PM Articles > Alan S. Koch > Little ITIL®, Big Results

Little ITIL®, Big Results

Step 5b of 10: Making your first improvement

by Alan S. Koch, PMP

In the previous article of our "Little ITIL®, Big Results" series, we decided which improvement effort we will do first. Now it is time for us to get to work on it. Finally! This step of the process will draw on everything that has preceded it: Step 1, we bought the time to do it; Step 2, we talked about doing it; Step 3, we figured out how to measure it; and Step 4, we talked in quantitative terms about it. (Listen to our webinar on this 10-step process!)

So now, we "just do it!" Right?

If it were that easy, we would have done it long ago, and the landscape would not be littered with the dead carcasses of failed improvement efforts. Think about how people often react to the announcement of an improvement effort. "Oh oh! Here's the next flavor of the day. If we smile and nod, it'll die of its own accord just like all the others that preceded it."

Improvements seem so benign, but in the real world, they present us with real challenges. Being successful with improvements requires that we be aware of those challenges and address them explicitly.

Improvement Is a Project

One of the biggest causes of improvement failure is the failure to recognize that making any kind of an improvement is a project, and should be treated as such with all of the disciplines and oversight that implies.

In this article, we will not try to cover the whole topic of project management. We will assume that the reader has that information available either in their own training and experience, embodied in their organization's processes, or via the many great resources that have been published.

As such, we will use project management terminology and freely refer to project management concepts as if you know what we are talking about. We encourage you to look up any term or concept with which you are not fully conversant.

The Business Case for the Improvement

Before expending any time or money, we must gain the concurrence of the holders-of-the-purse-strings that it is an appropriate spend of the organization's time and money. If we don't start with these people on our side, the whole project could be stopped before it delivers anything.

Improvement Project Objective -- Begin by identifying the Business Objectives of the organization that are not being fully realized because of the issue that this project will cure. This hitches the Improvement project's wagon to a star that the decision-makers care about. Describe the Observed Problem that the project will cure (preferably one that the decision-makers have already articulated or at least observed), and drill down to the Root Cause of that problem. Your Improvement Project Objective is to cure the root cause, which will eliminate the observed problem and enable the organization to achieve its business objectives.

Improvement Project Benefits -- Although the Project Objective should be immediately identifiable as a "good thing to do," it begs the question of precisely how important it is. So we must explicitly list the benefits the organization will realize from the project. Most of the benefits must be quantified and translated into money. (The project won't just make a job quicker and easier; it will save x hours of labor, which computes to $y of cost avoidance. Or it won't just please customers; it will attract x amount of new business, which results in $y of new revenue.) You will need to tap colleagues (e.g. in Human Resources or Marketing) to come up with defensible money estimates. (If you have an important benefit that no one can quantify, be sure to include it anyway, because it may still garner some important support.) [Our Opportunity Screening Worksheet can help with this analysis. –Ed.]

Improvement Approach -- On your very first improvement project, this will be difficult to envision. There is the very real possibility that you will not realize some significant activities or other impacts for lack of experience with these sorts of projects. Your best bet is to collaborate with colleagues from other organizations who have done these sorts of projects before (or hire a few hours of consulting help) to make sure you have laid out an appropriate approach that has the best possibility of delivering the benefits you described. You should also list two or three alternative approaches that you believe would be less effective. (This shows the decision-makers that you really did your homework!)

Improvement Project Costs -- Computing the ROM (Rough Order of Magnitude) cost of your approach will also be difficult on your first project. So, again, you should collaborate with colleagues from other organizations or hire a few hours of consulting help to make sure your effort and cost ROMs are reasonable. This is critical because cost or schedule issues on the very first project can have disastrous long-term impacts!

Return on Investment (ROI) -- Go to your organization's accounting group and get them to help you crank the Costs and Benefits into the appropriate ROI format for the organization. (No, ROI is not as simple as Benefits minus Costs!) To make your case defensible, you must state it the same way any other investment would be stated in your organization!

All of these things taken together form the heart of your Business Case -- your logical argument for investing in the improvement project. The powers-that-be in your organization will weigh it against other investment opportunities (after all, there isn't enough money to invest in everything), and decide to fund your initiative if it appears to be appropriate.

Beware! You have just made a binding contract with the senior executives of your organization! They have agreed to invest in your improvement project in exchange for the benefits you have laid out. You had better be sure that you deliver what you promise, or you will find the well dry the next time you go to them!

Initiating an Improvement Project

Now that you have secured backing for your improvement, you must Charter the project. Your Project Charter will expand on what you said in your Business Case and fill in key details. For an Improvement project you should address these things:

Scope of Project Activity -- The Benefits and Approach must be translated into an explicit statement of what your project will do (and what it will not do). To be successful with improvements, you will do things like these:

  • Collect data about precisely what is going on today. Identify what is working well and what is problematic, and identify the causes of the pains you seek to correct.
  • Research how other organizations have solved the problems you have. Although you won't be able to simply apply their techniques without change, you will find that you can capitalize on other people's mistakes instead of making them yourself. This is where public frameworks like ITIL come into play!
  • Work with the people who will have to do things differently to figure out which of those good ideas from other companies apply to your situation, and the best way to put those good ideas to use. If you simply try to tell them how to change, you will generate resistance instead of acceptance. (Not to mention that you will probably be wrong!)
  • Document the new way of working. Create forms, templates, checklists and process flows that will help people to figure out the new way of working.
  • Pilot the new way of working to see if it works and to tune it for maximum benefit.
  • Train people on the new way to do things. Hold their hands and answer their questions. Do everything you can to be sure they are successful with the new way.
  • Collect data to quantify the impact of the new way, and to understand if the benefits you promised are indeed being realized.
  • Publicize your successes. Don't just report status to the powers-that-be. Celebrate every milestone and trumpet every success!

Stakeholder Involvement -- An improvement project requires far more that a Communication Plan. As you can see from the activities listed above, it requires a lot of involvement and action by a wide variety of people throughout the organization. Your charter must clarify your expectations of everyone's involvement in the project, and all of the powers-that-be must realize that in approving your charter, they are committing their own resources to the project's success.

The Project Team -- You can't do it all yourself. And although you will be involving lots of stakeholders, you will also need a core team of people who are focused on the project. This team will ideally include one member from each key stakeholder group. You want someone who knows the public frameworks you will be referencing, someone who knows the details of what goes on in IT, and often someone from other departments who are affected by the improvement. (For example, if the improvement will change how Marketing does part of their work, you will want a marketing team member dedicated to your improvement project team.)

Deliverables and Milestones -- Clarify precisely what the organization should get from your project and when they should see those things. There will be documents to publish, workshops to hold, reviews to be done, training to provide, the all-important rollout date, and of course, reports about the benefits achieved.

Planning an Improvement Project

Translating your Project Charter into a Project Plan is not very different from what you would do on any other project. The strategy, scope of activity, deliverables and stakeholder involvement all show up in your task plan, effort estimates, schedule and budget.

Here again, you will want to lean on someone with real experience doing these sorts of improvements to help you put together a realistic plan that doesn't overlook important details. Call once again on a trusted colleague or knowledgeable consultant to guide you in your planning and estimating.

Executing and Monitoring & Controlling an Improvement Project

After your plan is in place, managing your improvement project will be just like managing any other project. Do what you planned, monitor actual activity, costs and achievements against the plan, and take corrective action as needed to keep things on track. And yes, go back and re-plan if you find that things are significantly different from what you envisioned.

Closing an Improvement Project

When you reach the end of an improvement project, it is important that you not just stop working. There are a variety of things you will need to do to ensure the project results in the sustained benefits you envisioned, and to set up your next improvement for success.

First is the Lessons Learned. When you are doing something new (like improving your internal methods) for the first or second (or third) time, things will be a bit rocky. Each time you complete a project, you will want to step back and ask how the project went, and how you can make the next one easier and more successful.

Second is the Celebration. A celebration will be instrumental in sustaining momentum. Regardless of how rocky or difficult the road was, you got to the end of it and made things a little better. That is worth celebrating regardless of how modest the improvement may have been. You'll want to publicly thank those who contributed to the success and give everyone the opportunity to enjoy the success.

Finally, you will want to keep Measuring and Monitoring for many months to document the real, lasting benefit the project provided. If the benefit is substantial, it is yet another reason to celebrate. If it is a disappointment, it is a learning experience. Either way, you'll miss out if you aren't actively measuring and monitoring!

Picking the Fruit

After laying a solid groundwork and carefully choosing that juicy low-hanging fruit, you have finally started to make things better and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Of course, this isn't the end of the journey. Far from it! You have merely completed the first circuit on a path that has no end -- the path of Continual Service Improvement. Where do you go from here? We'll address that next time!

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