By Michael Palmquist and Shawn Murphy

A project retrospective is a meeting held at the conclusion of a project to evaluate its successes and pitfalls. The goal is to discover insights that will allow you to implement better processes for future projects. If done right, you’ll identify bottlenecks and improve your workflows.
This article lays out specific steps for planning and conducting periodic project retrospective meetings. It also explores techniques for using information gained from these meetings to improve business processes. Project retrospectives may also include job costing, which will be discussed in a future post.

Why Retrospectives?

Many contractors never take the time to get detailed feedback about individual projects in an organized way. Often, the only feedback comes if a customer is dissatisfied. Although customer feedback is valuable and should be part of the retrospective, it does not tell the whole story. A key aspect of project retrospectives is that they solicit feedback from everyone involved in the project, including employees in the field, such as site technicians and the installation team.

In many contracting companies, the installation team is not well-integrated with the office staff. The install team may operate out of a separate warehouse or they may drive directly to the job. They often start their workdays earlier than the office staff. Installers may rely on a foreman to give them information about the project. For these reasons, contractors must be proactive about soliciting input from the installers regarding design and installation issues. Project retrospectives are a great way to do this.

Project retrospectives are often overlooked or treated as a luxury. Some team members may not buy into doing project retrospectives, especially when they perceive that a job has gone smoothly. But the fact remains: Project retrospective meetings are a great tool for identifying operational issues and understanding their root causes. In response, your company can implement improvements that result in significant operational efficiencies and improved employee and end customer satisfaction. Contractors should hold project retrospectives on at least some of their completed projects on a regular basis.

Tips for Planning and Conducting Project Retrospective Meetings

The following suggestions can help get into a cycle of holding periodic project retrospective meetings that yield significant value to the company and its employees:

SET UP

  • Reserve a meeting time:
    • Suggest a weekly, biweekly or monthly basis for a standing project retrospective meeting.
    • Make sure that time is blocked out on everyone’s calendar.
    • Find a time that works for employees in the field.
    • Make sure the field employees know they are getting paid for the meeting.
  • Consider not inviting higher-level managers or the company owner. Their presence can deter teams from bringing up mistakes. The project retrospective is to solicit input from employees that don’t typically provide feedback.
  • Consider having a separate, dedicated meeting for any larger commercial projects.

PREPARATION

  • Capture issues as they happen on the project:
    • Provide a predefined location in which to record information during the job, such as dedicated fields in your project management software.
    • Remind and encourage installers to document issues, as this is a new procedure.
  • Encourage attendees to come prepared with notes. Do not allow attendees to spend meeting time digging through emails to remember what happened.
  • Create a retrospective meeting template. Include meeting procedures and a list of action item categories, such as:
    • Adding or subtracting process steps, or reordering process steps
    • Conducting additional training on a specific topic
    • Criteria for restricting certain jobs from being taken, or for higher or lower pricing.
    • Removing or adding hardware

MEETING EXECUTION

  • Emphasize the purpose of continuous improvement. Let all attendees know that the purpose is not to punish or blame people for issues that arise. Continually stress that the purpose is to improve operations.
  • Select a moderator, responsible for:
    • Creating and following the agenda, and sticking to the schedule.
    • Ensuring everyone is given a chance to speak.
    • Stopping discussion of issues unrelated to the jobs being discussed.
    • Tabling any long discussions.
    • Steering group to identify the root causes for identified issues.
  • Start by reviewing open action items from previous meetings. Be sure to close any action items that have been completed.
  • Finish with clear actions and action owners. The value from the meeting comes when changes are made to your process. Wrap up the meeting with a clear statement of the next steps and who is to take them.

FOLLOW UP

  • Share meeting minutes, express gratitude to all involved.

It is important to understand that the project retrospective meeting is in itself a new process that will need to be improved over time. During the first meetings, likely not everyone will be prepared, and time will be wasted trying to recreate what happened. Many people may not feel comfortable bringing up issues, or may be defensive. It usually takes time for employees to realize that changes made based on the project retrospective will make the company more efficient and will improve their jobs.

Real-World Example – Starting a Standing Project Retrospective Meeting

SolarCo is a medium-sized local residential solar contractor that does everything from sales to design to installation themselves. The field workers have limited contact with office workers during a typical week because they work out of a warehouse a few blocks from the main office. The company is growing slowly but consistently and always has a steady stream of new leads. The company tends to get good reviews from their customers. If a customer complains, or if there are major problems with a project, they will try to figure out what went wrong, but other than that they don’t evaluate completed projects. Although SolarCo doesn’t keep track of costs by individual projects, overall the company is profitable.

As a continuous improvement initiative, SolarCo decides to hold a standing, bi-weekly project retrospective meeting to review projects completed during the previous two-week period. Meeting attendees will include the sales consultant, sales manager, designer, project manager, site tech, foreman and permit tech. They announce that the first meeting will be in two months to allow all groups to record notes as the projects make their way through the design, installation, and interconnection phases. Key data will be recorded in their project management software in designated fields.

Real-World Examples – Project Review Notes and Action Items

Here are a few examples of individual project retrospectives and the resulting action items. The purpose is to show you examples of the types of changes that may result from the meetings.

Project 1

Description and Issues: This residential solar system was installed in an AHJ where SolarCo doesn’t do many projects. Although the customer was happy with the project and there were no installation issues, the feeling among operations was that this project took much longer to complete than most. A separate inspection had to be scheduled with the fire department; furthermore the building department required an intermediate inspection of the roof attachments in addition to the final inspection. Because this project was a long way from SolarCo’s office, a huge amount of time was spent in transit. None of this extra travel time was accounted for in the price of the job. Although job costing is not done on individual projects, it was obvious the company lost money on this project. SolarCo also noticed that they had no formal list of notes for the different AHJs in which they work.

Analysis and Solution: A quick analysis showed that SolarCo installs less than 1% of their jobs in this AHJ, and that the close rate for projects here was lower than the company average. Operations decided that they should no longer accept work in this AHJ. This is a departure from SolarCo’s historical business practice. When the company first started there were insufficient leads and projects, so they tended to pursue all leads.

Action Item(s):

  1. Sales Manager: Announce to all sales consultants that SolarCo will no longer accept new leads in this AHJ.
  2. Insides Sales: Develop a database of local AHJs with notes pertaining to quoting, designing, installing and whether or not to quote jobs here. Update the Lead Qualification completion criteria so that it includes verifying the AHJ.
  3. Project Manager: Investigate different project costing strategies and present a proposal to the owner to implement job costing in the future.

Project 2

Description and Issues: This job was kitted incorrectly, and the foreman had to drive back to the warehouse to get the proper rails.

Analysis and Solution: About six months ago the company changed the racking system they used for all roof-mounted jobs. The warehouse still contained a large amount of the old rails, which were kitted by mistake. The warehouse manager also noted that kitting takes a long time, because the warehouse is crowded and she often must move material out of the way to get to what she needs.

Action Item(s):

  1. Warehouse manager should scrap all obsolete material.
  2. Management has agreed to hire temporary help to help clean out and organize the warehouse.

Project 3

Description and Issue(s): This job was installed and passed inspection without any issues. The customer was happy with the price and installation quality, however, he gave SolarCo a poor review because he thought the project took too long to start and because he thought there was poor communication.

Analysis and Solution: The technical site visit was scheduled and completed soon after the job was sold; however, the site tech took four days to upload the site information. The designer wasn’t aware that the site data was uploaded for another week after that. The design was completed quickly; however the County was backed up and took almost 1 month to issue the permit. The site tech said that he had multiple site visits during the day, and that he did not get a chance to download the data until the end of the week, when he didn’t have any visits scheduled during the afternoon and he could make it back to the office.

Action Items(s)

  1. Site Tech: Schedule site tech visits to allow enough time to document and download the site visit information before leaving the site.
  2. Project Manager: Configure the project management software so that it automatically notifies the customer whenever the permit drawing package is submitted to the AHJ. Also notify the customer automatically when the permit is issued. This will let the customer know that the delay is due to an outside agency instead of due to the solar contractor.

Conclusion

Project retrospective meetings are an effective tool for instituting continuous improvement in a contracting company. Retrospectives can be integrated as a normal part of the project’s life-cycle. A small investment of your team’s time can result in some big efficiency gains that also enhance employee and end customer satisfaction.