Five key elements to process improvement project success


The Project Management Institute’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) Third Edition, defines a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result” (Project Management Institute, 2004). In terms of “process improvement projects,” projects can be defined as those temporary or short-term endeavors designed to improve a process and resulting in improved performance in a key performance indicator of the business. After all, what business leaders care about is improving results. That is the bottom line: improved performance. This fundamental objective is accomplished through projects, and in particular, through process improvement projects. “Improving results” implies that results are actually measured; therefore, process improvement projects are focused on improving key metrics of the business. Yet, often improvement projects are not successful. There are a variety of reasons why these projects fail: lack of sponsorship, poorly chosen metrics, teams not working together, and recommendations based on hunches instead of on data and facts. Claiming that there has been improvement when, in actuality, no real improvement has occurred is also quite common. These types of problems make it much harder for project managers to gain credibility and support for future project endeavors. There are, however, five key actions that, when implemented correctly, can greatly increase the odds of a smoothly run process improvement project that ends with breakthrough results (as depicted in Exhibit 1.) These are (1) developing stakeholder relationships, (2) establishing sound ground rules, (3) applying proper facilitation skills, (4) incorporating improvement methodologies within the project, and (5) utilizing powerful testing procedures within every project. If a project manager has a firm grasp on these five essential activities, it will be difficult for him or her not to be successful.

A Picture of “Breakthrough Results” for a Key Metric Under Study

Exhibit 1--A Picture of “Breakthrough Results” for a Key Metric Under Study

Stakeholder and Sponsor Relationship Management

One common denominator for successful process improvement projects has to do with project stakeholders; specifically, the ability of the project manager to negotiate and successfully manage the intricate nature of the numerous affected stakeholders of a project. Stakeholders have a huge, if not the greatest impact on projects. Therefore, stakeholder and sponsor relationship management is a vital component of ensuring project success which includes the acceptance and implementation of team recommendations. The key word is “relationship.” This implies more than simply identifying or “managing” stakeholders. A relationship is an emotional connection between people. To have successful process improvement projects, project managers must understand this emotional connection and therefore focus on improving their own interpersonal skill set. The project manager needs to ensure that all stakeholders are not only identified, but are analyzed in such a way that relationships and support for the project can be continuously improved. Project managers need to make sure stakeholders are on board with the approach that is being used to manage the team, the quality tools and use of data to help with decision making, and the testing procedures the project manger will use to verify recommendations. Otherwise, sponsors or other stakeholders might continuously challenge the method or approach used to manage the project.

One of the first actions that a project manager should take is to identify the various categories of stakeholders. The International Institute for Learning’s (IIL) Stakeholder Relationship Skills for Project Managers course identifies four major categories of stakeholders: governing bodies, project team, auxiliary bodies, and clients (International Institute for Learning [IIL], 2008). Once specific stakeholders are identified, a project manager should take it one step further and develop categories for stakeholder assessment. What are the various variables or dimensions that can give clues as to how to handle complex stakeholder relationships? Are stakeholders supportive of or are they against the project? Do they have a great deal of power or influence? Does open conflict exist between stakeholders that might affect the project? Once those dimensions are identified, the project manager can then do a quick assessment of the stakeholders, prioritize where to focus, and develop a plan to address and improve those stakeholder relationships. Exhibit 2 shows a simple way to make this assessment. Variables or dimensions can be added or changed in this matrix, as necessary, as can stakeholder groups. Ratings can be done using any type of scale or weighting scheme.

Example of a simple Stakeholder Assessment Matrix

Exhibit 2--Example of a simple Stakeholder Assessment Matrix

Once stakeholders are identified, assessed, and prioritized, a project manager simply needs to use various interpersonal skills to actively work on and improve those stakeholder relationships, thus helping the project team to be more successful. The IIL Stakeholder Relationship Skills for Project Managers course lists many considerations for ways to improve relationships including:

  • Persuade others to adopt and support the project or your point of view using promoting and negotiation skills
  • Inspire others to work enthusiastically toward project objectives through influencing, facilitating, and mentoring efforts
  • Instill trust in your desire and ability to achieve win/-in results through communication and managing change
  • Enable accurate diagnosis and appropriate response to “special” project needs through creative problem solving and networking (IIL, 2008)

Stakeholder relationship management is of vital importance to the success of process improvement projects. Without stakeholder support, even the best projects with the most capable project managers run the risk of failure. Project managers should proactively spend time, throughout the project, working on improving stakeholder relationships, using various and appropriate interpersonal skill techniques.

Team Ground Rules

Projects of any kind can become troublesome very quickly. When dealing with numerous stakeholder groups, team members, levels of expertise, and various departments, it is inevitable that problems will arise. Process improvement (PI) projects, by their very nature, are quite susceptible to problems. A PI project is usually assembled because results are currently not good enough. Processes almost always cut across departments within an organization, so PI projects are usually comprised of cross-functional team members. It’s not uncommon for some of these departments, or silos, to have differing viewpoints and objectives, or they may simply not like each other very much. This is where problems begin to arise. Various challenges, conflicts, and issues happen with every project. It is how those problems are addressed that will impact the project and team. A project manager needs some kind of tool or technique to help him or her deal with these issues effectively. The answer is simple: ground rules. According to the article, Ground Rules: The Silver Bullet to Successful Project Facilitation:

Ground rules are just what you think they are; a set of rules on how the team will interact, make decisions, and handle issues that must be addressed and resolved. The key to successful application of ground rules is simple; they must actually be developed and then used by the project manager. The reason ground rules are so effective for a project manager is because they enable the project manager to remove himself from the issue and address the conflict or situation without unnecessary or harmful emotion. In essence, the project manager becomes the facilitator of the ground rules document; nothing more, nothing less (Rever, January 2008, ¶2).

It is best to establish ground rules at the kick-off meeting before the team tries to work together. The project manager should begin a list of ground rules topics but allow the team to add to the list. The team should be kept involved and consensus gained on how each issue will be handled---that is, what the “ground rule” will be for that potential issue. The project manager should even develop ground rules specific to the project’s sponsor so that he or she is actively involved at the appropriate level. Then, when problems arise (and they always will), simply refer to the ground rules. It’s that easy. Exhibit 3 lists a few typical situations that teams might face which should be addressed in the ground rules discussion.

Situations that Grounds Rules Can and Should Address

Exhibit 3--Situations that Grounds Rules Can and Should Address

A tool or technique that is simple, easily understood, and effective can be a project manager’s best friend. Ground rules are just such a tool. Ground rules help a team learn how to work together, and they help a project manager facilitate difficult situations more effectively and without emotion.

Process Improvement Methods

A process improvement project is focused on improving results. Nevertheless, improving results is not necessarily easy. A project manager needs a proven methodology to help him or her move the project from current results to improved performance. This is where the Six Sigma DMAIC steps can help with any process improvement project. DMAIC stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control. Because there are only five steps, they are easy to remember, easy to understand, and simply make sense. This proven methodology, if applied correctly, can improve any process.

As mentioned in the article, Project Management and Six Sigma: Use Six Sigma for Better Project Results:

What is the ultimate purpose of a project? Why does some business leader, some organization, want you to work on a project? It’s simple really. Your efforts on any project you are managing should result in some kind of improvement for the business: reduced costs, increased sales, better productivity, less errors, reduced cycle time. The list goes on and on. You and your teams are doing a lot of work so an important aspect of the business gets better. Yet, so often, teams fail to realize improvement is their purpose. They get lost in the minutia and documentation of project management: scope documents, meeting minutes, action item lists, jeopardy logs, and meeting due dates (Rever, 2006).

Improving results implies that key and process measures are identified, defined, and tracked. Baseline “before” pictures are established, and when changes are made to the process, evidence of improvement on the key measure should be visible. The article, The Fundamentals of Metrics Part 1: Considerations for “What” to Measure, summarizes how to link metrics to key aspects of a process: Inputs, Value Added Transformation Steps, and Outputs (Rever, May 2008) .

Process Improvement/Six Sigma Roadmap for Improving Results

Exhibit 4--Process Improvement/Six Sigma Roadmap for Improving Results

Metrics, among other deliverables at the start of a project, are established early in the project under the “Define” step of DMAIC. Once the proper metrics are agreed upon, a project manager simply needs to lead the project team through the DMAIC steps, utilizing the necessary tools and techniques under each step, in order to improve results. This does require a rudimentary understanding of Six Sigma and DMAIC, but it is nothing any competent project manager can’t handle. Exhibit 4 outlines the Six Sigma roadmap for improving results. Incorporating these steps into how a project manager actually facilitates a project will add structure to the project, remove emotion from decision making, and should lead to improved and sustainable results.

Project Facilitation

Anyone who has ever participated on a project where the project manager was not a good facilitator can attest to the importance of project facilitation. A project manager who is an excellent facilitator makes all the difference in the world. Teams work together. People feel involved. Things just go smoothly. Most project managers are natural leaders and are very good at planning. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are necessarily good facilitators.

A good facilitator is very hard to find. A few “naturals” have this skill set, but for the rest of us, it requires practice, work, and constant refinement. A few key characteristics of excellent facilitators include:

  • Leads but doesn’t dominate
  • Actively listens
  • Maintains momentum
  • Encourages participation
  • Leads by example
  • Keeps the sponsor actively involved (but ensures sponsors do not micromanage)
  • Documents to the level needed (nothing unnecessary, does not go overboard)
  • Is very organized
Example of a Simple Facilitation Development Matrix

Exhibit 5--Example of a Simple Facilitation Development Matrix

According to “The Team Handbook,” the ideal coach or quality advisor has a combination of people, technical, and training skills---talents seldom found together. Demonstrating caring and sensitivity towards people is also essential to becoming a good facilitator. Project managers should constantly work on improving their facilitation skill set. As Exhibit 5 demonstrates, a simple personal development matrix is easy to create. A project manager could do a self-assessment before every project and then, during that project, actively work on improving identified weak areas. Simply taking this proactive approach to self development will improve a project manager’s facilitation abilities.

Good facilitators are big-picture thinkers. They have a vision for the project and know how to lead a team in that direction. Seasoned facilitators use a methodology (e.g., the previously mentioned DMAIC steps) as a framework to facilitate a project team. They are confident individuals, yet humble. Competent facilitators allow teams to “get there” on their own by leading, developing, training, and helping. Remember, a project manager’s satisfaction should be the team’s success.

Testing and Experimentation

The plain and simple fact is that it is hard---very hard---to improve results. Processes are complicated. Many, many different variables have an impact on a process or key measure including: the complexity of the process, the number of hand-offs, the variety and number of departments involved, the variation among the people involved in the process, the accuracy of the measurement system, the variety of customer requests or expectations, and the accuracy of upstream inputs and information. These are just a few of the numerous variables that can impact results; there are obviously many others. To show an effect, changes to the process must overcome all of these things, in addition to those variables not listed. The problem is that not every improvement idea is a good idea. Although some ideas do help, many if not most ideas either make no impact to the key measure under study or actually do harm. So how does a project manager know what to change or recommend? The solution is straightforward: find out what actually works and what ideas help improve the key measure, and then implement those ideas.
Conversely, the project manager must find out which process changes have no or negative impact on results and then make certain that those changes are not recommended. Decisions about which ideas to implement or not implement should be based on data not on opinion, experience, conjecture, or hierarchical level.

Examples of Test Ideas/Factors with Levels

Exhibit 5--Examples of Test Ideas/Factors with Levels

To find out which process changes are good ideas that truly impact the key measure under study, the project manager must become familiar with the art and science of experimentation. Essentially, ideas for improvement learned during the Define–Measure–Analyze phases of the project are turned into test factors, as demonstrated in Exhibit 5. It is recommended that each improvement idea has two levels: a “low level” and a “high level.” The low level is generally the status quo setting, whereas the high level is the new idea. Depending on the number of ideas generated, a test matrix is created and an experiment can then be run to verify which ideas significantly impact results. The analysis of an experiment is not difficult; however, it does require some training. Exhibit 6 shows an example of a three-factor test matrix to improve a common metric: “accuracy.” In this example, each combination of improvement ideas or “runs” is replicated three times. Data can then be analyzed to verify the impact of each factor and each two-factor interaction.

Sample Three-Factor Test Matrix with Three Replicates of each Test Run

Exhibit 6---Sample Three-Factor Test Matrix with Three Replicates of each Test Run

Experiments vary in size depending on the number of factors included in the test. Generally speaking, the more test ideas, the better the odds of finding ideas that will result in breakthrough results.

Pareto Charts of Factor Effects: Output from Experiment

Exhibit 7---Pareto Charts of Factor Effects: Output from Experiment

Exhibit 7 shows the output of an experiment. The “effect,” or difference between the low and high level, of each factor is calculated and compared to a control limit. The control limit is calculated from the experiment data. Factors that have a significant impact on the key metric are above the control limit, whereas those that have no significant impact are below the control limit. With this information, the project manager can easily make recommendations that will lead to breakthrough improvements, since he or she now knows what works and what doesn’t.

Test Factor Effects Plots and AB Interaction Plot

Exhibit 8--Test Factor Effects Plots and AB Interaction Plot

In the example output shown in Exhibit 8, the “effect” for each test factor, as well as the AC interaction, can be plotted for easy interpretation. Factor A, adding a checklist to improve accuracy, resulted in higher accuracy (90%) than when no checklist was required (82%). Manager approval, a popular idea, had no significant effect on accuracy, which was counterintuitive to the project team.

Incorporating proper testing tools into all process improvement project efforts can significantly increase the odds of finding out what actually does help results, thus increasing the project manager’s chances for breakthrough performance.


Very simply stated, it is hard to improve results. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Process improvement projects are perhaps the most difficult type of project to manage for this very reason. To be successful, which is defined as a significant improvement in the key metric, the project manager must incorporate five key elements into every project. Proper assessment and management of stakeholder relationships are vital for gaining project support. Establishing team ground rules to help teams work together is very effective. Utilizing the DMAIC improvement steps as a template to guide the project forward will improve decision making and reduce emotion and knee-jerk reactions. Proactively working on and improving facilitation skills makes the most difficult projects seem much easier. Finally, incorporating powerful testing methods to verify and validate recommendations will ensure breakthrough results. These five key elements, if utilized correctly by the project manager, will greatly help any process improvement project to run smoothly, improve results, and ultimately be successful.

International Institute for Learning. (2008). Stakeholder Relationship Skills for Project Managers. New York: International Institute for Learning.

Project Management Institute. (2004). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) Third edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Rever, W. H. (2006, March/April) Project Management and Six Sigma. Use Six Sigma for Better Project Results. Retrieved from

Rever, W. H. (2008, January). Ground Rules:The Silver Bullet to Successful Project Facilitation. Retrieved from

Rever, W. H. (2008, May). The Fundamentals of Metrics Part 1: Considerations for “What” to Measure. Retrieved from

.Scholtes, P. R., Joiner, B. L., & Streibel, B. J. (2002). The Team Handbook (2nd ed.). Madison, WI: Oriel Incorporated.

© 2008, Harry Rever – [email protected]
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado



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