Improving Processes & Services
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Managing Improvement Projects

As a general rule, most improvement projects are best managed through 5 stages

Improvement stages

Stage 1 - Setting up the Project, Scoping, agreeing Terms of Reference

1.  Handling the Opening

When asked to tackle a project, one of the worst things any project manager can do is to rush-in immediately to start tackling it. The worst thing the person requesting or sponsoring the project can do is to insist that they do so.

In most cases, the sponsor will have thought through the desired "outcomes" of the project (a new system, a new layout), but is unlikely to be very clear on the details of the work involved in carrying the project out. They are not usually in a position to do that and would see it as part of the project manager’s brief - the project manager is in a far better position to do that.

Instead, the project manager needs to be able to look into the problem, formulate their thoughts and a broad plan as to how to tackle the project, and then agree this with the person sponsoring the project.

2.  Scoping Study

In most cases, the best way to do this is to propose to the sponsor that as a first step you would like to carry out an initial survey to scope the project - to establish what the project is about, what the issues and ramifications are, and a broad plan of action. Within a short period (days or weeks) this to be summarised in a brief (2 to 3 page) scoping report. This will:

If the sponsor is agreeable to this it gives the project manager the opportunity to:

3.  Agree Terms of reference

Once this has been discussed with the sponsor and a plan of action agreed, this essentially becomes the Terms of Reference of the project.

Stage 2 - Start the Team


In some cases the team may have been involved in the first stage but in others they are not. If not, the project manager needs to get the team together and get them involved and interested in the project - in some cases getting people to commit and buy-into the project. For some teams one can't expect too much at this stage - the team will be in the forming/storming stages (see How teams Develop). People may need time to get up to speed, have their say, and buy-into the project gradually.
It is also in this stage that peoples' preferred team role come to the fore (see Belbin Team Roles).

Scoping Plan Revisited

At this stage giving the team the opportunity to question and discuss the Scoping Report and then re-plan the project in more depth is often the best starting point. It helps the team building process but also results in a better plan of action as people spot details that the project manager missed (e.g. section Y will be away during that period). During this, some of the tasks can be delegated to team members to carry out before the next meeting.

In practice, most improvement project teams get established fairly quickly, and by the second meeting are ready to move onto the work itself.

Stage 3 - Analyse the Problem

Avoid a premature Solution Search

Say the project was that the staff induction doesn't work very well, or that deliveries are late. At this point, someone in the team usually starts talking about solutions - often about their own particular preferred solutions. Some of this is natural but there is a danger of the whole project ream moving onto a solution search without having established what the causes of the problem are.

Identify the Causes

The team now needs to pause and follow the structured problem solving approach described in the overview. The task now is to use the various tools such as cause and effect analysis, process mapping, and customer analysis to identify causes of the problem and the "hot spots". At this stage it is really valuably if the team has received a brief training session in them - a one-day session is often sufficient.


For some projects this stage can be completed quickly (perhaps even in one meeting) whereas for others, particularly if their is data to collect or customer feedback to gather it may take longer and need to be more carefully planned and organised.

Stage 4 - Plan and tackle the Solutions

Surprisingly, once a team has analysed the problem and established the causes of it, the solutions are often self-evident. A single "stock-take" meeting is usually sufficient to formulate the package.

Often the difficulty in such projects is that there is not one, single solution but a variety of solutions (procedures, training, equipment, manuals, etc) and the team now needs to start to plan and organise their design and implementation - usually establishing priorities amongst them. Again the tools and techniques help to clarify and speed this process.

At this stage, it is often sensible for the project manager to produce an progress report or project update notes for the sponsor. It keeps the sponsor up to  date with the sort of solutions being considered so that they can keep their eyes on other projects, and also shows them that progress is being made.

Stage 5 - Implement the Changes

If the work to design and implement the solutions has been done well, the task of the project manager is simply to make sure the work is done, that the activities planned are carried out, and that everyone is doing their part. In summary, the Project Manager now needs to get the project moving and keep it on the move. This involves action on three fronts:

3 balls of implementation

Maintaining the Support of "Others"

Keeping the sponsor and other key stakeholders informed of relevant progress and ensuring their continuing support.

Progressing the Project

Keeping the project on track. In particular:

Keeping the "Team" Connected, Committed, and Energised.

Communicating to all contributing to the project, keeping them up to date with the relevant facts and maintaining their commitment to the project.

On the last of these, it is during this stage more than any other that some teams start to falter - the exciting and creative part is over and the hard work starts as the changes are introduced. It is now that the project manager needs to actively manage the dynamics of the team - maintaining a balance between "task, individual needs and group needs (see Adair on Leading) and adjusting the style of leadership to suit (see Leadership Styles)


This structured and staged approach to managing projects has been proven to be very successful and avoids a number of the pitfalls that such projects are vulnerable to. Managing projects in this fashion provides the following:

  • some structure and clarity to what can otherwise seem an unfocussed journey,

  • a roadmap for the project manager, the sponsor, the team, and other stakeholders to discuss the project.

  • it translates a longer terms objective (do the project) into shorter-term ones (complete this stage).

  • it manages the pace of the project - ensuring that the team does not try to leapfrog to solutions without having really understood the problem.

  • provides a framework for project review and reporting.