4DX Applied – Project Excellence

With the whirlwind of activities that pop up daily (or even hourly!), it seems like there is never enough time or resources to get it all done. The thought of even suggesting a project into the mix may be faced with active objection or worse, passive neglect.  But there is a better way!

In the #1 Business Bestseller The 4 Disciplines of Execution, Chris McChesney and team outline a 4-step methodology on how to ensure effective execution in today’s busy business environment.  Last week, we shared the basics on how the 4DX framework is used to effectively get things done.  These principles are equally powerful for establishing both project and operational excellence.  This week we share a case study on a recent project where we used this methodology to deliver a complex project on time and under budget.


Discipline 1: Focus on the Wildly Important

Imagine a long-distance runner valiantly pushing her exhausted body forward, breaking through the ribbon at the finish line.  What a glorious victory.  However, her win was not determined in those final moments.  No.  Her win happened long ago when winning that particular event became wildly important for her.  Her wildly important goal began from the moment she decided to embark on this challenge and continued all through the months (or years) that she trained and yes, through those final moments.

The same goes for projects.  Sometimes the urgency is already defined (as it is in this case study), but sometimes you need to create the “burning platform”.  Either way, the wildly important goal must be defined early on in a project or the effort will perish before it even gets no further than mere steps beyond the kickoff.

In our case, the urgency was pretty much mandated.  Regulatory requirements and other “must haves” for certain businesses is certainly a default wildly important goal.  However, as we will see in this example, even these can be challenged by the whirlwind of events that could pop up in a moment’s notice.  The whirlwind is real, and can often deter the most critical wildly important goals.  Thus, being wildly important is not merely enough, and we will need to rely on the other disciplines to ensure success.


Discipline 2: Act on the Lead Measures

In every project we lead, we recognize that lead measures are extremely important for several reasons.  First is the old adage, “What gets measured gets done”.  But more importantly is recognizing an appropriate LEAD measure, that is a measure that can be acted upon and be a suitable predictor to success.

In our case study, we were leading a team to not only being compliant to regulatory requirements, but to create a foundation to support their growth goals and future success.  How do you measure that???  We decided that implementation of the cornerstone for this foundation, the quality / operations manual, would be the deliverable to gauge our success. But that alone is still not actionable for a project team, especially since the effort was going to last for several months.

Understanding cause and effect relationships is key, and just as applicable here!  We continued to drill down from the manual to the chapters (which we will call elements) and ultimately down to the number of documents.  We then sought to estimate the amount of time that our team members should plan to spend on each document deliverable.  We defined an appropriate process for creating and reviewing each document and estimated the number of days allocated to each step of the process (with their input, of course!)  What resulted was a total number of hours of effort to complete the scope of work within our project.

But how would we keep track of all this?


Discipline 3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

We employed a tracking tool called a burndown chart, borrowed from the Agile project management toolbox.  Given the number of total hours of effort and the number of resources we had on the team, we projected out a timeline that forecasted when we would actually complete the project.  The premise of the burndown chart is that we start off with a certain amount of work and then “burn down” the work (though completing tasks) until all the work has been complete (i.e., zero hours remaining).

While this allowed us to certainly track how were needed to work, this was not quite yet a compelling scoreboard!  While the trajectory we mapped out set out a suitable goal, we needed a way to effectively tell if we were “winning” or “losing”.  Thus, we added an actual status plot to the chart, and color coded each daily data point (red if there were more hours remaining per plan, green if less or if on plan).  All of this was created and readily available using Excel.

But how did we manage the execution?


Discipline 4: Create a Cadence of Accountability

The final step was to ensure that we had a cadence of accountability in place.  Now, do not confuse accountability as a means for Big Brother to keep an eye on everyone!  No.  Accountability runs up and down through the organization, ensuring everyone is aligned and acting toward the wildly important goal (I told you we’d come back to this!).

For this project, we established a series of meetings.  Now, I know what you’re thinking!  These were not a series of non-value added gatherings. No, the rules of engagement for these meetings were well defined and carefully engineered to ensure they were supporting the goals of the project.  Top management sponsored this project and wanted monthly updates, of which we provided.  To ensure execution and good messaging to top management, we hosted weekly meetings with mid-management team members.  To ensure good messaging to mid management, we hosted daily meetings with the team members.  These daily meetings were “standing” in nature and were scheduled for only 30-minutes (and we tried to wrap up in 15).  The meetings were action based, where we got a quick update on what was completed, what was getting worked on, what’s next, and an “ask” for help on any trouble spots.  The updates and the “asks” were escalated up through the cadence of meetings for management engagement and support for our team members.  This ensured that deliverables were begin completed at the needed rate, and management helped ensure the organization remained engaged and focused on completing this project.


Wrapping it Up

Believe me, this project did not come without challenges!  We had several incidents that happened along with other priority items competing for resources going on in the organization.  Further, additional “wildly important” issues continued to pop up throughout.  However, by employing the 4DX principles combined with Agile project management methods and tools, we were able to complete the project on schedule and under budget.  Next week we’ll share some experiences with and considerations for implementing 4DX to support your daily quest for operational excellence.

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