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Understanding the Four Phases of an Improvement Project

Embrace change and ensure continuous growth within your team and company by completing regular improvement projects.

By Brier Cook  •   March 7, 2023  •   7 min read

At the heart of any successful organization is a series of simple, well-defined processes. These processes help employees obtain their desired output while delivering results for internal stakeholders, customers, and clients.

Improvement projects are one way that leaders in a company can improve processes. In this article, we’ll explore what an improvement project is, the four stages of an improvement project, the best practices for each stage, and how to deal with common improvement project challenges. 

What is an improvement project? 

An improvement project is a written or digital plan that explains how to improve project and team processes. An improvement project helps teams visually represent the improvement process over a specified period. Teams can use improvement projects for a variety of reasons, but the most common objectives are to identify challenges, increase efficiency, correct errors, eliminate process waste, and effectively manage a team’s downtime. 

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The four stages of an improvement project

Four phases make up an improvement project’s life cycle: 

Phase 1: Preparation 

  • Define the problem and set objectives: The first step in phase one is to bring all involved team members together to discuss current process challenges and set short- and long-term goals. Identify the key issue you want to resolve by asking questions like: What process currently slows our team down or stops us from being as productive as we can be? Next, set a goal to resolve this issue that is SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound. 
  • Gather data and analyze root causes: Set your team up for success by assembling data that will help you throughout the improvement project. For example, if you’re completing an improvement project to refine your sales processes, you can pull data from the last four quarters like revenue per sale, average customer lifetime value, and revenue by product. 
  • Form the project team: The last step in phase one is to form the team that will complete and implement the improvement project. Only involve individuals who will actively work on tasks or oversee phases of the project at this stage. 

Phase 2: Planning

  • Develop a project plan: Begin phase two by creating a detailed project plan with a timeline, making a checklist of action items, and setting important milestones you want to hit. Break the project into deliverables and estimate the time and resources you’ll need to complete all necessary tasks.
  • Assign roles and responsibilities: Assign project roles and deliverables based on your team’s strengths and priorities. If possible, align tasks with your employees’ professional goals so they feel motivated as they complete the steps of the improvement project. 
  • Secure resources and support: Determine what resources you’ll need to complete the project and ensure you have enough time to secure them. Resources may include people, equipment, technology, money, and other materials. 

Phase 3: Implementation

  • Carry out the project plan: The third phase of an improvement plan is when employees begin working through the action items outlined in phase two.
  • Monitor progress and make adjustments: At this step, leaders should check in on employees to see how things are going and make sure that everything is on track. Use Fellow to give real-time feedback and keep track of your team’s growth. Host regular check-in meetings to review employee engagement. 
  • Communicate with stakeholders: Keep everyone with an interest in the project’s outcome in the loop about progress and adjustments at this time. 

Phase 4: Evaluation and continuous improvement

  • Measure results and outcomes: The first step in phase four is to measure the outcome of your improvement project. At this time, your team should be finished working through all major tasks and have a good sense of whether the project was a success. 
  • Review lessons learned: At the end of the project life cycle, conduct a lessons-learned review to identify what went well, what didn’t go to plan, and how the team can improve future project outcomes. 
  • Sustain improvement: A team that learns together grows together. Encourage your team members to maintain a growth mindset and provide them with the tools to succeed so they feel ready to tackle future tasks. 

Best practices for each stage of the improvement project

1Preparation: Setting a strong foundation for success

Preparation is essential in business because it strengthens the belief that success is not only possible but probable, too! During the first stage of your improvement project, take the necessary time to think critically, map out your objectives, and set yourself and your teammates up for triumph. 

2Planning: Ensuring alignment and realistic timelines

Alignment is the key to achieving shared goals. All project stakeholders should have a clear understanding of the improvement project’s main objectives. From the beginning of the project’s life cycle, communicate the vision in a way that resonates with everyone. When you set deadlines, ask for feedback to determine whether they’re realistic. Having regular one-on-one meetings with colleagues can also help project managers see how much time it takes to complete specific tasks. 

3Implementation: Managing risks and overcoming challenges

During the implementation phase, project managers and employees need to develop a plan to mitigate risk. There are five risk mitigation approaches that project managers and teams can implement; these include accepting the risk, avoiding the risk, transferring the risk, reducing risk, and hedging risk. When deciding how much risk the group is willing to tolerate, compare risk effects to risk tolerance. Always choose to be proactive instead of reactive so challenges don’t arise from thin air during this phase. 

4Evaluation and continuous improvement: Sustaining results and driving progress

In the fourth phase, the team should prioritize relentless communication about progress to keep everyone motivated. Host daily standups, weekly meetings, or asynchronous meetings to provide task, scope, and budget updates; work through current or anticipated issues; and discuss the next steps. The improvement project should be well on its way to completion at this phase, so ensure that checkpoints are being met. 

Dealing with common challenges during an improvement project

1Securing buy-in and support from stakeholders

Stakeholders are often either a project’s biggest critics or its biggest supporters. When completing an improvement project, teams are likely to deal with investors, senior managers, executives, customers, and other individuals that have a stake in the project’s outcome. Project managers can secure buy-in from these groups by engaging with them early on in the improvement project process. Ask these individuals what they hope to gain from the project and show them how their roles can be positively impacted by the outcome. 

2Managing resistance to change

Because most improvement projects aim to change company processes and systems, the project may be met with resistance from stakeholders. Don’t expect all employees, customers, and executives to buy-in from the start. Project managers should expect resistance and actually embrace it because it means that others are invested in the project’s success. 

Engage resistant individuals by explaining how the project will make their work easier or more productive. For example, you can demonstrate to entry-level employees how the implementation of a new process will help them complete their work faster and show senior executives how it will help increase the company’s bottom line.  

3Balancing short-term and long-term goals

While long-term goals drive direction and strategy, short-term goals are tied to the current situation and tend to be easier to achieve. Balance your long- and short-term goals by making a list of everything your team is striving to achieve through your improvement project. Once you have your goals on paper, break them into smaller steps. The day-to-day activities you undertake to reach short-term goals should lead you one step closer to the long-term outcomes you desire, too. 

4Overcoming barriers to success

Common barriers to success during an improvement project include tight timeframes, poor communication, limited availability of resources, and team conflict. Identify potential challenges at the beginning of the project and communicate them to the team. Make a plan that outlines how your team will approach barriers and move past them.

An improvement project is a huge undertaking that should never be tackled alone. Accept support from other colleagues and stakeholders who have a vested interest in the project’s success. Encourage your teammates to use the ideal outcome to motivate them as they overcome unforeseen hurdles. Don’t forget to celebrate the small wins along the way, too!

Parting advice

There’s always room for improvement, especially when it comes it comes to workplace processes. Using the four phases of an improvement project, you and your team can change your company for the better, from the inside out. 

If you feel stuck at any time, remember that small daily improvements over time can lead to amazing long-term growth!

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