Third element of a virtuous cycle


May 2020
Third element of a virtuous cycle

"Plan, Do, Check, Act." Does it sound somewhat like "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"?In meaning and essence, this phrase is quite far from it! Plan, do, check, act is perhaps the most powerful advise ever written in such simple words, for all practitioners of management, not just of project management. As the words speak for themselves, this phrase asks us to plan, do (Execution - work according to the plan), check (review, track or monitor progress), and then act (take corrective action) depending on what you discover in your review in the step three. You will be surprised to know that, I did not learn about this most basic, simple and fundamental of business processes, from any of my academic lessons, but through my intense brush with ISO 9001 systems in the year 1993 when the concept of continuous improvement dawned on me. This learning was further reinforced later in 1998 when I visited many Japanese Factories under the auspices of CII and JUSE (Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers), and had an opportunity to see at first hand the quality movement in that country. Now I am completely convinced about the strength of this virtuous cycle.

Many of us will immediately recognise this process as the famous PDCA Loop, which is nothing but an acronym for the beautiful phrase in four words. In whatever form, do we know this concept, as long as we practice and follow these four steps, chances are bright that we shall succeed. Succeed not only in project management, but also in all aspects of life. Given this hypothesis, why do we then have so many failures all around us, especially in projects? The answer to that question is easy - hardly anyone ever follows even such a small piece of advice faithfully! Unbelievable, but true. In our discussions in the coming issues of this column, we shall talk a lot about Planning and Execution of Projects - the two most important components of a project lifecycle.

But this still leaves out the third and fourth component of the famous PDCA loop, namely, checking and taking corrective action, and it is the "checking" process, that is usually given the go by. This, in turn, results in an obvious failure of taking corrective action as well. How many times have we met a project manager who says "I know it all, I remember it all, and I will know when something goes wrong. I do not need to have a monitoring system, and I will know when to take what corrective action, if any. I have my own information system", even if informal. This is the real malady in the Indian Project Management Space. We do not think that reviewing a project, tracking its activities, etc., add any value whatsoever. Therefore, if at all we do it sometimes, we do it only for its cosmetic effect.

A project has three success factors - time, cost and deliverable. Following the PDCA Loop religiously can impact all these three dimensions, although, predominantly, we use this four-step process to ensure that a project is completed on time. But, sadly, as I said before, this is more the exception than a rule for us. When you are visiting a project site or meeting a project team, you can judge for yourself if they really believe in the process of reviewing or monitoring, by the quality and quantity of resources deployed by them for the third element of the PDCA cycle, viz., checking.

Personally, I have always tried to monitor a project through its critical paths 1, 2 and 3. This has been the macro tracking that I would do, in order to get a sense at any time as to where we stand. This would be only possible, if the best brains, and the best tools are engaged to work for the "so-called"third element, and report on progress, more particularly, on activity-based delays. This, and only this can enable and empower the project manager to initiate corrective actions to set things right, like deploying more resources to crash a delayed activity on the critical path, etc.

The point I am making in this article, is that tracking a project in a scientific manner, is hugely important. It is also, in principle, quite simple. But for large projects, involving numerous sub-projects and multitudes of activities, this job of continuous tracking can be very very challenging. Ideally, this process will also require top-class resources. Information technology has enabled automation of the job, and has offered modern-day tools in the form of various software packages. These tools ensure error-free computing and information processing and automated report generation in the way we format them, and in that sense, these packages have become vital for today's generation of project managers. However, creating the configuration of the project, mapping of resources, and tweaking the software to offer information outputs in the way we want in the requisite frequency, etc. are intelligent activities needing human interventions. Moreover, the physical collection of field data of progress of the whole range of activities is labour-intensive, and cannot be automated.

Even with all these challenges, ambitious and accountable project managers must adopt the third element fully, and engage adequate resources with full discipline and rigour, into the process of tracking/monitoring/reporting, such that they can then, and only then, carry out the fourth element, which is to "act", meaning "taking corrective actions". In real terms, it means that they can then press the right buttons, and pull the right levers to change course and succeed on all three crucial success factors of a project.

Checking is important in a project, and it has to be done both religiously and scientifically.

Never thought I will ever have to invoke religion and science together!

- SUMIT BANERJEE

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