Internal Improvement Projects: Getting the most out of your team

Ever feel that despite all your hard work, you’re not making progress with projects to improve the performance of your business?  Seems like no matter what you do, these projects don’t get done on time (if ever sometimes), they’re over budget or aren’t producing the expected results. My guess is when your sleep is interrupted more often then not it’s because your project has gotten off track.

Disappointing progress or failed projects cost you time and money. They distract your team, sapping them of attention, energy and erode their morale. More importantly, failed or underperforming projects delay the needed improvements in thru-put, quality or capacity.

The good news is that you are not alone and you can do a few things to get your projects back on track and moving forward. Big and small companies alike sometimes struggle to get and maintain momentum when working on improvements. Here are some things to think about if you are about to launch a new project or if you have one that’s stalled.

The Big Picture

There are no projects in your company that should ever be undertaken without the business reason for doing so.  Whether the project is an equipment or software purchase, a quality or safety improvement initiative, a building expansion, the business reason for making that improvement and generally, that improvement should be tied to improving your ability to get or fulfill a customer order or strengthening your company’s financial position.

Make sure your staff is aware and understands not just the departmental reason for the improvement, but also the business reason for making that improvement. Share this information with those who will be directly responsible for making or using the improvement, but also those who will be impacted indirectly.

Two Heads are Better than One

No project is ever done in isolation. No matter how small, what needs to be improved in one area of the business impacts other areas of the business however small that impact may be.  You know from experience that when you remove one bottleneck, you create another downstream.

Nothing will help you avoid delays and restarts than involving your staff working outside the immediate area of improvement. A cross-functional team will help identify potential pitfalls and barriers. They will help avoid backtracking or restarting a project because something was overlooked at the beginning.

Cross-functional teams bring fresh perspectives and insights from outside the immediate projects area. They help keep the project on target while bringing additional resources to getting things done. They can also help with outward and downward communications within their departments.

Another important but often overlooked benefit is that they provide balance between the subject-matter-experts within the company who are likely be leading the project and those who are experts in other areas. Those lacking subject-matter-experts proved the objectivity that may be lacking in those who are deeply familiar with the area of improvement. Subject matter experts frequently lack the objectivity required to find the path from the old ways to the new.

Less is More

Many companies, because they lack a proven methodology for delivering success improvement projects, undertake too many projects at once. Less is more. Its far better to one project well than to do two that deliver disappointing results.

Build a process for starting and completing an improvement project and prove it out. Once you have delivered a successful project – one that meets most of your expectations, then start another. Until you have the process and the people proven, take your time to get it right.

Capacity for Improvement

The biggest killer of projects is human capacity. Staff simply is so busy working in the business they don’t have time to work on it. If you want a project to fail, you simply need to make sure no one has the time to work on it. Pretty simple, but I see it time and again.

Your project team needs to have one hour a week for a team meeting, but also needs time during the week to complete the project tasks assigned to them. Make sure everyone understands the time requirements for their tasks and that they have ample time to compete those takes well and thoroughly.

The Threat of Perfection

Projects frequently stall because the team is looking for the perfect solution. While achieving perfection is the desired goal, getting there can be very costly and will extend your horizon for completion. Many an improvement project has been stalled because the team could not find the perfect solution…one that satisfied all the team members one hundred percent. It’s just not a practical goal and the team leader needs to manage that expectation.

It has been said, “it is better to be approximately right rather than precisely wrong”. In this case precisely wrong means stalling a project because the team cannot reach unanimous agreement on the solution. Perfect smerfect – any forward progress is better than none! Make sure the team leader recognizes the stall tactic of trying to achieve the perfect solution.


Improvement project team leaders are often the subject-matter experts and that’s often the desirable and logical choice. Subject matter expertise though, is not the most important skill of the successful team leader. In my opinion, the skill most crucial to a successful implementation is the ability to hold team members accountable to meeting both their commitments to project tasks and well as completing them on-time.

Task delivery dates slide because team members are usually not held accountable for meeting their due dates. They miss them without and consequence and in some cases, without som much as a comment from the team leader.

As a business owner or senior executive, if you are not directly involved in an improvement project you want to ensure that the team leader and his team are clear on the primary covenant of the team: “do what you says you will do”.

The Plan

Few projects will succeed without a written plan. Without a plan there is no roadmap, no responsibilities, no due dates and it will be impossible to hold anyone accountable for anything.

A plan includes a precise statement of goal, a detailed list of tasks required to achieve the goal, the names of those responsible to complete the tasks, and the dues dates for each of the tasks. The plan might also include the major milestones, the interdependencies, and budgets.

The Plan becomes the working agenda for weekly meetings as well as the public document by which progress (or the lack of it) is communicated to rest of the company not participating in the initiative.  The plan will help the team leader maintain accountability of those to whom project work is assigned.

Getting the most out of your improvement projects rests on a number of factors including having a good plan. That said, many projects under-deliver or fail outright, not because of a bad plan but because of poor execution by the team.

Leading projects that consistently deliver the expected results is one part strategy, one part plan, one part capacity and ten parts disciplined process for execution. If the poor success rate of your projects is keeping you up nights, take the time to flesh out a process based on the seven elements above.  They will help you and your team deliver the results you want.

If you need help improving the performance of your business, I can be reached at 608.270.8089 or