Want to deliver your ERP implementation (or other large project) on time and on budget? Remember to say “thank you.”

February 13, 2018

If you weren’t already nervous about your upcoming ERP implementation, a recent study found that 59% of implementations missed their deadline, and 74% of implementations went significantly over budget. With so many implementations struggling, it’s clear that this is not the result of bad or lazy people.  Rather many implementations suffer from the same defect – work that is not properly designed to help the team hit its targets.

“Work design” isn’t a term that most people recognize, but we’ve all experienced it.  Have you ever had far too much work, everything is a priority, and issues never get resolved?  That’s bad work design.  Conversely, hopefully you’ve experienced a case when the priorities were clear, you had the right team and the right information to do the work, and issues were raised and resolved quickly.  Recreating this is a matter of good, deliberate work design.

There are several fundamental principles to designing effective work (see the principles of Dynamic Work Design here), but by far the most important is catching problems when they first occur.  Research clearly shows that the longer a team waits to confront a problem or defect, the more expensive it will be to fix.   If there is one behavior that separates great project leaders and managers from the rest it is actively and regularly communicating and demonstrating that raising problems is a good thing to do.

As simple as this sounds, most corporate cultures reinforce exactly the opposite message. How does the boss react when you bring her problems? In my previous job, I had to tell my CEO that a project cost estimate increased from $2 million to $3 million.  I quickly learned that I would have been better off cutting corners to hit the budget and then getting promoted or transferred as quickly as possible.  My brother the professor (who has never had a real job) has found similar behavior in all types of organizations, often with devastating long-term effects ranging from product recalls to major accidents.

The power of surfacing issues was reinforced in a recent project helping a manufacturer implement an Oracle  ERP solution.   During the second phase of design, several people on one of the project teams raised an issue with the project manager:  they felt there were many unidentified tasks required to complete the current phase and it was unclear who should be working on that problem.  They spent the next hour with a designated sub-group to figure out what the tasks were, and who was going to complete them.  By the end of the hour, they identified 25+ activities that needed to be completed in the next six weeks.  In a typical project these concerns would have been left unsurfaced (see this Dilbert cartoon) until they resulted in mountains of frantic, last-minute tasks to get ready.

DILBERT © 1994 Scott Adams. Used By permission of ANDREWS MCMEEL
SYNDICATION. All rights reserved.

At Toyota, defects are seen as an opportunity to improve.  In world-class safety programs, near misses are a gift (because you have identified a safety issue without the corresponding injury or damage). The same principle applies for knowledge work: If you want to implement your project on time and on budget, remember to hide your “mean face” (as one of our client leaders calls it) and thank the people that raise problems.  This one powerful gesture can quickly demonstrate your sincere belief that raising problems is a key to the success of your project.