9 Essential process improvements that you can use to cut costs in 2021

Counterintuitive ideas and some best practice tips to help you save money and improve your company's processes and project management.

We are what we repeatedly do,' said Aristotle, the ancient project management guru. 'Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

With process improvement, companies can cut costs (and build excellent habits) by streamlining routine activities. This article outlines some counterintuitive ideas and some best practice tips to help you save money and improve your company's processes.
Let's start with the observation that some improvements are more valuable than others, thanks to XKCD. Their graph reminds us to experiment and prioritize the changes that save the most time and money.

1. Read 'The Checklist Manifesto'

Drawing on lessons from the aviation industry and his own work in medicine, Atul Gawande wrote a groundbreaking book called The Checklist Manifesto. He argues that checklists help everyone to improve quality, reduce mistakes and streamline operations—even highly-trained experts like pilots and surgeons.

2. Start planning your portfolio

It can be expensive to keep projects in silos. Segregated processes increase the risk of misallocated resources and budgets. The danger is that failing projects stagger on like zombies when they should be killed off or scaled back, simply because they aren't seen in a wider context.
The silver bullet is project portfolio planning.
For example, Athora Belgium adopted Planisware Orchestra to get a company-wide view of the projects it is running. As a result, project managers now have:

  • Greater visibility
  • Improved governance capabilities
  • Reduced risk of overspending

(Top tip: Planisware Orchestra also offers a feature that allows for a rational allocation of the annual budget across the company's various projects.)

3. Measure outputs, not inputs

Nobody says 'I wish I had spent more of my life filling in timesheets' on their deathbed. Timesheets have all kinds of problems, including perverse incentives, inaccuracy and subjectivity. Despite their shortcomings, they are still the most widely-used way to capture time and effort.
It doesn't have to be this way. There are other ways to measure effort, cost and output. Or to measure time more efficiently. Or stop measuring it altogether. If people spend an hour per week filling in timesheets, ending the practice will save them about a week a year. That's a 2% annual increase in productivity, and employees that will be eternally grateful.

4. Reduce the need for coordination

If 2020 has taught us anything, it's that spending the whole day in videoconferences is both tiring and unproductive. It's a poor substitute for the informal communication that happens in an office.
According to organization design consultants Sense + Change, the answer is not to replicate the old ways of coordinating people using new technology. Instead, you can improve productivity and mitigate costs by reducing the need for coordination altogether by refactoring the way you work.

In short, the experts recommend switching from management models where you 'see the work' or 'see the hands' doing the work or 'see the face' (video conferences) to a model where work is modularized and delegated. That way, people can just get on with it. It requires trust from managers and self-leadership from contributors, but it empowers 'deep work' on a maker's schedule not a manager's schedule.

5. Implement cross-project communication

'The future is already here; it's just unevenly distributed,' said William Gibson, the science fiction author. It's often the same with companies. The answers to one team's problems have already been discovered by another team. But a lack of communication means that they have to reinvent the wheel.
This was the problem at The European Research Center (ESRF). With 1,500+ active projects, the organization's scientists were communicating infrequently about organizational and technical issues. As a result, they were missing out on valuable insights and practices.
They adopted Planisware Orchestra and, alongside other project management benefits, it is helping them improve their internal methodology and communications.

Even if it’s going to take time to take full advantage of it, Orchestra is a valuable tool; it includes a lot of information and provides a real-time view so we can track projects on a local and a global scale. - Jean-Luc Revol. Operations Manager at the ESRF

6. Learn to prioritize

Jordan Lambourn's article contains 105 different frameworks to help you prioritize things. Whatever you need to decide, there's a tool here to help you do it. Since he's covered so much, we'll let him take the limelight in this section.

7. Cut anything that isn't vital

Inspired by the observation that 'non-existent code doesn't crash' and the Pareto principle, are there process steps — or even whole processes — that you can just delete? Sometimes reducing the scope is the most effective form of optimization.

8. Use templates

Alcon Laboratories cut their product development time by two-thirds by adopting project management templates.
They got started by adding their planning assumptions into the project planning templates they created when they started using Planisware. As the projects progressed, they updated the plan with real-world data to validate the assumptions - duration, cost and resources - associated with each template.
'By doing so, we've been able to reduce what we thought was a development time of greater than a thousand days to about 350 days,' says Derek Jessup, Director R&D PPM Systems and Process at Alcon Laboratories.

9. Develop your project management skills

Project management is a specialist skill, but everyone can benefit from learning a bit about it. Introductory online courses will give managers a common vocabulary to talk about projects and processes.

Bonus tip: choose a great project name

Process improvement is hard, but coming up with great project names is harder. Good project names can motivate employees and simplify communication. It's worth taking the time to pick memorable, distinctive names.
Whatever you call your next project — and however busy everything seems — remember Steven Covey's maxim: 'We must never become too busy sawing to take time to sharpen the saw.' For project managers, this means stepping back from the day-to-day what of project management and taking time to think about the how of project management. Remember: small changes can yield big improvements.