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The most important thing you need to know about shortcuts!

The secret of making it right the first time is proactive behavior. Even though the concept is both straightforward and appealing, it is probably one of the hardest management concepts to sell and implement. And this is why:

  • The proactive person will always suffer criticism at the outset for having detailed and slow work methods. While it will be impossible to prove afterwards that it was the critical recipe for success.

When push comes to shove, proactivity is lost. You have no proof that the extra effort upstream in the fuzzy front end will pay off. Front-loading the project, or any other activity for that matter, will not happen when the time-schedule is squeezed to a minimum.

Once I visited a manager who had a brass sign on his desk with the following wording – In god we trust, everybody else brings data. And the proactive person will always suffer from a lack of data. Proactivity must, therefore, be built on trust.

Thus, being proactive today is mostly about strength and self-confidence. It is about daring to rely on your own ability, having the strength to swim against the tide, being strong enough to manage all the criticism. And very few are willing to do that.

A cultural change is what is needed if proactive behavior is to be implemented. And this cultural change must happen at three different levels if proactive work methods are to be realized and not just remain a cliché:

  • personal

  • project

  • management


Proactivity at the Personal level

People are focused on solving urgent matters which is wrong, they should focus on solving important matters.

Stephen R. Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, has sold more than 15 million copies. He has arrived at the seven habits by studying over one hundred years of management literature. From all these books, he has extracted a form of the lowest common denominator of highly effective people. And what do you think the first habit is?

  • Habit 1: Be Proactive Being proactive means that we, as human beings are responsible for our lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions.

On a personal level, we needed to focus on how we utilize our most valuable resource – time. The general idea of time management is that we as individuals, should complete more in a shorter period of time. However, Covey has another approach to time management. He says: “The best thinking in the area of time management can be captured in a single phrase: Organize and execute around priorities.”

A four-quadrant model called the “Time Management Matrix” can explain his theory. Each quadrant represents different types of activities in the following manner:

Quadrant 1 Urgent and Important

In quadrant 1 you will find all the activities that are both “important and urgent”. Things that need your immediate attention and, if not acted upon, will have a serious impact on your life. For example, important deadlines at work or family matters that require your instant attention. Activities of this type will take up the time needed. It is nothing you can neither skip or down prioritize.

Quadrant 2 Non-Urgent and Important

In quadrant 2 you will find all the activities that are “non-urgent and important”. Things that have a significant impact on your lifelong term but don’t demand your immediate attention. For example, planning, recreation, training or relationship building. Both writing and hopefully also reading this post are examples of quadrant 2 activities.

Quadrant 3 Urgent and Non-Important

In quadrant 3 you will find all the activities that are “urgent and non-important”. Things that are acting upon you but don't necessarily have any significant impact on your life. For example, unnecessary meetings or interruptions from other people.

Quadrant 4 Non-Urgent and Non-Important

In quadrant 4 you will find all the activities that are “non-urgent and non-important”. All the time-wasters in your life. For example, getting stuck in traffic or excessive use of social media which can be a huge black hole for time.

Covey’s thesis is that it is easy to become completely swallowed up by quadrant 1 “Urgent and important”, a type of management by crisis behavior. And there are many emotional rewards for that. You feel important, wanted and will have a sense of purpose and meaning with your work and life.

Quadrant 2, “Non-urgent and Important”, in which all proactive activities can be found, is easy to neglect, which means that quadrant 1 slowly but surely grows and occupies more of your time, attention and efforts.

Success lies in controlling and moving time spent on quadrant 3 and 4 into quadrant 2. To succeed here, you must work actively with Habit 1, Be Proactive. Give quadrant 2 enough time and energy and the activities in quadrant 1 will be successively be reduced to a minimum. There is a lot of wisdom in Covey’s Seven Habits. They carry a lot of weight regarding methods to transform our behaviors from being reactive to become more proactive.


Proactivity at the Project level

Traditional project management methods focus on managing activities which is wrong, they should focus on managing deliverables.

The purpose of all projects is to produce deliverables, not to carry out activities. The planning work must, therefore, begin by establishing the result to be achieved by the project, in the form of deliverables. Rather than starting by figuring out what activities need to be carried out. Activities are how’s that describe the internal process. Deliverables are what’s that describe the benefits to the customers.

Compare the project with a factory. Modern production philosophy is based on creating a pull in the factory using systems like Kanban. In the same way, we want to create a pull in the projects. A project is not to produce a whole range of deliverables that someone, someday, might be interested in. It is only to produce those deliverables requested and pulled by the customers. The result of the project planning and customer dialogue must, therefore, be a list of deliverables to be produced by the project and the price the customers are willing to pay for them.

Activities draw costs, but deliverables generate revenues. If you focus on activities, you risk being trapped in the classic triangle of constraints:

  • How to optimize between time, cost and scope?

By focusing on deliverables, you open the diamond of opportunities instead:

  • How to optimize revenues, customer value and stepping stone against time, cost and scope.

You may think this is just theoretical so I will share real case story with you.

Many years ago, I had a project management training, and as part of the follow-up, I visited all participants for one day three months after the training. One morning I walked into this guy’s office, and this is what happened.

Me: Hi, I am here to help you out with your project what has happened size the training?

PM: Nothing

Me: What do you mean by nothing?

PM: Absolutely nothing. We haven’t done anything.

Me: Why?

PM: We have no clue how to get the work done within the budget allocated.

(My thinking – the guy is trapped the triangle of constraints.)

Me: Have you calculated the revenues from the project?

PM: What?

Me: If you finish this project, what impact will it have on your business?

PM: Interesting question, now I remember you were talking about this in training, didn’t you?

Me: Let's calculate the revenues.

To make a long story short. His project was to make a redesign of a product, and one side effect was that the new design also would free up floor space in the factory. It took us about four hours in the factory to figure out the size and value of this floor space. The value of the floor space was twice his budget per month. Waiting and doing nothing for three months cost the company six (6) times his budget. With this new insight, he could renegotiate the budget and get the work done. An excellent example of the power of the “diamond of opportunities”.

We have still not participated in one single project that has failed, because too much time was spent on proactive work methods. Such as clarifying the customers, chisel out the list of deliverables and optimizing the business case. But we have seen plenty of examples of the opposite.


Proactivity at the management level

Management focuses on prioritizing activities and projects that are important which is wrong, they should focus on defining activities and projects that are unimportant.

There is tendency lurking in the background that the organization always must and can do a little bit more. So, one initiative, activity and project after another is set in motion and added to the overall workload. The result is overloading. Managements ambition may be well-meaning, but the effect is devastating.

Throughout my long career, I have only met one senior manager who fully understood the consequences of overloading. A product development manager at Nokia in Finland during the rapid development period of mobile phones. The commercial window for a new model at that time was between 6-12 months. So, speed was everything. This is what he said:

  • I have not enough with engineers doing nothing!

He wanted more people in his organization, floating around looking for tasks to do. He understood that if his organizations approached the capacity limit delays were inevitable.

The hard task for management is not to prioritize, but to decide what initiatives, activities and projects that can be removed from the agenda. It is always more difficult to say No than Yes. It is always more difficult to terminate a project than starting a new. The essence of prioritization is refraining.

The devastating effect of overloading is ironically something I can prove mathematically. For the theoretically interested a have included the theory and formula at the end of this article. Simplified we could say that with the use of general flow theory if more than 90% of available resources are planned to be utilized, it will inevitably lead to delays. If you approach 100%, delays will approach infinity.

A second proof of the devastating effects of overloading is the research made by Larry Sullivan. He quantified the number of changes made within two similar development projects. One at Ford in the USA and one at Mazda in Japan. When both these companies were analyzed, it was clear that there were significant differences between them. In Ford’s case, the number of changes was higher, and they were made closer to the new product’s date of launching. The majority of changes at Mazda were instead made within the early stages of the project. The most prominent explanation for this difference was that Mazda practiced pronounced upstream work methods, for example QFD. The basic philosophy was to avoid making mistakes rather than to find solutions for mistakes. Getting it right from the start and thereby eliminating late changes within the project rewarded Mazda with substantially higher productivity.

Overloading fosters a culture focused on doing urgent things, and proactive activities are the first to walk out through the door hand in hand with creativity and innovation. If we refer to Covey’s model, people are pushed into quadrant one “urgent and important”. No time and energy is left for quadrant two “non-urgent and important”.

The critical thing for management is maintaining the perfect workload in all pipelines. The overloaded pipeline will clog up and through put will go down. Pushing harder will only make the situation worse.


The fact is that today's culture in most organizations focuses too much on doing and too little on thinking. Too many activities are reactive and too few activities are proactive. The troubleshooter has become a modern-day hero. The proactive person gets criticism for having detailed and slow work methods. And that is why making it right the first time remains a cliché. Despite the fact that it is an unbeatable strategy.


  • Paul S Adler, Avi Mandelbaum, Vien Nguyen and Elisabeth Schwerer, Getting the most out of your product development process, Harvard Business Review, March-April 1996

  • Steven Covey, Seven habits of highly effective people, Simon “ Schulster UK Ltd, London 1999

  • Lawrence P Sullivan, Quality Function Deployment, Quality Progress, June 1986


In general, a flow theory lead-time is the sum of the value-added time and the idle time when no value is supplied. The idle time is a function of the planned utilization of capacity, the variability in work volume as well as the variability in the performance of the process. The following equation (Adler et al. 1996) defines the connection:

Idle time/Value-added time = ½*(variability in work volume + variability in the process) * (planned capacity utilization) / (1- planned capacity utilization)

Planned capacity utilization has the biggest influence on the total lead-time. If more than 90% of the available resources are planned this automatically leads to delays. There is not enough capacity to handle variability. High variability in work volume or the process performance makes the situation worse. In that case, the planned utilization of capacity needs to be reduced.

If you want to learn more on customer value, follow "The customer value challenge". Several videos and posters on how to turn customer value into a concrete and practical tool to drive profitability, growth and sustainability. All is free.


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