key stakeholders – those that will be impacted by the changes or will need to change their behavior for the improvements to stick. Projects are doomed if they do not include a thorough stakeholder analysis and supporting communication plan. It’s the only way to get buy-in to the change that will prevent backsliding. Surprisingly, customers are the most frequently missed and most critical stakeholder.

A success improvement project requires following a solid, disciplined approach. Otherwise, companies are going to continue to star in their own version of the Ground Hog Day.

* 1993 movie starring Bill Murray in which he relives the same day over and over until he cleans up his act.