Project Management Institute

Managing improvement initiatives as projects

National Security Technologies, LLC


An organizational improvement initiative can be successfully planned and executed using standardized project management methodologies and techniques.

This paper explains how traditionally accepted project management methodologies can be tailored and adapted to support improvement initiative planning, implementation, and validation processes. The paper provides the reader with an understanding of the methods for initiating and planning corporate improvement initiatives using a project management approach; how to deal with challenges that are common to corporate improvement initiatives; how to apply standardized project management techniques to monitor, status, and report improvement action and implementation progress; and how to apply accepted quality assurance methodologies to verify and validate the effectiveness of improvement action implementation.

This paper is organized into the following content areas:

  • Project initiation and planning methods
  • Implementation techniques and challenges
  • Monitoring, measuring, and reporting progress
  • Implementation effectiveness verification and validation

Through the use of accepted project planning techniques, the improvement initiative scope of work can be defined, organized, and decomposed into the required improvement elements. A topical focus area based work breakdown structure (WBS) can be established with discrete and manageable elements (control accounts and sub-tier work packages). An effectively developed deliverable oriented WBS provides the logical framework for tracing all necessary elements of the improvement initiative, defined as improvement actions, and ensures that each improvement element is fully addressed. Creating a task-oriented structure provides the necessary control and basis for executing the improvement initiative, monitoring improvement activity performance, providing progress reporting and validating the effectiveness of improvement action implementation. Upon closure of individual elements of the improvement effort (at the work package level), a process is described for verifying that the completed improvement actions adequately address the deliverable expectations to ensure the project inputs (findings, recommendations, and observations) have been successfully addressed through implementing actions. This paper further describes a process to validate that the actions taken, including metrics, have met the improvement element success criteria and are effective in achieving and maintaining the improvements that the initiative was chartered to accomplish.


What is an Improvement Initiative?

Discussions that focus on the application of effective project management techniques tend to gravitate to the traditional models where integrated project teams conduct large and small scale projects that include construction type projects to build commercial/industrial buildings; environmental clean-up type projects involving remediation, treatment and disposal efforts; research and development projects to achieve advancements in medicine and disease control; scientific exploration projects such as the NASA's efforts to develop the Space Shuttle; and information technology types of projects to introduce or upgrade computer hardware and software systems.

Improvement initiatives on the other hand are often viewed as “operational activities” to be conducted by functional departments to improve internal processes and systems within their oversight and control. Common attributes of improvement initiatives include:

  • Increased customer satisfaction
  • Reductions in deficiencies: These can create customer dissatisfaction and chronic waste
  • Product development to create new features that provide greater customer satisfaction
  • Business process improvement to reduce the cycle time for providing better service to customers
  • Creation of “one-stop shopping” to reduce customer frustration over having to deal with multiple personnel to get service
  • Reduction in deficiencies that create chronic waste may consist of such actions as increasing the yield of factory processes
  • Reduction of the error rates in operations, maintenance, and office environments
  • Reduction of field failures
  • Improved safety levels

What is the Value of Managing Improvement Initiatives as Projects to the Organization?

The use of project management techniques for executing improvement initiatives provides numerous benefits to the corporate entity seeking improvement, company senior management and, most significantly, the improvement initiative project team including:

  • Improvement initiative scope of work can be defined and broken down into discrete and manageable elements.
  • Schedule and resource requirements can be established to allow monitoring and control of individual improvement actions.
  • Risks can be identified, qualitatively analyzed, quantified, and response strategies developed.
  • Assigned responsibilities can be clearly established so that designated members of the project team can be made responsible for implementing selected areas of “improvement actions” to accomplish the goals and objectives of the initiative.
  • Earned value methodology can be used to monitor and report progress.
  • Improvement action implementation can be traced through WBS elements and scheduled activities to initiating finding, recommendation and observations and verified and validated.

Why use Project Management Techniques?

Project management techniques provide:

  • A disciplined approach, using a WBS, to establish the necessary structure to capture the total improvement effort.
  • A logical framework for tracing all necessary elements of the effort and for ensuring the elements are fully addressed in the scope of work.
  • A task-oriented structure that is the basis for:

– Initiating, planning, and implementing improvement actions

– Monitoring project performance

– Providing progress reporting

– Validating the effectiveness of improvement action implementation

Project Initiation and Planning Methods

Project Phasing

Developing a phased approach to conducting an improvement initiative is an effective technique to focus management and project team attention as well as resources on near term efforts. An example of the project phasing approach is shown in Exhibit 1 and allows for the sequential initiation, planning, and execution of an improvement initiative.

Project Phasing Approach

Exhibit 1 – Project Phasing Approach

Common Cause Analysis

An improvement project initiation phase typically involves the conduct of a Common Cause Analysis or series of Root Cause Analyses to identify organizational or process weaknesses which, if addressed, would allow the organization to move forward in resolving performance issues. These analyses are conducted by a team of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) with advanced levels of experience with the processes being considered for improvement. The analyses typically last several weeks and focus on recent events and performance-related issues. The SME team is chartered to review and determine underlying issues and causes that are not being addressed. The SME team can be an independent group made up of consultants or personnel obtained from corporate entities external to the organization or process being analyzed. The SME team is tasked to review the following example types of issues and/or areas of concern:

  • Operations performance over the past 6 to 8 months
  • Health of management processes
  • Levels of management attention
  • Development and implementation of affected processes
  • Recent quality control issues and extent of condition reviews
  • System engineering and configuration management program implementation
  • Operations and maintenance program implementation
  • Causal analysis issues
  • Organizational procedures

Team observations and recommendations are documented in a completion report in areas where the corporate entity or process owners should take action to enhance performance. The team's observations and recommendations are then out-briefed to the corporate senior management team.

Developing a Mission Statement

The Common Cause Analysis also provides a basis for developing a project charter or mission statement, which serves a number of essential purposes:

  • Defines the desired improvement initiative scope of work and end state condition so that stakeholders and project team members can determine when the project is complete.
  • Defines the strategy used in executing the improvement initiative.
  • Clarifies the objectives of the improvement initiative.
  • Establishes the project team and defines clear roles and responsibilities for the team members and stakeholders.
  • Authorizes the project team to plan and execute the project.

Planning the Improvement Initiative as a Project

The planning phase involves two primary elements: (1) the development of the Project Management Plan, culminating in approval by the corporate senior management; and (2) identification, authorization, and commitment of funding for the project.

The Project Management Plan is the governing document for the execution of an improvement initiative project. The Project Management Plan establishes the scope, schedule, and resource baselines for the work to be accomplished when funding is authorized. It defines the organizational elements responsible for performing the work and provides the requirements for baseline management, control, and integration. The Project Management Plan is owned and maintained by the project manager throughout the implementation and validation phases of the project. The project manager uses the plan to ensure that, at completion, the project meets the desired end state. A Project Management Plan should include the following elements:

  • Scope and implementation strategy definition
  • Overall project end state definition
  • Work breakdown structure
  • Responsibility Assignment Matrix
  • Major schedule milestones and a summary level schedule (Gantt bar)
  • Cost estimate summary
  • Risk plan (may be referenced as a separate document)
  • Communication Plan

The major input for establishing the scope of work for the improvement initiative is the Common Cause Analysis findings, observations, and recommendations developed by the independent SME team. Each finding, observation and recommendation is assigned an action, which is then assigned to a specific WBS element. The WBS provides a logical framework for tracing all necessary elements of the effort to ensure all required activities are fully addressed in the scope of work. Scope decomposition should be performed to a level that establishes discrete deliverable based elements.

The project phasing approach depicted in Exhibit 1 above can be introduced as Level 2 of the WBS. The actions developed from the Common Cause Analysis findings, recommendations, and observations are then flowed down and binned into topical focus area based control accounts at Level 3 of the WBS as depicted in Exhibit 2 below. Establishing an action tracking crosswalk to record the flow-down and assignment of actions to topical area based control accounts is recommended to allow traceability during the initiatives verification and validation activities.

Improvement Project Input Flow-down to Topical Focus Area based Control Accounts

Exhibit 2 – Improvement Project Input Flow-down to Topical Focus Area based Control Accounts.

Once the control account structure has been determined, a detailed WBS dictionary should be developed to identify work packages at WBS Level 4 as required within each control account. The dictionary should contain the following information at the work package level:

  • Scope
  • End state definition
  • Deliverables
  • Assumptions and constraints
  • Inputs/outputs
  • Basis of estimate

The Project Management Plan should identify the project organizational structure and detailed scope of work and schedule, with defined outcomes, measures, and milestones to accomplish the objectives of the improvement initiative. The project purpose should be clearly defined, the scope of work description should provide a complete understanding of the project, the organizational roles and responsibilities, and provide a summary level project schedule with milestones that have been developed to accomplish the objectives of the project. The plan should define the desired project end state that is responsive to the improvement initiative objectives and the findings, recommendations, and observations of the Common Cause Analysis.

Risk Planning

Project risk identification, analysis, and response planning are integral parts of the improvement initiative process with primary application during the planning and implementation phases. A Risk Plan should be referenced in the Project Management Plan. A risk register should be developed to monitor and track risks throughout the project life cycle. The project team, primarily control account managers and stakeholders, should be involved in the risk planning process. An initial qualitative risk analysis should be performed by the project team that focuses on maximizing the probability and consequences of positive events, and minimizing the probability and consequences of events adverse to project objectives. The risk planning process should include the following steps:

  • Identify Risks

    – Hold a risk brainstorming session with CAMs and Stakeholders once your WBS Dictionary is 90% complete

    – Link risks to project objectives by topical focus area/control account

    – Assign an owner to each risk (project team members or stakeholders)

  • Perform Qualitative Risk Analysis

    – Analyze and rank the risks to establish probability and consequence using tailored ranking scales

    – Categorize risk causes/effects and document results in the risk register

  • Plan Risk Responses

    – Determine risk handling strategies (Avoid, Transfer, Mitigate, or Accept) and develop mitigation strategies for high risks

At the completion of the planning phase, the following major planning output documents should be approved and placed within configuration change control as the project baseline: Project Management Plan, WBS Dictionary, Cost Estimate, Project Schedule, and Risk Plan.

Implementation Techniques and Challenges

Implementation Techniques

The development of useful metrics to measure action implementation progress, provide useful feedback to assist the project team, senior management and stakeholders in determining the adequacy of in-progress and at-completion improvement actions is an essential activity and should be conducted early in the implementation phase of the project. A two-step process is recommended and includes:

  • Establishing success criteria and metrics (by focus area/control account).

    – Identify metrics to gauge accomplishment of implementation objectives where applicable

    – Track metric data to determine implementation progress and effectiveness

    – Identify success criteria for each focus area (control account)

    – Obtain stakeholder buy-in/agreement with metrics and success criteria

  • Providing a mechanism for stakeholder/customer involvement in the verification process.

A second essential implementation technique is to establish a method to maintain traceability of implementing actions back to the findings, recommendations, and observations identified during the Common Cause Analysis. Mapping of the findings, recommendations, and observations to assigned WBS elements using a crosswalk matrix at the project control account and work package levels allows further assignment to schedule activities at the work package level.

Common Challenges

Each improvement initiative presents unique challenges to the project team. Example challenges are listed below, with suggested methods to addressing those challenges:

  • Project team members may have limited experience working in a project environment because they may have been assigned to operational entities.

    – Requires in-process training/coaching

  • Achieving buy-in necessary to set the tone for open, effective exchange of information, and in turn, to create an environment conducive to implementing change.

    – Requires senior management and functional area management support

  • Obtaining the necessary resources to accomplish the improvement actions may be difficult because the resources are required to maintain their “day jobs” while supporting the improvement initiative.

    – Requires senior management and functional area management support

  • Cultural acceptance of new paradigms for success and failure due to embedded conditioning and a feeling of ownership of the process under improvement.

    – Communicate and tout verified successes that come from the project

  • Maintaining team focus due to “internal nature” of effort.

    – Requires functional area management support to counter competition with ongoing work activities

Monitoring, Measuring, and Reporting Progress

Monitoring performance against an approved project cost and schedule baseline and interfacing with the project team and functional managers to maintain the integrated project working schedule are essential activities during the implementation and validation phases. Performance monitoring and progress reporting is typically conducted on a monthly basis and is often supported with weekly team status meetings (plan of week). Intense improvement activities may require plan of day level status. Activities scheduled and conducted under the Project Management Plan should be monitored by the project manager utilizing qualified project controls engineer resources. The project manager and the project control engineer should work as a team with the control account managers and work package managers to closely monitor project performance relative to schedule performance, cost performance, and achieving the desired end state at the control account and work package levels. Providing status reporting to the senior management team and other interested stakeholders is an essential communication requirement to maintain management attention levels and report both successes and challenges the project is facing.

Monitoring activities should include:

  • Schedule status reporting involving monthly analysis of the schedule progress with close monitoring of those areas of the schedule that might pose a risk to successful on-time completion of the project.
  • Risk management activities involving periodic review, analysis, and tracking of risk items within the project risk register.
  • Monitoring improvement action implementation.
  • Developing and reporting metrics.
  • Maintaining transparency with stakeholders.

The desired end state of the monitoring and reporting process is the successful completion of the improvement initiative in accordance with Project Management Plan that meets the project objectives.

Implementation Effectiveness Verification and Validation

The purpose of an improvement initiative verification and validation process is to confirm the effectiveness of the improvement initiative actions and provide for continuous improvement during the implementation process. This is accomplished through two primary elements:

  • Development and use of success criteria and metrics to monitor status, evaluate the effectiveness of corrective actions taken at the control account level of the WBS, and to drive improvement.
  • Verification of improvement initiative action completion and validation of the effectiveness of those actions.

Quality assurance based principles can be used to verify and validate that:

  • Upon closure of individual control accounts, completed actions adequately address the deliverable expectations documented in the Project Management Plan and fully address the Common Cause Analysis findings, recommendations, and observations that have been converted into implementing actions.
  • After a suitable period of implementation that the actions taken meet the committed success criteria, remain in use, and are effective in achieving and maintaining the improvements that the initiative was chartered to accomplish.

Verification and Validation Process

A verification and validation methodology should be documented and agreed to with stakeholders early in the implementation phase. An accepted verification and validation methodology involves the following three steps as depicted in the flow diagram in Exhibit 3 below:

  1. Work package closure verification;
  2. Verification of the adequacy of implementing action execution for work packages, which require a preliminary evaluation of implementation prior to the time when full effectiveness could reasonably be expected to be demonstrated; and
  3. Validation of implementation effectiveness for those control accounts that can be reasonably expected to have been in place for a sufficient period of time to demonstrate effectiveness.

Validation Methodology

Personnel performing the validation reviews may use any or all of the following methodologies as coordinated with the control account manager (CAM) and/or work package manager (WPM).

  • Interviews
  • Document Reviews
  • Observation

Reporting Verification and Validation Progress

It is important to report verification and validation progress to stakeholders. This can be accomplished by including verification and validation metrics in the monthly project status report. The metrics should track the extent of action closure evidence verified and validated by control account against the total number of actions assigned to the control account.

Verification and Validation Process

Exhibit 3 – Verification and Validation Process.


Completion of the improvement initiative project deliverables and verification/validation activities confirms that the initiative has met its documented objectives. The project manager is responsible for conducting a final project performance review to determine the overall success and effectiveness of the project and to capture open issues for further resolution. The use of a project performance review team consisting of functional managers and subject matter experts is recommended and the team should, if possible, include members of the independent team that performed the Common Cause Analysis early in the initiation phase. The review team should assemble their findings in a final report that documents:

  • Achievement of objectives (compares project performance against original initiative objectives)
  • Achievement of end state (compares achieved end state condition of deliverables against original end state condition definitions)
  • Project schedule performance (compares actual schedule performance against the baseline schedule)

The final report should be briefed to senior management and interested stakeholders to provide feedback on the overall effectiveness of the effort and to reinforce the achievements and challenges encountered during the implementation phase. Recommendations on any follow up on actions should be included.

This manuscript has been authored by National Security Technologies, LLC, under Contract No. DE-AC52-06NA25946 with the U.S. Department of Energy. The United States Government retains and the publisher, by accepting the article for publication, acknowledges that the United States Government retains a non-exclusive, paid-up, irrevocable, world-wide license to publish or reproduce the published form of this manuscript, or allow others to do so, for United States Government purposes.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Originally published as a part of the 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, Canada



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