Continuous Improvement blogPlanning for Improvements

Planning for improvements

When I am working on a project, one of the things I often struggle with is coming up with appropriate dates for an action plan. Workshops taking the project team through the project stages, mapping the process, coming up with improvement ideas and creating the action plan tend to go quite smoothly. When it comes to allocating the actions and giving deadlines, I have the conversations with the project teams to allocate dates to suit them and the project. However, time and time again, we reach the point where the dates need to be pushed out, for various reasons. There are lots of things to consider, but I find it is difficult to consider every scenario. Even if I think I have, something always comes along and impacts the dates set.

What has an impact?

A colleague introduced me to the concept of ‘the less than twelve-month year’ in a simple graphic – possibly around springtime. I did not give it much thought initially. However, following a catch-up with a project team where several actions had not progressed, things started to make sense.

When putting action plans together, dates are agreed upon with those in the project team who will be responsible for completing the work to implement the actions. The team was eager to get the improvements in place before the start of the new term, and although the dates were ambitious, it made sense to get the actions completed as soon as possible. Traditionally, this student-facing area was quieter over the summer before the majority of the students returned in September.

June, July, and August were the main dates noted on the plan for completing the actions. Monthly catch-ups with the project team took place and when we reached August, less than half of the actions were complete. What was the problem? None of us had considered that over June, July and August, most staff take annual leave. The impact of staff holidays was huge. Rotas, email boxes, and tasks needed to be covered and understandably, took priority over the action plan. Talking about this at our team’s daily stand-up meeting, it was pointed out to me that I shouldn’t have been surprised.

‘The less than twelve-month year’ clearly shows that June, July, and August are both underproductive and under-resourced. It would be fair (at least partially) to attribute this to periods of annual leave – something that happens every year, but it is still something that is often forgotten about. It is difficult to schedule workshops and arrange meetings over the summer period, so why would we expect others to implement improvement action plans during this period? Calendar wall chart

It's similar when you get to the end of the year, the closer you get to Christmas, the harder it is for people to find the time to commit to things out with their ‘normal’ tasks. January can be just as difficult, as can April. I’m having a similar issue with another project’s action plan as I did in the summer. Dates are already getting pushed back into the new year for various reasons.

Yes, it can be frustrating, but it should not be surprising. Looking at the graphic, there are points in the year that should be avoided when planning activities, and points in the year that should be utilised. Although you cannot think of every potential obstacle that can prevent actions from being delivered, you can at least try and avoid the under-productive and under-resourced points in the year. It is certainly something I am taking into account from now on. Timing your actions right is not the only thing that helps.

What else can be done differently?

Considering when you are requesting the action plan be delivered is only a part of the overall picture. Regardless of what dates you choose, unless the project team is given time to work on the actions, it is likely that they will take longer to implement. Project team members are often working on a project, on top of their own work – as expected, if under pressure, it is the first thing to go.

Another thing I have tried recently is to plan improvement workshops in advance. Two hours per week for ten weeks allocates the time in diaries for improving a process. If you spend eight of these workshops taking the project team through the project stages, you can end up with some spare workshops. I’ve been encouraging these to be used to work on the action plan. Time is pre-allocated in diaries and is therefore protected. This tends to be a short-term solution to help with implementing action plans.

A longer-term aid is line managers encouraging curiosity and giving time to their colleagues to work on improvements. An hour a week dedicated to this would be a great start. A simple piece of standard work can help to create or develop an improvement culture. Planning by having a time set aside consistently enables staff to focus on improvements – whether generally, or as part of a project.

This will also start to create good habits. People need both time and space to make improvements, time and space to think, come up with ideas, and implement solutions. Doing this begins to create a culture of continuous improvement, should help with implementing future improvements and perhaps begin to challenge the concept of ‘the less than twelve-month year’.