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Six Sigma Principle Two: Reduce Variation
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When Your Business Efficiency Project Fails

Risk is an unavoidable part of every new business strategy project, whether the end goal is increased efficiency, savings, or even if you’re setting out to find out what is inefficient. It’s how you handle the twists and turns that ultimately determine if your project is a success, a wash, or an experience everyone wishes they could forget.

Re-align when necessary

So, things aren’t going quite as you expected. Changes you thought would bring joy to team members are actually causing them to pull their hair out. The savings you expected to realize didn’t materialize, or were eaten up (or exceeded) by some unexpected costs. Training really took two weeks instead of two hours, and quality control measures tanked during that time.

All is not lost! You should continue to hang in there, but you should not hang on to the same project plan. Go back to the drawing board with the new information you’ve gained from your execution so far and rework the sections of your plan that are no longer true or relevant. One of the real benefits of a well-written plan is that you rarely have to start it over from scratch when you make adjustments.

Realignments don’t have to be due to poor results. Sometimes in the course of adopting one solution, you hear of an even better one (or a better one is just hitting the market). This is a good reason to change course, too.

Reset your milestones

Many projects involve doing new work and acquiring new skills in the process. Even a project with deliverables you’ve produced 100 times can fall behind for a myriad of reasons, ranging from a flu epidemic on a factory floor to a shipyard strike that delays materials.

Instinct would usually have you perform simple addition on the whole schedule. If you’re seven days behind on step three, simply add seven days to each subsequent deliverable. Unfortunately, it’s usually not that simple. If what you didn’t know costs a week up front, odds are it will eat additional time going forward.

Knowing what you know now, sit down with the project team and re-evaluate your milestones. There’s no need to get scared and shift your due dates to an impossible-to-miss day next year — aggressive deadlines can be both motivational and sometimes necessary — but you also need to be realistic in light of your existing delays.

Know when to quit the project

In a successful project, you can stop executing after you reach your stated goal (unless some or all of the processes you introduced are intended to continue indefinitely). In a less-successful project, the finish line is not as clear.

Some indicators that it’s time to wrap up a project, regardless of current results, include the following:

  • A team drained of morale: Beating a dead horse or a demoralized team never did much good.

  • Lack of a clear solution: Resist the urge to forge ahead if your current situation or goal is no longer applicable but you don’t have a replacement. You can never arrive if you don’t have a destination.

  • No (or negative) results after exerting real effort: If your planned solution clearly isn’t working to achieve your objective, it’s time to try something else.

  • You run out of resources: Although there are exceptions to this, namely if your project’s performing very well, generally borrowing to get out of debt (by begging for more resources for an ill-fated project) doesn’t work.

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