Use recipes to bake better projects

Are your projects unpredictable? Maybe they are a bit like my mother’s cakes!

Better cakes, better projects

My mother wasn’t a great fan of recipes. She had some cookery books, but didn’t always use them. She often baked a cake without using a recipe. Consequently, our family had some great cakes, but also a lot of middling cakes, and a few disasters. Unpredictable.

Does that sound familiar to project managers? Your projects may be a similar mix – few great projects, a lot of middling projects and some disasters.

If your baking was unpredictable, how would you improve it? You would need to start using recipes. And start taking notes on each recipe: “the oven should be at 200°C not 180°C”; or, “this recipe would be better with two eggs”. Those notes help you tweak the recipe to improve the result. So next time you bake, try using two eggs. Or try baking at 200°C

To improve your projects, you need the same approach. But we’ll talk about processes instead of cake recipes. And we’ll need continuous improvement, instead of tweaks.

The objective is to get your projects under control. You need defined project management processes (your recipes), and you need feedback from real-world projects (that’s your notes suggesting tweaks). Then test out the revised processes in the next projects. That’s a cycle of continuous improvement.

Four States of Control

Donald J. Wheeler, a process control expert, suggests a model with 4 states of control to understand how a process is doing

Wheeler Four States of Control

Two states of chaos: In the two states at the bottom of the model, there is no repeatable process. That’s where many project teams effectively are today – everyone does their own thing using “home-brew” methods (or no methods at all). Some projects succeed, but often thanks to individual effort (an experienced project manager, an heroic effort by the team, etc.).

1. Chaos

In this state, there is obvious cause for concern.

  • Cakes: Baking a cake without using a recipe will often disappoint.
  • Projects: In this state, projects fail. Failure is visible, so senior management take action. Too often, managers go for a short-term fix. They fight fires. They fix the project (reinforce the team, troubleshoot the issues, mitigate the risks) rather than the process.

2. Brink of chaos (unpredictable)

In this state, the process is unreliable, but there is a degree of success.

  • Cakes: Baking a cake without using a recipe is unpredictable, but sometimes it’s a great success.
  • Projects: In this state, some projects succeed, but it’s due to subjective factors. Maybe there is a star player in the team or people work long hours. Or the budget was very generous. But it’s not repeatable. Not every project can have a star player or a big budget.

Two states of process control : In the two states at the top of the model, things are in control. There is a defined process to support project management. This generates repetition. Every project is different, but each is following a process. Feedback from the projects can drive continuous improvement.

Defined project processes

3. Threshold (repeatable)

In this state, the process starts to become more reliable.

  • Cakes: Baking a cake using a recipe gives you hope! In time, your cakes may improve. At least you can deduce what to do next time (if your cake is overcooked, then use the same recipe, but try a lower oven temperature).
  • Projects: Your projects are starting to follow processes! So the project teams can give useful feedback (improve the gate process, simplify the risk procedure, etc.). Their feedback is the starting point for continuous improvement.

4. Ideal state (optimised)

In this state, the process is reliable and has been optimised to produce consistently good results

  • Cakes: For cakes, you are following a recipe, which has been tweaked. Your cakes are generally fine.
  • Projects: This is what I call the Project Factory in my book “Lean3 Project Management”. Project teams are using a set of proven processes, with continuous improvement in place to guard against entropy (i.e. to ensure that things don’t drift back towards chaos)

A cycle of improvement

To get a long-term solution requires defined processes and continuous improvement.

The best model for continuous improvement is called the Deming Cycle. W. Edwards Deming was a pioneer of Lean Manufacturing. The original Deming Cycle is PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act), but where standardisation is being introduced, SDCA is often used.Sdca cycle

For Cakes, the baker drives continuous improvement

  • Standardise: Choose a recipe
  • Do: Bake the cake (using the recipe)
  • Check: Take notes (was the recipe easy to follow? do people like the cake?)
  • Act: Update the recipe, ready for the next cake

For Projects, the PMO facilitates continuous improvement:

  • Standardise: write down your processes (as a draft standard)
  • Do: use the standard in projects
  • Check: get feedback from the teams, perform reviews
  • Act: improve the standard, ready to use in future projects

Bake better projects

Let’s sum up: here’s my three step recipe for baking better projects:

1) Create an initial playbook of your key processes. Your playbook could also contain procedures, patterns, document templates and role descriptions… but keep it short and simple (K.I.S.S.)

2) Assign a PMO role. Someone who looks after the long-term job of continuous improvement. This is not something that a project manager can do – a project manager has a short-term interest in the success of one project. Your PMO needs a long term vision.

3) Get feedback and action it. Kick off a cycle of reviews, to get feedback. Action the feedback, update your playbook. It’s as simple as SDCA.

Use my great recipe. Soon you will be baking better projects.

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Written by Jeff on March 3, 2021 in blog
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