“Nailed it.” A lesson in overcoming project complexity


When your project shows signs of trouble, go basic first.

It was Benjamin Franklin and not 70’s musician Todd Rundgren who first admonished us to pay attention to the basics or be willing to accept unpleasant consequences.

 “For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.”

Are you singing yet?

“HOWs” and nails have something in common:
they’re pointed and effective for building strong foundations.

Much of my work focuses on involving people in activities and decisions about their work and how it will change as the technology they use changes.  Having been a consultant/leader with a Big 4 firm, my project experience is extensive and varied. Project work sometimes got complicated, and we’d have to resort to heroic measures to finish. Sometimes people got burned out, but we delivered.  Looking back, I can’t help but wonder….when the going got tough, why weren’t we looking more closely at the basics first – the foundations of team effectiveness?

I used to believe the secret sauce of strong project teams –and their effectiveness– was chemistry. Harkening back to a “Camelot” project – we had all the right capabilities and expertise, we were aligned on scope and approach, collaborative, and delivered a great project.  Those characteristics are all easily seen. Yet, as I’ve continued to explore the essence of organizational culture I’ve come to realize that a team’s respect for [and engagement in] structure, visible processes, and clear governance, although perhaps more difficult to see, were the foundation, the secret sauce, of what made all the other characteristics work well –and ultimately are what made us successful.

How did I figure this out?  Contrast.

Many years after the curtain came down on my Camelot project, I was asked to lead the process / organization side of a large technology project.  Starting a project is like building a house – the quality of the foundation defines the remainder of the effort.  The project had been operational for a few months when I joined so the foundation had already been poured.  I dismissed the occasional hiccups I noticed as “the team getting started on a new project” –for as long as I could.  At one point I suggested that we revisit our project governance – the operational guide, how it was implemented, and whether the team followed it – but this was a mature team and the general consensus was that everyone knew what to do.

And so I relented. I was the new person and thought it best to heed the advice of Edward Baker “A large percent of the time it is best to just stand there rather than to do something.” Baker was a protégé of Dr. W. Edwards Deming, and is the author of the recent book, THE SYMPONY OF PROFOUND KNOWLEDGE: W. EDWARDS DEMING’S SCORE FOR LEADING, PERFORMING, AND LIVING IN CONCERT. And so instead of just doing something, I observed and took lots of notes.

To be honest, there were so many things happening at once, it was impossible to identify clearly any specific, superficial cause for the hiccups.  Have you ever been sitting at your desk on a Monday morning and experienced the subtle fragrance that tells you your office trash can wasn’t emptied over the weekend?  You know you’d better take care of it – because it’s not subtle for long.  Intermittent disruptions quickly turn into a steady stream of issues blockers, miscommunications, and disagreements about how the work should get done.

The “ask” from the team arrived in a one-line email:
“Can you help us figure this out?”
Now they were ready for me, and I was ready for them.

I had been thinking a lot about what I’d observed, but I was hard-pressed to know where to start.  You know how in the movies the sound of a needle scraping across a vinyl record album silences a roomful of people?  The thought of my mentor’s reaction to my lizard-brain urge to jump straight to solutions has the same effect.  “How’s that working out?” he’d ask in his irritated-but-amused tone.  Then, he’d remind me that “faster is often slower.”

One of the things Dr. W. Edwards Deming taught us through the System of Profound Knowledge is the importance of understanding our organization as system. When we do this, we can study it and understand how it performs, and develop and test theories on how we can improve it.  When we attempt to “fix” the system without first understanding it – there is a high likelihood that we will make things worse.    So, as I slowly backed away from the fire with the still-full gas can in hand, I pondered what my mentor would say and remembered the advice of Tim Timmons, a Major League Umpire who presented at a function I attended.  On the subject of expanding our capabilities – and what to do when we’re just short of knowing what to do next – he reminded us to “return back to center” – the place where you know what you know.

So that’s what I did.  Using Dr. Deming’s diagram of how a system operates, I worked with the team to put together the picture of our project as a system – starting with the Aim (the importance of this project in the larger scope of the organization).

Capture (1)

After we defined the Aim and value chain (the activities that contribute directly to achieving the Aim), we looked at inputs and influences – starting with the obvious – software, knowledge, development tools and the like. As the list of inputs waned – we crossed over to outputs and outcomes. Again – obvious ones like requirements and designs were mentioned. Then I prompted a little – asking the team to consider some of the outcomes we saw that we didn’t want: strain, and delays…. Light bulbs coming on.  For 45 minutes, I shuffled between two sides of the white board -adding some inputs – but more influences; and some outputs – but more outcomes.

When we finished, we had a picture.

That picture helped us develop some themes – which showed us that while the situation seemed complex, it wasn’t overwhelming.  In the next session, we did some root cause analysis and looked for low-hanging fruit – the solutions you can test fairly quickly.  After three working sessions, we had a plan in place. Everyone was clear on what to do, by when, and by what method.

If you’re wondering, yes, governance (or the team’s lack of clarity with respect to governance) was a root cause.  We revisited roles and responsibilities, reinforced processes for communicating across the team, and engaged the entire team in the development of RACIs – articulating what Roles are Accountable, Responsible, Consulted, and Informed – for every operational process.  We also clarified the project methodology and trained everyone on it.   All of the governance resources and tools became living documents that could be easily accessed by anyone on the team.

You see, it’s one thing to know, in general, WHAT a “role” does on a project. When we don’t take the time to clearly define the HOW, it’s like using too few nails to build a foundation.  Before you know it, you’ll be fixing problems instead of marching toward your Aim.

It’s called work, right?

Dignity picture

Think about the last time you asked someone about his or her job.  The usual response is “fine…” or a sarcastic “living the dream,” yes?  As I turned the corner into my 40s, work – to me – was a means to an end. I envied the “lucky” ones who seemed to find the perfect career where work and fun we interchangeable.

My 20-year consulting practice is about making work, well, work – helping people adapt to changes at work.  I’ve always enjoyed my work with people – but the constructs within which I worked often sucked the joy right out of it: having to compete with my co-workers for certain “glamour” projects; having to stifle my creativity for fear of losing favor with the boss, focused on revenue targets instead of project outcomes – there were times I wondered how I’d get the real work done.  Here’s the irony.  I was shown the solution at 25, but the solution for what?  The problem emerged, largely unbeknownst to me, over 20 years. And just as Glenda the Good Witch reminded Dorothy  in the  Wizard of Oz, my inner Dr. Deming said, “you poor dear, don’t you know you’ve had the answer all along?”

It’s true. In 1995 I was three years out of college and was recently dismissed from my first “real” job.  It was an awful job.  The company was circling the drain and, in response, management replaced the carpet and upgraded the conference room furniture (I saw this happen more than one time in my career).  My manager didn’t want to manage and the C-suite was looking for their next gig. In Deming’s terms, our system was not understood therefore output was unpredictable. Every “remedy” was a shot in the dark and usually created more problems.  In truth, this haphazard system did exactly what it was created to do and on a Monday morning, my severance package was the output. There I sat – sobbing – like Scarlet O’Hara (slightly disingenuous because it’s Scarlet after all) –  as she surveyed the devastation; the loss of a system she didn’t create and nonetheless depended on. There was no going back; nothing to return to.

The next morning, channeling my inner Scarlet, I took control of my world. That week I incorporated my first business, which was the means through which I met my mentor – the one who introduced me to the world of W. Edwards Deming, his System of Profound Knowledge, and a new way of thinking about the world of work. If you’re not familiar with Deming’s SoPK, it’s build upon four pillars: Appreciation of a System, Knowledge of Variation, Theory of Knowledge, and Psychology.

I began my Deming journey with my mentor and friend in 1995. I was fresh out of college and as such, it was difficult to pin the learnings on any prior work experience.  So off I went to explore the world of work – and most of what I learned is “what Deming wouldn’t do”.  It’s been fun in the way we all talk about work. We actively seek the aspects of work that make us feel okay about spending a disproportionate amount of time doing something that’s not our passion: friends, travel, great money, exposure – whatever it is.  But with each experience, I was left feeling incomplete.  I now know the thing that makes the incomplete complete is the secret sauce…it’s the part about management investing in us, valuing our contributions, and showing us how that thing we spend so much time doing has meaning.  It’s about dignity in our work.

As a 25-year-old, I saw Deming’s world, including the complementary work of many others, as vast and overwhelming.  Upon reflection, it’s simple and elegant. I needed to experience it through contrast: lack of a systems view of the organization, reactive management decisions, performance incentives that pit worker against worker and inhibit overall company performance, sales and productivity targets, and my all-time favorite – performance management with forced rankings: where there’s only room for 2% of employees to be top performers!  Why would companies want to limit the number of top performers? Money!

Last year I accepted what would become the pinnacle of my “contrast” journey.  Without a doubt, the worst management ever. Dr. Deming would have had a field day with this one. The violations of SoPk were off-the-charts egregious (think about the last Quentin Tarantino movie you saw – it was THAT outrageous).  In most organizations, the by-product is a lukewarm workforce and marginal success.  This company (or the three people at the top) were making piles of money and the workforce was absolutely demoralized.  Young people – for many, their first jobs – hanging on because they were deluded into thinking this would be a great place to launch their careers.  An outsider would call it Stockholm Syndrome.  I stayed long enough to show my direct reports a different way of doing things – and then I left with my sanity still intact.  Many left shortly thereafter and, with each resignation, management continues to believe the problem is with the worker.


Our social news feeds are full of quick reads about what we can do to make our work meaningful; what WE can do to find value in our work, etc.  Here’s the thing, friends.  What WE can do is important, but there’s a critical missing piece: it’s the responsibility of management to lead the organization and create a system that sets employees up for success – where they can feel valued. That’s not trivial.  In Deming’s terms, the organization needs to be articulated in terms of a system in a way that everyone in the organization can understand (if you don’t understand your organization as a system – and you don’t have a common aim – you don’t understand your business); people in the organization need data to know whether the system is performing consistently (so it can be improved); and the aim needs to be clear to all so everyone in the company can work on making the system more efficient.  When people are paid fairly and are trained to do the right things, everyone works together to make the system more efficient. Management values its workers and the workers feel valued. Then we have a virtuous cycle and everyone benefits because the business grows.

Here’s the kicker – SoPk is an elegant management framework and the process of introducing it into an organization is incremental – not scary, and with each step, everyone sees progress. Companies that employ SoPK celebrate success daily because employees understand the system and its aim, and have a framework for continuing to improve the system’s performance. The genesis of dignity and joy in work.

So this is the mission: bring joy and dignity back to work.  We’ll explore SoPk, Deming’s 14 Points for Management, and the works of Peter Scholtes.  I’ll share some of my favorite contrast experiences  – and more importantly, the successes of companies that get it. We hope something will resonate and make you want to dig deeper into Dr. Deming’s work for the benefit of you and your company.