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Davis Balestracci

Quality Insider

Activity Is Not Necessarily Impact


Published: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 - 16:41

As improvement professionals, part of our learning curve is the experience of facilitating project teams that fail miserably. Then, despite the necessary lessons learned, there still remain some very real dangers lurking in any project, but it goes beyond organizing and facilitating a team. What about the choice of project?

In the post mortem—if indeed there even is a post mortem—the question that inevitably comes up for projects that didn’t even get close to desired results is, “Why was this project chosen in the first place?” With a collective shoulder shrug, the consensus many times seems to be, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Here are five project evaluation criteria by Matthew E. May. He suggests scanning the current organizational project portfolio and evaluating your role by giving each project a star rating: one star for each criterion. Ask yourself, “What percentage of my work is five-star projects?”

Passion—Personal passion for your project is a good indicator of potential engagement.
• Does it call on your key talents and strengths? Does it require you to stretch them, so that you’ll learn and grow?
• If it’s a team project, are the talents and values of your project team aligned to the project? Does your project team believe in the purpose of the work?

• Will there be big, noticeable, positive change and walloping impact for your intended audience?
• Who exactly is on the receiving end of whatever it is you’re going to deliver?
• Who is truly interested in the outcome of your project?

• Will your project create raving fans—people whom you will “wow!” with expectations, needs, or requirements that are exceeded? (In today’s social media world, it’s much, much easier for a raving fan to broadcast your project’s virtues, so “rave” is an important consideration.)
• Will these results be strong enough to not only create followers and zealots, but also motivate them to tell others, who will tell others, etc.?

• Does your project represent a breakthrough or revolutionary improvement or innovation, i.e., does it require your best creative thinking and problem-solving ability?
• Will it deliver something distinctly better in terms of greater value—not merely just new or different?

• Is it a high-profile, high-stakes project that will attract resources (i.e., people and money)?
• Recognition + resources = higher probability of success
• If you’ve done the first four criteria well, this shouldn’t be a problem. But if visibility is a problem, are you fully leveraging them to sell it?


May also shares from his experience seven seemingly unshakable truths about projects:
• A major project is never completed on time, within budget, or with the original team, and it never does exactly what it was supposed to.
• Projects progress quickly until they become 85-percent complete. Then they remain 85-percent complete forever—sort of like a home improvement project.
• When things appear to be going well, you’ve overlooked something. When things can’t get worse, they will.
• Project teams hate weekly progress reports because they so vividly manifest the lack of progress.
• A carelessly planned project will take three times longer to complete than expected. A carefully planned project will only take twice as long as expected. Also, 10 estimators will estimate the same work in 10 different ways. And one estimator will estimate 10 different ways at 10 different times.
• The greater the project’s technical complexity, the less you need a technician to manage it.
• If you have too few people on a project, they can’t solve the problems. If you have too many, they create more problems than they can solve.


Being human and passionate about improvement, we have delusions of success and a bias for optimism. We take on more than we should, routinely exaggerating the benefits and discounting the costs. We exaggerate our abilities as well as the degree of control we have over events—tending to take credit for success and blaming failure on external events. We over-scope, over-scale, and over-sell while, simultaneously, we underestimate, under-resource, and under-plan.

Any size project will become complex and challenging. Competing interests and conflict will occur, and individual members’ performances will vary widely. Besides these human factors, there are the inevitable, continual shifts in direction and frequent stalls that slow momentum and demand constant planning, adjustment, and improvisation. (When you are sitting through yet another “sanitized” conference project presentation where nothing seemed to go wrong and none of this is addressed, start asking some questions about how these issues were handled, and watch the presenters squirm.)

These are the truths of projects, even the best-picked ones, in a “quality as bolt-on” environment. Only by making sure many of them are proven false will you have a high probability of success.

Then again, if these truths were recognized and dealt with in an “improvement as built-in to DNA” environment, a much more effective culture of blitz teams (see my article "I am shocked...SHOCKED...!") could be an innovative solution.


About The Author

Davis Balestracci’s picture

Davis Balestracci

Davis Balestracci is a past chair of ASQ’s statistics division. He has synthesized W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy as Deming intended—as an approach to leadership—in the second edition of Data Sanity (Medical Group Management Association, 2015), with a foreword by Donald Berwick, M.D. Shipped free or as an ebook, Data Sanity offers a new way of thinking using a common organizational language based in process and understanding variation (data sanity), applied to everyday data and management. It also integrates Balestracci’s 20 years of studying organizational psychology into an “improvement as built in” approach as opposed to most current “quality as bolt-on” programs. Balestracci would love to wake up your conferences with his dynamic style and entertaining insights into the places where process, statistics, organizational culture, and quality meet.