Accelerating Projects by Encouraging Help

To keep product development projects on schedule, establishing psychological safety and promoting cooperative behavior can be just as important as good planning.

In turbulent business landscapes with rapidly changing technological platforms, many organizations are trying to accelerate product introduction cycles by prioritizing project delivery. However, many projects have two characteristics that make optimal delivery times elusive: First, the projects themselves tend to involve uncertainty (for example, they develop a new product function whose feasibility has not yet been established); and second, the workers have information about the status of their project tasks that is not observable to anyone but themselves, which many don’t share. Therefore, behavioral issues are as important in project timeliness as diligent planning. These behavioral issues include the following:

  • Willingness to communicate and collaborate under uncertainty and interdependence.1 Why should employees seek help for a problem or help resolve a colleague’s problem when they can leave the problem to later stages or hide behind their own task responsibilities?
  • Individual buffers. If project workers face penalties for missed deadlines, why should they share private knowledge about task duration rather than “padding” their estimates of the amount of time they need to complete a task?
  • On-time incentives. Why should employees exert themselves to finish their assigned tasks rather than fill time with fringe work or free ride on extra time buffers built into the project?2

This article examines the difficulties of project planning and execution and describes a management innovation at Roto Frank, a German company that produces hardware for industrial and residential windows and doors. Roto, headquartered in Leinfelden-Echterdingen, Germany, has augmented its project control system with a formal help process that encourages workers to seek and provide mutual assistance. We found that Roto’s help process achieved a measurable improvement in project cycle time without changing formal incentives or other management systems. The initiative’s success is based largely on two factors: establishing psychological safety, and encouraging cooperative behavior by emphasizing interdependence among workers. Because of its flexibility, we argue that this help process has the potential to accelerate projects in many environments.

Roto’s Management Innovation

Of course, project management professionals have long thought about how to plan and execute projects in robust ways. An important strategy for handling uncertainty in projects is creating buffers of extra time.

References

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24. The red-card process was adopted and implemented by Roto Fittings (another division of Roto located at a different site in southern Germany) in 2011 as well as by optical and optoelectronic manufacturer Carl Zeiss in 2012. Furthermore, this process triggered learning and benchmarking visits from diverse companies including Siemens Healthcare, French building materials manufacturer Saint-Gobain, industrial food steamer and oven manufacturer Rational AG and Volkswagen.