Management Blind Spot 4 – False Starts

Everyone has started a project only to realize that you do not have all the items you need to finish.   Drywall anchors – picture hangers – spackle – no matter the project, it’s the little things that get you hung up.  So you either have to stop and run back to the store so you can finish, or set aside the project until you can swing by the store “later”.   Either way, it’s extra work and it takes longer than it should.

Many engineering projects suffer from the same problem.  In a hurry to start, we begin the work as soon as it appears on our desk. But too often, the task takes longer because we don’t have everything to finish.  Worse, we don’t know we can’t finish (who knew we were out of drywall anchors?) either because we didn’t check or we didn’t fully unpack the task before we started.

False starts are worth addressing because of what the do to the workflow.  Multiply the starting and stopping effect by the quantity of your engineers, designers, drafters, buyers, etc., and you’ll see the delays and rework cascading across all of your projects.

It’s such an obvious thing, isn’t it?   But what’s obvious and sensible is not what we find in the workplace.  The reason – especially in knowledge work – is that it’s difficult to incorporate sensible and obvious into a coherent system of project management.

Most people don’t see it a problem, just a fact of life.  From a project systems point of view, it’s hard to see that false starts is the cause of many of your project problems:

Loss of Momentum: My previous post discussed the problem with too much work in process.  False starts exacerbate the effects – false starts inflate WIP even worse, it can’t move!

Rework:  Without the full kit of information to finish, tasks are often completed incorrectly.  Going back and redoing the work takes time and consumes additional resources, putting other work behind schedule and impacting not only that project, but also potentially the other projects that use those resources.

Extra Costs: Doing it twice or three times.  Using resources more and longer than you had planned to.  This time and those resources have to be purchased.  Working overtime to catch up.  Temporary workers.  Tiger teams. Not free.  Not planned.

False starts are much more than a nuisance; they are a systemic problem affecting your entire project management process.

What to do about it? First, make a decision.  No task starts unless it can finish.  This changes the emphasis in the organization from keeping busy to preparing to succeed.

Next, resource the preparation activity.  Someone has to be accountable for full kit and clean start, someone has to check that the work is ready to start.

Then, focus on identifying what is needed to finish a task.  That in itself will shift your team’s thinking, give some thought to establishing hand off criteria; determining when it is good enough to say “done”.

In our work with project teams, we see false starts often: in projects, in manufacturing.  For example, at one manufacturer, shortages to final assembly were high and the receiving department didn’t want to stop the line. Crews were constantly deployed out of position, working overtime, crowding stations, creating rework and scrap.

By eliminating the shortages, the clean start, the line accelerated and overtime declined substantially.   You can read more about this case here.

Although the example is of a manufacturer, the concept applies to any workflow.  The practice of a clean start with a full kit is so important to overall project performance that it has become central to our project and workflow transformation engagements.  It moves teams from merely being busy, to being effective.  It changes the way they look at their work.

It’s a simple thing you can do that will transform your portfolio performance.  Decide.

Read more about the false starts in our eBook Blindsided! Five Invisible Project Threats Successful Managers Must See.

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