For many years I’ve been interested in the work of W. Edwards Deming. In particular, I’ve been interested in Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge. For convenience, in the remainder of this post, I’ll refer to it as SoPK. While I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on SoPK, I think I get it, and I believe it lives up to its “profound” billing. I’m convinced of its relevance to the field of project management, and its value and promise as a framework for assessing and enhancing leadership skills in general. In this blog post and ones that will follow in later weeks, I’ll describe my exploration of SoPK and share my personal interpretations, insights, opinions and application recommendations in the context of project management.
SoPK has four intimately interdependent elements: Appreciation for a System, Understanding Variation, Theory of Knowledge, and Psychology. In this initial post, I’ll focus on the first element, Appreciation for a System.
Appreciation for a System. Dr. Deming viewed an organization, whether it’s a business, or a project within the business, as a system. Every person in the Project network is connected to, and in some way dependent on, every other person in the network. The goal of the system will be achieved, he argued, with healthy, effective, and efficient interactions between the interdependent elements of the system.
After a career in Project Management, one of the many things I’ve learned, is that understanding the project context is critical. More often than not, the real scale and complexity of the system in which my Project had to execute, was larger than my original expectations. There are always connections, influences, constraints, agendas and risks beyond the originally conceived boundaries of the project. Literally, everything in this world is connected to everything else, and you must look beyond the original boundaries to find the others that are always there and likely to impact your success. The better you understand this concept, and learn to make decisions based on it, the better you will be able to lead your project team.
How do you get started on this? I suggest you work with your team as well as a couple smart, independent colleagues to map the external supplier and customer connections as well as the internal connections within the business that are essential for successful execution. When you think you’ve got them all identified, then re-look at it by thinking about your supplier’s suppliers and your customer’s customers. They too can have a powerful impact and must be considered in your planning, communication, control and risk management activities. Failure to properly understand the system environment surrounding the project is often the source of later problems related to requirements definition, resource availability and adequacy, and communications.
As I have discussed in other blog posts, I have come to view a Project as a knowledge transformation system. This system takes the knowledge of the customer wants and needs, applies the knowledge that is the expertise of the business and it’s employees, and creates a new knowledge set that becomes the product and/or services delivered to the customer. The delivered products and services may take a physical form, but essentially they are artifacts of a knowledge transformation project system. I believe that Project Managers who think about their projects as knowledge transformation systems, will make better decisions on marshaling resources in their project plans; on measuring what’s important to assess real project execution performance; and on finding and mitigating risks that could threaten the success of the project.
The first job of the Project Manager, in working with this knowledge transformation project system is to be aware of all of its parts, and by that I mean its people, but even more importantly to focus on the relationships between them. My greatest insight into the art of project management and leadership, was that more than anything else, it was about managing relationships. So, although the people are the heart of the project, the real job of a project manager is to focus on the connections between the people to strive for better alignment, tempo, effectiveness and efficiency.
One other thought I’d like to offer about a project system is that it because it’s dependent on people and their relationships, it should be understood as an organism and not a mechanism. Organisms have feelings, values, biases, distractions, good days and bad days. Leaders will not be successful over the long term by using the logic, rules and science of a mechanism to inspire, direct and control the behavior of an organism.
My next blog-post on mapping SoPK to project management will address Understanding Variation. I’ll share my thoughts on the nature and influence of natural or common cause variation as well as induced, or special cause variation and how we can use that knowledge to be better project managers.