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Studying Both Good and Bad Projects Ensures Our SuccessSam Walton, the founder of Walmart, was constantly visiting competitor’s stores to see what they were doing.  He even got caught on occasion by those stores who didn’t like him coming in and recording what they were doing.  Sam even required his senior staff to regularly visit competitor’s stores with the admonishment to bring back what they were doing right, not what they were doing wrong.  Everyone did something wrong, so he didn’t want to hear about those.

People never understood why I was always digging into other projects both existing and completed.  Folks would get uncomfortable when I asked them questions about how their project was going and what issues they were encountering.  I usually had to dig to get past the “going great, no issues, we’ll deliver when we promised” song-and-dance and finally get to the “we are three months late, short of staff, customer is unhappy, and we have hundreds of quality issues” brutal honesty.

It was the brutal honesty I was interested in and not all the “see the great things we’ve done” presentations.  Why?  Because I  knew our history and we always delivered projects and products late.  So hearing about wonderful things were not as interesting to me as hearing about what went wrong.  Knowing what typically went wrong told me what to plan for and what to expect.

For more on this technique, see Panic And Do Nothing.

I would guess that the difference between what Sam was up against and what I was up against were slightly different.  He had a successful operation that he wanted to continue to improve.  I on the other hand, for over 30 years, was consistently part of organizations (government, military and commercial) that consistently failed to deliver big IT and software intensive projects on time and with good quality.

In these organizations, we always had a ton of “standard best practices” that if everyone did them, we were assured that everything would work out perfectly.  It didn’t happen, of course.

Instead, I stumbled upon a very successful solution.   It was simply to dig up how long it was really taking us to do one of these mega projects and assume that would be at least how long it would take the next time.  Boy, did that get a negative response from everyone.

See why these Metrics Are Hard

You see, their concern was that I was accounting for all the typical things that go wrong, while what they wanted to do was assume that everything would go right.  See, they argued, if it all went right then we could do it in the time promised, which was typically 20 to 50% faster than we had ever done it before.

Instead, what finally got us to success was seeing that it takes us, for example, typically one year to complete a project though we had consistently planned on completing them in nine months. Once we finally, usually through some guerrilla management on my team’s part, arranged to get a 12 month project commitment, we then delivered on time with much improved quality.  Customers were always happy, even with the supposedly longer delivery time.  However, it never took us any longer than we had taken in the past.  Instead, we just admitted up front how long it would actually take.

For more on why this works see In Project Management 9+3 Does Not Equal 12

While there is a lot more to delivering on time with good quality, this simple approach, of boosting a consistently underperforming organization by using past performance to estimate the plan, consistently provided the foundation of success that allowed all the other great management things we do to finally work well.

See why in Good Quality Causes Higher Productivity

Sam Walton was an extremely successful merchant.  One reason was that he was relentlessly learning about merchandising by studying competitor’s stores.  We can use this same approach in project management by relentlessly studying other projects, both in and outside our own organization.  While Sam was not interested in what was wrong with a competitor’s store, for organizations that struggle with delivering projects on time, knowing and planning for those things that go both right and wrong in past projects can rocket your current project organization to on time with good quality.

Do you know, in relentless detail, the history of past projects in your organization?

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