Informative guides on industry best practices
Imagine the possibilities,
realize the potential.
Crystal Lee – Principal, Oliver Wight Americas
Too Important to Fail
How to Ensure Improvement Projects
Drive Sustained Success
2 TOO IMPORTANT TO FAIL: HOW TO ENSURE IMPROVEMENT PROJECTS DRIVE SUSTAINED SUCCESS
I am at the point in my professional career where I have enough experience – and humility
– to look back at what I have learned while leading and being a member of project teams.
Some of the projects were large – across many business segments worldwide – and
spanning multiple years. Some were small, quick improvement projects that required only
a few months of effort.
All had one thing in common: A high risk of failure and an even higher risk that, if
successful, the results would not be sustained.
A survey by the Project Management Institute found that 28% of strategic initiatives are deemed failures by the
companies implementing the initiatives. (Failure is defined as not meeting the original goals or business intent of
the projects.1) Further, only 29% of all information technology projects are successful, according to the Standish
Group, which has conducted surveys on IT projects for more than 20 years.2
For anyone involved in improvement initiatives, those are unsettling statistics! So why do some projects succeed
and others fail? And how can companies increase the chances of success?
Here are some things I have learned over my career about success and failure of projects:
First, a bigger budget won’t ensure that projects are implemented on time and on budget,
or derive the expected results; nor will technology guarantee success.
Second, it’s not like you can read a few books and be successful. Amazon lists more
than 1,600 books on the methodology of project management; there is even a book titled
Project Management for Dummies.
Despite the significant body of knowledge, most projects still fail.
Third, and most importantly: People, structure, and discipline are among the most critical
1Project Management Institute, 9th Global Project Management Survey: Pulse of the Profession 2017, www.pmi.org
2Nick Ismail, Why IT Projects Continue To Fail At An Alarming Rate, www.information-age.com, February 16, 2018.
TOO IMPORTANT TO FAIL: HOW TO ENSURE IMPROVEMENT PROJECTS DRIVE SUSTAINED SUCCESS 3
Rats, you may say. It is so much easier to throw money or technology at a problem. People are difficult. They are
hard to control. They have feelings, emotions, and opinions!
My experiences have shown me: When companies are trying to fix a problem or improve their competitive
position – the reason for most improvement projects – they will not succeed without the talents and skills of their
people. And I mean all people, including engaged leaders and users – the beneficiaries of the improvement.
When doing postmortems on projects over the years, I found those that succeeded incorporated three elements
as part of the project management methodology – and used them well. Those projects that were less successful
did not perform the three elements well, or they were not part of the methodology at all.
Following are the critical elements:
Each of these elements is for and about people. The elements may be called by different titles, but they are all
found in best-practice methodologies for project management.
Readiness Assessment - Don't invest in a project the organization is
not ready to implement, own, and operate.1
Governance Structure - Put in place a process for raising issues to
senior leadership before problems threaten timely implementation and
Wellness Checks - After implementation, create an assessment and
reporting system to ensure sustained results, even when people and
leaders change jobs.
4 TOO IMPORTANT TO FAIL: HOW TO ENSURE IMPROVEMENT PROJECTS DRIVE SUSTAINED SUCCESS
The model below shows one best-practice methodology (Figure 1). It is called the Oliver Wight Proven Path
because it has been used successfully by companies large and small for more than 40 years. Like similar
methodologies, it includes the critical elements that must be addressed for success in any project.
1. Readiness Assessment – Don’t invest in a project the organization is not ready to
implement, own, and operate.
The need for improvement may be self-evident, such as poor performance, limited tools, and customer and
competitive pressures. But that alone will not ensure success. The more significant consideration is whether
the organization can “handle” the change required to achieve the project objectives.
To assess organizational readiness, these questions must be asked and answered:
• Has a senior leader emerged to sponsor and be the driver for change? Will the executive leadership
team support the senior leader in this improvement effort?
• Are people uncomfortable with the present state or otherwise motivated enough to change their
practices and adopt new ways of performing their work?
Figure 1 - The Oliver Wight Proven Path
TOO IMPORTANT TO FAIL: HOW TO ENSURE IMPROVEMENT PROJECTS DRIVE SUSTAINED SUCCESS 5
• Is the state of the business stable enough to withstand change? (An impending merger or acquisition
may not be the right timing for some improvement projects, for example.)
• Is the organization, beginning with senior leadership, willing to invest what is needed to make the
If the answer to the questions in the first bullet are not yes, it indicates that the leadership team probably does
not have the appetite and fortitude for change.
Over my career, only one improvement project driven by middle management alone was successful. And it only
succeeded because the leadership team ultimately embraced it, near the end of the implementation. Usually,
projects driven by middle management fail outright or achieve suboptimal results at best and cause frustration
toward the senior leadership team.
Beyond leadership, the people closest to the process must also have a desire to do things differently. Often,
sharing the results of a diagnostic, which includes a readiness assessment, can help create an urgency
for change (see Figure 1). The objective is to gain a certain level of awareness and understanding before
committing resources (time, money, and people) to an improvement initiative.
If creating awareness does not change the answers in the bullets above from no to yes, I would be very
hesitant to recommend investing in the improvement project. Not only is the project highly likely to fail, it also will
waste time, money, and resources.
Accepting these truths and waiting for the right time can mean
the difference between success and failure. I have seen
executive teams rightly delay significant improvement initiatives
for things like a pending organizational structure change or
a significant adjustment to marketing strategy. While there
was immense pressure to move forward, we knew any large
efforts during such transitions were more likely to fail, given
the competition for resources and attention. I have also seen
executive teams creatively improve their case for change by
recruiting more experienced leaders and practitioners. These
6 TOO IMPORTANT TO FAIL: HOW TO ENSURE IMPROVEMENT PROJECTS DRIVE SUSTAINED SUCCESS
newcomers have seen best practices elsewhere and know what is possible. Once they are on board, they can
help people understand there is a better way to operate; and then the executive team “pulls the trigger” for the
improvement project to start.
2. Governance Structure – Put in place a process for raising issues to senior leadership before
problems threaten timely implementation and successful operation.
The governance structure needs to be well thought out – in advance. It needs
to consider the culture and leadership styles. It also needs to empower decision
making by the project team and process users while making it “safe” to raise
issues to the senior leadership members of the governance team.
It can be nerve-wracking to communicate to senior leaders that problems have
been encountered that could delay the project completion date. It is just as
difficult to explain that an issue has been encountered that could prevent the
project from achieving the agreed-upon business objectives.
Some advice based on my experiences:
• Establish an issue escalation process at the very start of the project.
• Set the expectation that all projects encounter problems, and it is important to acknowledge and resolve
problems. Some people view the emergence of issues as a form of failure. Define failure as willfully ignoring
• Create repeatable forums that provide an automatic place to raise issues. Commonly used forums include
weekly status reviews and monthly steering committee meetings. These forums generally are attended by
the appropriate decision makers. Emerging issues should be part of the standard agenda for these forums.
• Document the guiding principles and values that will govern the new way of working as a result of the
improvement initiative. Review the principles and values when making decisions. Ask whether the decision
supports the guiding principles and is in keeping with the agreed-upon values.
TOO IMPORTANT TO FAIL: HOW TO ENSURE IMPROVEMENT PROJECTS DRIVE SUSTAINED SUCCESS 7
Documented principles and values kept projects from taking wrong turns several times during my career. Two
cases stand out. In those cases, the executive sponsors seemed to “forget” the guiding principles.
In both cases, we sat down with executive sponsors and reviewed the principles. Revisiting the principles
helped to remind the sponsors why the decision was made to invest in the projects. These conversations
spurred discussion on why it was unwise to compromise the guiding principles and values. We discussed, in
detail, how deviation from the principles and values put accomplishing the business objectives at risk.
In both cases, we did not change course; and the projects were ultimately successful.
3. Wellness Checks – After implementation, create an
assessment and reporting system to ensure sustained
results, even when people and leaders change jobs.
The real measure of project success is whether the improvements
become legacies to the business. This measure of success holds
true for most initiatives, especially high-investment projects that involve
reshaping the business model, implementing new processes, and
installing new information technology software.
Here’s an exercise for you and your team: Think about the projects you are working on. Are you planning and
measuring them as work that will be finished upon go-live/launch (short-term view). Or, are you thinking about
those same projects as investments in legacies - things that will leave a lasting impact on the business - for
years to come (long-term view). These are two very different mindsets.
The short-term approach is most common and the easiest to fulfill. It requires project management and
milestone planning. The long-term mindset, however, requires a more robust approach.
Creating a legacy mindset involves planning how to develop – and sustain – competency in people, even when
there are employee turnover and management changes in the company. It also involves setting long-term goals
and measurements that will evolve over time.
8 TOO IMPORTANT TO FAIL: HOW TO ENSURE IMPROVEMENT PROJECTS DRIVE SUSTAINED SUCCESS
My grandfather used to say, “Progress ends when satisfaction begins.” What he was saying, in business
terms, was that continuous improvement is forever. Degradation of practices drives degradation of
performance and business results.
Here’s some advice on how to ensure that investments in initiatives continue to yield business results year
• As part of the initial project planning, document a
“glide path” for improving competency, performance,
and business results over at least five years. Include in
the glide path what must change – and perform better
– to achieve the targeted performance and business
results each year.
• Determine the most effective forum for reporting performance and business results – regularly and
routinely. When executives are leaders of a company’s Integrated Business Planning process, this
monthly forum is used to report results. Integrated Business Planning links strategies to operational
plans, performance measures, and business results.3
• Conduct regular wellness checks – at least every six months – to determine what is being done
well and what needs to improve. The wellness checks should address: Progress in embedding
the improvements as “just the way we do business,” and issues that threaten the ability to sustain
and improve upon performance. These checks should encompass competency in operating the
processes and practices as well as optimal use of technology.
• Create an “onboarding” plan for people new to the process and new to management. Ensure that
education and training are provided at the right level of detail. That way, expectations can be clearly
understood and competencies can be rapidly developed. Measure the results of the onboarding
program as part of the regular wellness check.
Wellness checks also serve as platforms to provide feedback focusing on where we started, how far we have
come, and where we need to go. This feedback validates the effort, discipline, and persistence to continue
3George Palmatier, Integrated Business Planning: An Executive Level Synopsis, www.oliverwight-americas.com
TOO IMPORTANT TO FAIL: HOW TO ENSURE IMPROVEMENT PROJECTS DRIVE SUSTAINED SUCCESS 9
to improve. Perceived necessity is not enough to ensure project success alone. Showing tangible results is
absolutely critical. I have seen very beneficial and arguably critical projects stopped dead in their tracks because
the value they were creating was not captured or communicated properly. This is the ultimate disappointment to
those closest to the work. Their work lives are getting better through process improvement, but the project is not
allowed to continue, so problems continue to plague the organization until some future point when they will, no
doubt, be addressed again. Glide paths can help avoid this failure, as they establish expectations around results
that will be achieved along the life cycle of the project.
I learned the glide path approach and the use of wellness checks relatively early in my career. I had the
opportunity to work in the supply chain in a business segment of a global
company and saw, first-hand, the struggles to deliver product on time.
An initiative for improving on-time delivery was mandated by the global
leadership. It was well-known that this business problem was a “burning
Wisely, the senior sponsor recognized that it would not be possible to
achieve 99% or better on-time delivery without some financial tradeoffs,
especially in the first couple of years. He introduced the glide path approach.
In the first year – the first phase of the project – on-time delivery would
improve, but freight costs would increase. In the next phase, on-time
delivery would continue to improve without the reliance on premium freight,
but the business would carry more inventory. In the next phase, on-time
delivery would consistently be 99%, and inventory turns would increase.
Everyone in the supply chain, the senior leaders of the business and global leadership, understood the phases
in the glide path and what to expect each year. If this glide path had not been in place, it is likely that the project
would have been scrapped as soon as costs started to increase in the initial phase. That short-sighted view,
common in many projects, would have cost the business severely. However, because it was well understood
that some metrics would get worse before others got better, the project team was able to persevere and
ultimately deliver game-changing results. After decades of poor on-time delivery, the business achieved and
consistently demonstrated 99% on-time delivery.
10 TOO IMPORTANT TO FAIL: HOW TO ENSURE IMPROVEMENT PROJECTS DRIVE SUSTAINED SUCCESS
Improvement Initiatives Are Too Important to Fail
Initiatives that are too important to fail can indeed fail, even when there is a burning platform, even when the
well-being of the business depends on it.
But improvement projects do not have to fail. The difference between success and failure often is recognition
of the role people play, structure and discipline, and strong leadership.
TOO IMPORTANT TO FAIL: HOW TO ENSURE IMPROVEMENT PROJECTS DRIVE SUSTAINED SUCCESS 11
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Throughout her career, Crystal Lee has been involved in leading the implementation of
various types of projects – including system implementations, new processes and process
improvement, and talent development.
While at Cummins for nearly 10 years, Crystal held various leadership roles in different locations
and divisions. As Director, Synchronized Business Planning, she was responsible for Integrated
Business Planning and Planning and Control efforts in the Components business segment,
covering 5 global business units across 20 manufacturing sites. This responsibility included
change management, education, and engagement strategy focused on skill development,
process design, and technology enhancements.
Most recently, Crystal was with Adventist Health System as Director of Implementation for
their system-wide Talent Development Transformation. In this role, Crystal was responsible for
managing the alignment between strategy, functional process design, system configuration,
training, and change management to ensure the successful launch and adoption of the new
process and technology.
Crystal joined Oliver Wight in 2018. She is an Oliver Wight Certified IBP Overview instructor
and earned her Six Sigma Green Belt. She has a BS in Psychology and an MA in Industrial
© Oliver Wight International
Oliver Wight Americas, Inc
PO Box 368, 292 Main Street
New London, New Hampshire 03257, USA
131 Martin Street
Brighton, VIC 3186, Australia
Europe, Africa & Middle East
The Steadings Business Centre
Maisemore, Gloucester GL2 8EY, UK
Informative guides on industry best practices
Imagine the possibilities,
realize the potential.
ABOUT OLIVER WIGHT
At Oliver Wight, we believe sustainable business improvement can only
be delivered by your own people. So, unlike other consultancy firms, we
transfer our knowledge to you; knowledge that comes from nearly 50
years of working with some of the world’s best-known companies.
The Oliver Wight Class A Standard
for Business Excellence is recognized
by organizations and industry
commentators as the definitive
measure of business excellence. We
have a long-standing reputation for
innovation; we continually challenge
the industry status quo, so you get
the latest in fresh thinking around
core business processes and
their integration with people and
Your Oliver Wight partners will coach,
guide, and inspire your people to drive
change throughout your organization,
allowing you to create a culture of
continuous improvement and innovation
that simply becomes, for you, ‘the way
we do things.’ We call our approach to
change management the Proven Path; it’s
a proven, sustainable approach that will
transform your business performance and
deliver results straight to the bottom line.