Or PDCA and the paradox of project management
Do you feel stressed when meeting uncertainty? When making important decisions? Managing a project means managing uncertainty. As project manager or business owner you are responsible to call the shots. But how to know if the next move is the right one? Voilà the paradox of project management: At the beginning you know nothing and can change everything; at the end, you know everything, but there is nothing you can change any more. I show you how PDCA can help you solve the paradox in life and in business, but I wonder if Projectina is able to explain this to Confusina?
The paradox of project management is what tends to stress us out the most at the beginning of the project. We just don’t know how things will go. Everything is unknown. Will everything work out as I imagine? Can I exclude risks? And if yes, how? And the opportunities, how to take advantage of those?
The thing is, once we know all this, the project is almost finished, and we can do nothing to undo what went wrong. Is PDCA really the remedy to the paradox or just another cool thing that consultants impress on us to make money?
The Paradox of Project Management
One could call the paradox of project management also the paradox of the future. Even if we would love to, we cannot switch it off, unless you have a crystal ball to look into. So, we just can accept that it exists and try to minimise the risks as far as possible.
This is not only true in project management but for all situations in life. We are not quite sure, what the future holds. When we arrive in the future we often look back saying if I only had known then what I know now I would have… Only life doesn’t work that way. You can just learn from what went wrong and strive to evolve.
2 ways to minimise the risk of failure:
The first way is to look around and find somebody who already did successfully what you try to achieve. What’s important is that the situation is comparable, and all this did not happen ages ago.
Even if you still can learn from your grandfather telling you how he managed to build a business in 1947, you might gain more insight from someone who did it 5 years ago. You take this information, check what pertains to you and your situation, adapt, and apply.
The second way is to start a trial balloon using little effort and resources to evaluate if what you intend to do will work out or not. That’s where PDCA comes into play.
It is best to combine both ways, but if you cannot use the first one for whatever reason the second will do.
What you should not do, at least not if you want to keep your job or business and the project afloat is the close your eyes and hope for the best method. If it doesn’t work out, you don’t have a second try, because you have splashed all your resources.
How to solve the paradox with the PDCA Method
PDCA has been developed by THE guru of quality management and continuous improvement, William Edwards Deming (1900 – 1993) and is also called the Deming cycle. It is an acronym composed by the 4 words:
Plan Do Check Act
Sometimes it is also used as Plan–Do–Check–Adjust. Maybe, it would be a good idea to use both “A” and make it Plan-Do-Check-Adjust-Act. What do you think?
And here are Deming’s 4 steps:
We start by setting a goal and developing the solutions we think will take us there. Then we figure out, how we could assess if what we imagined will really work out using minimal effort and resources.
If you are not familiar with goal setting you might want to read my articles about how to set goals the right way. If you do not set your goals in a smart way in this first step, the rest will not work out.
Let’s take a simple example. Imagine you your project is to roll out a new software in your company.
In the Plan step you check, what you need to do the installation, for example buy new computers, change hardware, whatever. And this is the first part of this step.
Now comes the second part, to think about how you could start a trial balloon to see if this will probably work without using up all the budget for your project. If you would just go ahead, buy a complete set of new computers, put them in all offices in your company and install the software, just to find out, that the hardware doesn’t fit, there are bugs, your people hate it and you can throw everything into the bin, that could be the death blow to your company.
So, in our example you could just buy one computer and convince the software vendor to give you a free test licence for 90 days and then assign a competent team member to do a thorough test.
Do (lets go into action):
Most people think that this step means to go all in, but that’s not the case. You take action on your test environment.
The aim is to realise your idea from step 1 in your test environment with the smallest possible budget, resources, and effort. T for Test would perhaps have been the better letter for this step.
In our case you buy that one computer, install the software, and let your people check, if everything plays out well. Perhaps try to import the data from your old system and look if this works too. Look out for difficulties and workable solutions…
Check (let us look at the results):
Plan, Do and Check build a little cycle of their own. When going into Check you look at the results that you obtained in your test environment. And you evaluate, what would happen, if you transfer your test results into real life.
Now 3 things can emerge:
- Hooray!!! The results are better than you would have expected. Then jump over to the last step and Act, put into practice. Seriously, if this was your first try it would be wonderful, but it’s not the norm.
- Ok, not too bad, but you are not there yet. To go to our example, some workflows do not work in the new software or the import is buggy. That is when you get back to P like Plan and adjust your approach. For example, you get somebody to change the import procedure for your data. This is what’s most likely to happen in your projects, so I would recommend you plan for 2 or 3 optimisation loops.
- Damn! That didn’t work at all. The results are a complete mess. The good thing is, that you have only failed in the test environment, and not big time in real life. So not only have you gained knowledge, but also still enough resources to try again e.g. with a new software or another hardware. As Thomas Edison seemingly said: „I did not fail. I now know 1000 ways how not to build a light bulb.“ And as that thing with the light bulb finally worked out for him, you should not throw in the towel either. Back to the drawing board and try something completely new is what needs to be done now.
Here is where the Adjust “A” should take place. Adjust your plan and your way of doing according to your learnings from the results. And then…
Act (take action):
Now it’s time to make the rubber meet the road and take action in the real world. Take your findings and experiences and go full scale. In our example you now buy the computers for your complete team and roll out the software to your complete company or whatever your project was. Now you still might want to consider doing an intermediate step if possible, e.g. only roll out only to one department. Do you have a 100% guarantee of success? Nope. 100% sure doesn’t exist, but you did your part to put the odds on your side.
And for the beauty of it, rinse and repeat. The PDCA-cycle
You thought you are done? Hihi, wrong!
If you are talking about one project you can use the PDCA cycle just once, to help you solve a specific problem or help with a difficult decision. But, honestly, will there never be anything to optimise again?
Exactly! This is the moment when you look for new opportunities for optimisation. And here you are starting with P again and running a new PDCA cycle.
You will find the method that you just learned to be increasingly powerful the longer you use it and the more you habituate it. So, you might want to use PDCA not only in business, but also in your private life.
Some private life examples?
OK, you’re fed up with Germany and dream to live on a ranch in Argentina. What if you applied PDCA instead of blindly selling everything and find yourself in a place you don’t like either? A possibility would be to do a 4 weeks training on a ranch to see if you are cut out for this. Or negotiate a 6-months sabbatical to live and work on a ranch in Argentina to dip your toe into the water and find out if it’s that what you really want.
Or another example. Let’s say you want to start your own business. Instead of quitting your job and create the new Facebook or Skype, why not start small on weekends, and see, if you can get people hooked up to your product or service. And instead of ordering 10.000 products from China, why not get 10 made with rapid prototyping and sell those. By the way, an investor once told me: “I don’t care how you want to get 100.000 clients, I want to see, that you can actually get 10 people to pay for your product.”
If you want to move forward in life and business you must take action, so take action and start using this method!
The Paradox of Project Management:
At the beginning of your project you know nothing and can change everything; at the end, you know everything, but there is nothing you can change any more.
The PDCA Method or the Deming cycle:
PDCA has been developed by William Edwards Deming (1900 – 1993) and is also called the Deming cycle. It is an acronym composed by the 4 words Plan Do Check Act. It is an iterative four-step management method used for the control and continuous improvement of processes and products.
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