Time to Stop

By Kevin Meyer Updated on October 8th, 2020


As we approach the arbitrary end of the year, many organizations are beginning the planning cycle for next year.  Part of that process should be identifying what projects and activities should be stopped, for several reasons – performance, alignment with strategy, and so forth.  However, equally if not more important is creating a process (and supporting culture!) that encourages stopping at any time.

Darrel Rigby, Sarah Elk, and Steve Berez discussed the opportunity of stopping faster in a recent article in Harvard Business Review.

We are terrible at stopping work, even when it’s obvious that the work is a complete waste of time and money.

We’ve all been in those meetings where we discuss projects that are delayed but someone, often for purely political reasons, still sees a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.  Or we see wasteful activities and requirements that don’t seem aligned with strategy or creating customer value.  How many reports continue to be created every month simply because they’ve always been made, how many extra reviews of a product design, how many extra quality checks?  It happens everywhere.

The downside of not stopping is huge. In addition to consuming and wasting resources, fear of not being able to stop can dampen innovation itself – we become afraid of starting.

The authors describe three ways to improve the ability to stop.  There are some interesting ties with lean methods, and I’ll add one more way that has been very valuable to me in the past.

Make Decisions Reversible

When we propose new projects we usually just discuss the benefits and ROI, which then leads to funding.  Status meetings evaluate project performance, but always with just the end ROI in mind.  There is often an analysis of project risk and sometimes ROI is discounted by this risk, but rarely are specific go/no-go milestones included – especially ones where the failure to meet a milestone is seen as a positive.  The authors describe one possibility:

Recognize business plans for what they really are: business experiments. Break large, risky gambles into a series of smaller, smarter tests. Clarify the hypotheses, the best ways to test them, and the metrics that will signal whether to persist, pivot, or pause.

That will sound very familiar to those of us in the lean world – it’s a version of Toyota kata.  Iterate through a series of experiments from a current state to an end state, learning and adjusting along the way.

Make Work More Visible

Physical waste and problems are often very visible – if you go to the Gemba and have learned what to look for.  Knowledge work and back office business processes are a different story.

Increasing visibility is good for everyone. It helps senior executives uncover valuable initiatives, recognize the people pushing them, and accelerate their progress. It allows employees to see projects related to their own jobs, learn from them, and identify where their expertise could solve perplexing problems or save time and money. It makes it easier for everyone to identify duplicative work and triggers discussions about whether overlapping teams should collaborate or compete. It helps teams working on interdependent steps coordinate and minimize delays.

Once again, the lean concepts of visual management and obeya can play a role.  What key metrics describe the performance of the activity, process, or project?  What is acceptable, and what happens when the metric is not acceptable?  Where are those metrics posted, when and how are they reviewed at multiple levels?

Overpower Fear

Many organizations and leaders are beginning to talk about failure in more positive light.  Failure, done right, is a learning opportunity that can lead to future innovation and success.  In the kata process, failure with a small experiment helps improve the effectiveness of future experiments.  But we need to do more than just talk about failure in a positive manner.  Culture, incentives, and leadership need to be aligned, and that can be very difficult.  Are you comfortable giving more projects to someone that has failed in a visible and appropriate manner?  There is additional upside to doing that:

Finally, giving people more opportunities if their current project fails reduces the likelihood that they’ll stick with a bad idea longer than they should. Successful companies build a strong and visible backlog of compelling opportunities. They make it clear that until existing projects that aren’t panning out have stopped, new initiatives can’t be launched.

This aligns with the core lean concept of respect for people.  Lean leaders help people in the organization learn and develop new skills, which can come about through appropriate failure.  They reinforce the potential of ongoing experimentation to create improvement.

To the three activities described by the authors, I’ll add a forth that has been very powerful for me at multiple organizations:

Map to a Clear Hoshin Plan

Taking the time to create a clear and defined hoshin plan can be a valuable tool to identify and stop unnecessary and low performing processes, activities, and projects.  Start with your core values and principles, clearly define the current state, define the future state, and then determine what breakthrough objectives are needed to get you there.  Create the first projects to achieve those objectives, using kata to experiment, learn, and iterate.

That’s when the power starts.  Now list current activities, processes, and projects.  Do they align with the hoshin plan?  If they don’t, why not?  Perhaps they should and the hoshin plan needs tweaking, but most likely it is because they are zombie projects.  This is when leaders need to step up and make the hard decision to stop or create alignment, while respecting the people involved.  At a previous organization we stopped a scary number of activities and projects that freed up resources that could be better applied to improvement projects that were aligned with a path to a desired future state.  This same process can be used when evaluating new activities.

As you evaluate current plans and future strategies, take the time to evaluate what is happening now.  Don’t be afraid to stop, and turn that into a powerful and positive culture change for the organization that can drive future improvement and innovation.

  1. Jon Miller

    October 9, 2020 - 10:48 am

    To this great list I would add setting WIP limits.

  2. Srinivasan Raghavan

    October 10, 2020 - 1:55 am

    Transparency and visible and inter communication skill without any bias make the team to achieve. The article is excellent and thought provoking.

  3. Nathan James

    October 13, 2020 - 5:08 am

    2020 has been a difficult year for many businesses. Careful planning is required as we move into the next year.

  4. Jonathan Wiederecht

    October 15, 2020 - 6:10 am

    Kevin – excellent read. Thank you.

  5. James La Trobe-Bateman

    October 28, 2020 - 1:43 pm

    I often wonder how many projects even get started, when it is not clear that they are going to truly improve the business.

  6. Phil Vigeant

    March 10, 2021 - 12:53 pm

    Great read, I agree sometimes project especially when you change your whole strategy can ultimately just be waste. Failure can always been a learning moment, as sometimes failure shows there are other ways to improve the process. Creating a clear time map with deadlines and goals can help realize if the project is ultimately a waste of resources and time.

  7. Isaiah Kittel

    March 2, 2022 - 4:40 pm

    I really enjoyed this post, it was certainly a great read that brings an interesting strategy to light. This idea of accepting and encouraging failure in the pursuit of excellence reminds me of the microeconomic theory on opportunity cost. By choosing to continue a project that isn’t yielding the right results, a company is not only incurring more costs but barring themselves from engaging in other potentially beneficial projects. They are also wasting time, money, inventory, processes, and much more that are harming the company when they should accept the failure. As a society I believe we are afraid of failure and will do what we can to make things worth rather than giving in to the failure. But you make solid points in arguing the benefits of multiple small failures as they are experiments. You mention the lean idea of Toyota kata, which is all about small experiments to learn and adjust along the way, similar to PDCA. Today’s business world is all about data and failed experiments can bring in all kinds of helpful data for future successful projects. We’ll certain fail a lot in life, being able to accept that and take away the positives can benefit the individual and the company.

  8. Nic Morin

    March 30, 2022 - 2:18 pm

    I agree that the inability to stop wasteful and unnecessary projects is extremely detrimental to any team. By constantly worrying that a project may need to be stopped or may not work correctly individuals will be less likely to start new projects or try new ideas in the future. I believe that the loss of creativity and ingenuity that this cycle causes is even more harmful than the broken or stopped processes because it will stifle meaningful progress in the future. As you stated the goal should be to overpower fear and accept that you will fail. I love this part as it is true there will always be failure but instead of looking at it negatively failure should always be taken as an opportunity to learn more about the process or even improve your team processes for better performance.

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