The 5-Minute Project Management Improvement Program

The 5-Minute Project Management Improvement Program

Between August 1942 and February 1943, the US fought the Japanese on the island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific.  One of the men sent there was Lt. Colonel Russell ‘Red’ Reeder. 

Reeder was sent by the Chief of Staff, Gen. George C. Marshall, to analyze the lessons American troops had learned in combat on Guadalcanal.  His 74-page report, entitled Fighting on Guadalcanal impressed General Marshall so much that he had one million copies printed and issued to trainees.

What Reeder essentially did was to ask officers and soldiers for suggestions about how things could be improved.  These were the kind of answers he got:

  • ‘I think that in the regimental supply there should be extra canteens [of water] so when an outfit gets in a place … where there is no water, an extra canteen of water can be issued.’
  • ‘In our training for this jungle warfare we had a great deal of work in hand-to-hand combat, use of knife, jujitsu etc.  With the exception of bayonet fighting we have not used this work.  I have been in many battles since I hit the island and I have never seen anyone use it.’
  • ‘Teach your soldiers, sir, that when a man is hit in the assault to leave him there.  Too many of our men suddenly become first-aid men.’

You get the idea.

All of which brings us to the subject of project post-mortems.  Everyone says what a great idea they are; very few people actually do them.  The reason is pretty obvious – we generally don’t have enough resources to do the projects we’re trying to do, never mind spending more time and effort on one that’s already finished. 

On the rare occasions when post-mortems are done, they are usually excellent.  I personally have never seen a bad one.  Quite the opposite.  Whenever they were done, they contained 20, 30, 40 recommendations of things that could be improved or done differently.

And then what happened?

Well … nothing.  Nothing happened.  For exactly the same reason.  Who has time and resources for some kind of project management improvement project – we don’t have enough to do everything we’re trying do.

For these two reasons then, there’s a place in our world of light project management for a light post-mortem.  Here’s a light post-mortem that wouldn’t take more than a few minutes.  Three things:

1 The Project Plan as it Actually Turned Out

You get this by capturing Actual versus Estimated (Duration, Effort, Budget). 

2 What’s One Thing We Did Well on This Project That We Should Do Again?

Never mind 20 or 30 recommendations – just one thing.  For example, some technique or app or tool we came across, some meeting we used to have, some piece of information we learned that made a difference, something we did / action we took that contributed in a big way to the project’s success (assuming it was – but even if it wasn’t, there may still be things you did well). 

And then – here’s the important bit – tell all your friends / colleagues / peers / fellow project managers.  Shout it out to the world!

3 What’s One Thing We Did on This Project That We Should Never Do Again?

All the same comments as previously apply.  What’s one thing which, if we could rewind the clock, we would do differently?  This caused us problems.  It messed us around.  Had we known about this we could have gone a different route or done something about it.

And once again, if you can, tell all your friends / colleagues / peers / fellow project managers.  This is much harder to do because it involves washing your dirty laundry in public, in saying ‘we screwed up’; but if you could it might well stop other people from falling into the same trap. 

If everybody did #2 above at the end of every project, we could imagine a series of little improvements, each of which by itself might not be that significant, but the sum of them could be very significant indeed. 

Similarly, if everybody did #3 at the end of every project, we could imagine a series of bad practices gradually being removed from the organization and again, the sum of these could be very significant indeed. 

It’s project management improvement from the ground up.  No management buy-in or big process improvement project or budget or hoo-ha required.  Just us project managers making life easier for ourselves and our colleagues and – ultimately – for the organization for which we work. 

In his foreword to Red Reeders report, General Marshall wrote, ‘Soldiers and officers alike should read these notes and seek to apply their lessons.  We must cash in on the experience which these and other brave men have paid for in blood.’

Happily, most of us don’t have to pay in blood but the sentiment still applies.