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Seek First to Understand

Managing a project is a complicated task and any number of missteps can project over its life and derail a successful outcome.  Some mistakes can be overcome easily with minimal effort. However, some can cause the project to come to a standstill, delaying the delivery of a solution or product.  Rushing to a solution and cutting corners to save time are often the culprits.

In many instances, the failure of a project is due to a lack of understanding of the problem to be solved or the question being asked.  In project management or continuous improvement, the majority of the the timeline should be spent on fully understanding the problem.  Then the rest of the project will fall more easily into place and reduce the risks of rework or redesign if first you always seek to understand.

The size of the project doesn’t matter.  Even if it’s a small project like rearranging a supply closet, understanding the need to rearrange is important so the time and effort aren’t wasted.  Consider the growing distribution needs of a company with both online and retail channels.  The company must ask questions like: which channel is growing faster?  Which products will be more in demand?  Where geographically the demand will increase?  Thorough research and accurate answers to these questions will lead to a solution that solves the problem and not one that fails to address the challenge, or worse, that creates even more problems.

There are many tools that a project team can use to dig down to a root cause or identify the actual customer need.  A simple internet search for problem-solving tools will offer numerous results. Most were developed from Lean or Six Sigma methodologies such as fishbone diagrams, the “5 Whys” and process flowcharts.  When used in combination, these tools are even more effective as the problem is understood from multiple perspectives.  For projects, a valuable resource in understanding the current problems and issues is the end user of a process or tool.  While this may seem obvious, these associates are often overlooked when building a project team.  The voice of these internal and external customers is important in discovering the current problems and offering ideas for solutions.

A second cause for project failure is starting with a solution before the root cause of a problem is even researched.  If a person’s car breaks down, they usually don’t jump to the conclusion that they need a new car.  Instead, the car is taken to a mechanic who can find the cause of the breakdown.  The mechanic will determine if the car can be fixed or if the cost of the repair outweighs the car’s value.  Only then would the car owner consider a new car purchase.

Organizations should approach projects in the same way.  Teams should remain unbiased on any decision until there is a complete picture of the problem.  For instance, instead of jumping the gun and building a completely new, state-of-the-art distribution center because they know their demand is growing, the solution may be able to meet their future growth by making improvements to their current distribution center by installing newer equipment and technology.

Setting the project’s delivery date prior to understanding the problem can also lead to catastrophe.  Until the problem-solving process has begun, there is little information available to determine the project duration and timeline.  The solution is unknown and the work involved to develop the solution is unknown.  How then, can an accurate delivery date be set?

Again, consider the example of a company with growing demand.  The last distribution center built took one year to construct and bring online so the company sets the grand opening for a new distribution center one year from the project kickoff.  However, one month into the problem-solving process, it’s discovered that a distribution center twice the size of the previous one will be needed and takes 18 months to build as opposed to 12.  Already the project is set to deliver six months late which may cause delays to other projects by tying up resources and available capital.

Multiple variables can affect a project.  Sometimes successful project management is more of an art than a science.  While it can rely on soft skills such as team building and change management, a successful outcome is built upon a solid foundation of problem-solving, solution design, planning and most importantly, discovery.
—Susan Young, St. Onge Company

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St. Onge Company is Proud to Once Again Have Been Ranked Among the Highest-Scoring Businesses on Inc. Magazine’s Annual List of Best Workplaces for 2024

We have been named to Inc. Magazine’s annual Best Workplaces list for the second year in a row! Featured in the May/June 2024 issue, the list is the result of a comprehensive measurement of American companies that have excelled in creating exceptional workplaces and company culture, whether operating in a physical or a virtual facility.

From thousands of entries, we are one of only 535 companies honored.

Click here to see our listing!