Are project tracking tool helping continuous improvement projects

Are project tracking tools helping Continuous Improvement Projects?

Are project tracking tools helping or complicating Continuous Improvement Projects?

In June I have presented a topic at 8. Project Management Symposium in Vienna which I believe many continuous improvement (CI) initiatives face at some point: “Are project tracking tools helping or complicating Continuous Improvement Projects?”

After the Symposium, when the hosting University of Applied Sciences BFI Vienna shared the pdf version of the presentation at their web page, it became apparent that without narratives a lot of information was nearly lost or at least not complete.


That is why I decided to write the narratives down and share along with the presentation:

First time I encountered the question “Which tool to use to track projects” was almost 20 years ago when I joined Customer Productivity Program in GE Plastics. I was training and coaching B2B customers of GE Plastics in Central Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa to do improvement projects (At the Customer For the Customer). And every single one of them asked what kind of project tracking tool GE was using! (back then we had QPID, later named eQPID, and they now have QPTS – Quality Projects Tracking System)

Then I moved to Mondi Group, where we started CI initiative from scratch. Now I was on the other side of the table and asking which tool to use? We ended up buying an off the shelf program (ProjX) and customized it to internal needs.

Later in Western Union we didn’t even think of developing or buying a tool, good old Excel and Share Point duo was the solution.

Now as an independent Lean Six Sigma trainer and coach, I see all possible solutions at my clients.

That 20 years gave me enough courage to get on the stage and share my experiences with the audience. But when the Symposium idea got real I thought maybe the audience deserves more and I started talking to my colleagues: I have done 15 interviews and got 45 responds to my online survey. What you will see in coming pages are thoughts of ~60 experts in this field from very respectable companies*. 40% have/had senior management positions, 70% Program Leader – MBB posts. Roughly 1/3 of them are consultants or were consultants at some point in their careers.

* Please note that I -on purpose- do not share the names of those companies
as I got the professional thoughts and comments of the individuals but these
might not reflect the formal opinion of the companies. Also note the people 
I talked to are either users of those tools or CI consultants, there was no 
solution (software) provider in the group.
This document might serve as a summary of Voice of Customer for providers.

Starting black and white: in the history there were many great projects without a project tracking software! Egyptians built many Pyramids, Romans constructed immense road and water systems, Chinese created the Great Wall without help of the computers. So let’s face it: “tracking tools” are simply tools and only to be used if they add value.

How do you pick which tool to use in daily life? If you have a nail, you use hammer; if your challenge is a screw, you take screwdriver out of your toolbox; if you want to cut the bread, you find a knife… Now reverse the question: what is the need to use a “project tracking tool?”

That is exactly what I have asked my colleagues and here is the answer:

  1. Visibility / Transparency of projects
  2. Project portfolio management
  3. Ensuring project documentation
  4. Ease of reporting
  5. Accessibility of information

Also I did a slice and dice exercise after getting the survey results and grouped the respondents into 3 groups:

  • Excel users
  • Software users
  • Consultants

In this question Excel users and Software users gave identical ranking for their needs.

Then I asked the obvious next question: independent from your needs and expectations, where did you see the results and value add?

  1. Visibility / Transparency of projects
  2. Project portfolio management
  3. Ensuring project documentation
  4. Ease of reporting
  5. Best Practice Sharing

Now excel users and software users gave slightly different rankings but in the overall ranking Top 4 were surprisingly same as the Top 4 needs. Only #5 “Accessibility of information” is replaced by “Best Practice Sharing”.

So it is fair to say there is a balance between needs & expectations and the results & value add. But that is only one side of the coin, we know getting a new software tool also means (1) investment and (2) new challenges:

“Investment” side is relatively simple: you need to invest

  1. Money
  2. Team resources (people)
  3. Time

Often forgotten is the 4th one: time of other people in the organization: you need to train the approvers (sponsors, finance people…) to teach what they should do, explain how to get reports from the tool and how to interpret them, align with IT people as you need them… and you need to repeat the same each time when there is a new comer…

“Challenges” side is not as easy to foresee but more interesting: All 3 groups named the #1 challenge as “Discipline of updating project information”, sounds familiar?

  1. Discipline of updating project information
  2. No tangible benefits of the tool for users
  3. User buy-in / acceptance
  4. Time requirements
  5. Customizing to internal needs

Meaning the equations is way more complicated than we think. There are many dimensions to consider…

Though are the users happy ?

When I asked if benefits justify the investment? I got good news for the software providers

  • 50% of Software user are fully agree, the other half agrees as well but partly.
  • On Excel side 31% are fully agree, 50% partly agree.

What about overall satisfaction?

  • Software side scores better with 17% very satisfied and 67% somewhat satisfied
  • Excel side has 63% somewhat satisfied and 31% somewhat dissatisfied.

While changing gears I want to highlight a best practice I learned during the interviews.

Avis Budget Group is a leading global provider of vehicle rental services 
which has more than 11,000 rental locations in approximately 180 countries 
around the world…

Avis is very advanced when it comes to Continuous Improvement. In one case there was a small project in Frankfurt Airport which would generate $ 2,000 / year for the location. “Change Unit” Team having the infrastructure and the mentality saw the opportunity and replicated the same improvement. Now imagine if out of 11,000 locations, 100 replicate the same you get a level of $ 200K. if 1,000 replicate you already reach to $ 2 M. Here is the power of using a software, you can share the successes and multiply the benefits. And think of the person who did the small (!) project at Frankfurt Airport, she/he created a good $ 2 M for the company.

With this approach Avis addresses the Top 3 challenges mentioned above and at the same time multiplies the project benefits.

Avis’ CI program is obviously very mature as they also state “Energy, enthusiasm, innovative industry leadership and an ethos of continuous improvement have characterized the company for many years.” But not all the organizations are at that level. That brings us another dimension: How do the needs change over the CI Program Life Cycle? 

How do needs change during CI Program Life cycle?

Easy to grasp that Pilot, Deployment and Maturity phases are different in their nature, then do we really need a tool at all phases?

I have a clear answer for Pilot phase:

If you are piloting the CI program you have limited time to show results and proof to concept to get buy-in and go ahead. You have limited budget and limited people resources. You need to create miracles with this limited resources.

Remember couple of minutes earlier what we said about investment: Project Tracking Tool needs money, time and resources.

You need to set your priorities right: If you are in pilot phase just focus to get results. Stick to excel or even a white board.

But for Deployment and Maturity phases answer is not that crystal clear: There are many dimensions to consider here I highlight the top 4 and add 2 tips.


1. Location of team members

If your teams are collocated, consider yourself lucky and encourage the members talk to each other face to face, that is still the best way of communicating for the success of a project.

If your teams are spread around in different locations, in different countries, in different time zones an online tool might improve collaboration.


2. Maturity of organization

Here we talk about project management maturity. If there is a formal PM job description and there are dedicated PMs, the chances are higher that they use an online tool properly.

If PM post is not defined or it is a part time (even worse “add-on”) job or everything is called “a project” or everyone is considered as “a project manager”, consider using Excel.

Also if leaders say they are supportive but you know they will not play their project roles, they will not approve toll-gates in the system, will not use the reporting functions of the tool but ask for special reports… Better to use something basic.

And if your organization is chancing constantly, you will need to get the buy-in of new managers and train them after each change wave. Keep it simple.


3. Nature of the business and projects

If your business has similar activities in various locations like car rental, hotel chain, packaging production it makes more sense to use a tool, at least for best practice sharing and knowledge transfer purposes.

If the business is spread but has specific purpose locations like 2 production facilities one producing paper, the other plastic packaging, 3 small sales offices and 2 warehouses, you better keep it simple.


4. People factor

Last but not least -and nothing to do with discrimination of any kind- if you are dealing with younger people it makes sense to have an online tool or better an App. I met some weeks ago a young and successful PM in Financial Industry in London, he showed his brand new phone and added “if you are not in here, you don’t exists for me”. He is doing all his work through his “device” including finding his dates.

The chances are higher if you are working with a North European team that they use the tool versus with a Mediterranean team (I can say that I am from Mediterranean). A Moroccan Managing Director in a of large international company during the interview told that the project tracking tool they are using is restricting his freedom and an insult to his intellectual capacity.

Again it is not discrimination, it is not who is right or wrong, it is knowing your people and what works best for them. At the end of the day tool is the tool, the person using it makes the difference.

Lastly 2 tips if you decide to buy a software:


1. Stand-alone vs Integrated tool: Get a tool which links your program and projects with company’s strategy execution. Not a stand-alone one. You should anyhow position your program as part of company’s strategy, and use all the means to support it.

In similar manner, utilize the tool for formal documentations needs e.g. for compliance purposes, for ISO certification, for FDA or OEM audits. The tool can be used to store and to demonstrate your counter measures and their results when something goes wrong; also to share that knowledge with rest of your organization.


2. IT environment: First, IT is your key partner, not the enemy. Second, I did not see any organization where IT team is not overloaded. If you want their attention, pay attention first. Involve them before buying the tool and listen their advises carefully. Stick to the infrastructure they already use, try not to bring something completely new to them.

Also consider data security, if you are in a sensitive business like Financial Services, you already know what that means. (well I also thought I know after 10 years in Western Union up until I met a gentleman from Austro Control, the organization controlling Air Traffic over Austria.)

Bottom line, each organisation and each CI program is unique, you should really do your homework before making a go – no go decision. A properly selected strong tool might help you to reach your goals, whereas a bad choice might create headaches more than anything else.

My last words

  • A tool is only a tool, don’t expect miracles !
  • A tool should add some value and/or make your life easier.
  • Your priority should be to get business results.
  • Great projects will be known by all, and poor projects won’t become better with a tracking system.
Kubilay Balci
    Strategy Execution & Continuous Improvement Professional Certified Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, Chemical Engineer with an Executive MBA degree.20 years of hands-on experience in executing strategy: • Deployed & run corporate programs such as Business Excellence, Continuous Improvement, Leadership Development, Membership/Loyalty, PMO in international production and transactional environments. • Seasoned trainer and coach of Lean Six Sigma, Productivity, Problem Solving, Cost Saving, Project and Change Management methodologies.


    May 15, 2018 at 7:01 AM

    Thanks Kubilay,

    I especially like your closing comments. A tool is as good as the person using it.
    Your whole presentation makes much sense. Thanks for sharing

    Dec 10, 2017 at 7:20 AM

    thank you very much
    but what the relationship between the continuous improvement and competitive advantages??

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