At a recent training session, an attendee asked about the difference between process improvement and Legal Project Management.
As I’ve noted before, the simple — and simplistic — version is that process improvement is about doing things right, and LPM about doing the right things.
Digging a bit deeper, misguided process improvement efforts focus solely on doing what you do better… and so does misguided project management. I’ve worked with too many project managers who fulfill George Santayana’s vision of fanatics as those who redouble their effort when they’ve forgotten their aim… except that so many awful PMs never really seem to know their aim to begin with.
Six Sigma advocates also fall into this trap more often than they should. Perhaps all those belts are too tight, cutting off circulation. (The idea of belts was cute at Honeywell at first, demystifying a mathematics-heavy discipline, but it quickly devolved into oneupsmanship, the fate of almost all certification programs.)
Six Sigma does have valuable lessons to teach even outside its manufacturing origins, some of which translate into consultative, knowledge-based field such as the law. However, Sig Sigma per se fits the law about as well as building-trades-style project management, which is to say, not without major modifications and adjustments.
Most importantly, process improvement and Six Sigma aren’t synonyms. They are separate disciplines with large areas of overlap. However, there are aspects of Six Sigma which have nothing to do with process improvement per se, and there are many aspects of process improvement outside the Six Sigma universe. The same holds true for Lean, and for their precocious offspring Lean Six Sigma.
At a high level, there are three important steps in process improvement:
- Understand your current process — what, why, how, why, when, why…
- Eliminate or radically resection those that don’t add value to the client/customer
- Streamline what’s left so they add the most value with the least cost (friction)
As with effective project management, you need to do the steps in order to get the most value — that is, don’t skip the prep work, step one above, which is the equivalent of the Initiation and Planning stages of a legal project.
That said, you can gain a significant amount of value from, say, step 2 alone, just as you can by doing a good task-and-resources listing (a/k/a work breakdown structure) even without such important precursors as a project charter or communications plan. However, you do run two risks, one minor, one major.
The minor risk is that you won’t choose the steps that yield the highest value from restructuring. That’s not terrible. Imagine you want the new Springsteen Darkness on the Edge of Town box set — you do want this, right? — which retails for $120; you see it available for $105 and pick up a copy. You’re happy with your $15 savings, even though you might also have gotten it at Amazon for about $96. You missed out saving another $9, but you did save $15, so you’re still ahead of the game. It’s the same thing with picking processes to improve; capturing some value is better than capturing none, even if you leave otherwise removable inefficiency in the system.
The major risk is that you may choose something that in a vacuum seems appropriate but in context is a poor choice. What if I gave you the Springsteen box set but you really wanted the collected works of Gustav Mahler? I saved either $15 or $24 depending on where I got it… but it wasn’t what you wanted! (And the Mahler set is only $45, so I really messed up.)
Let’s go back to the original question, the difference between process improvement and LPM. As I see it, Legal Project Management (with caps, the particular “brand” I offer and teach) incorporates key principles, techniques, and tools from various process improvement disciplines, not just Lean and Six Sigma.
Legal Project Management is about first doing the right things, and then doing them right.