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Cleaning Out the Closet

By W. Scott Cameron

I have noted during my career that there is a never-ending amount of rules and restrictions forced upon project managers under the guise of helping them “be successful” in managing their projects. It appears to be a one-way street; many regulations are added, but few (if any) are removed.

We never seem to be able to take the time to clean out our project management closets and remove the rules and regulations we have outgrown, the ones that have gone out of style, and the ones we’re not sure why we put in place to begin with.

I had the opportunity to assist in cleaning out such a closet as part of a project management leadership team I was part of. Prior to beginning the process, each member of the leadership team had reviewed the quantity and quality of our existing technical standards (TSs) and standard operating procedures (SOPs) with the capital management practitioners in his or her area. The feedback we received from these reviews was a resounding, “We have too many, at times they contradict each other, and we need a simpler system.” Those were just the positive points of our system.

Since we were in the process of “streamlining” the capital management TSs and SOPs used to define and execute our capital projects, we had an opportunity to completely rethink each one. At first we felt that we had done a pretty good job: We’d reduced the number of TSs from 18 to 11, and SOPs from 32 to 24. But as we reviewed our new TSs and SOPs, we noted our “closet” was still full. We had simply rearranged all the clothes by reformatting or renaming the standards versus actually taking something off the plate. In some cases, we actually changed the font size so it only appeared that there were less!

It is management’s responsibility to understand, review, and periodically edit the requirements it places on its project managers as criteria and times change.

Like the closet that accumulates all the stuff we buy and never get rid of (and just end up moving around) we felt our list of TSs and SOPs needed a major cleaning. We went back to the drawing board, took an initial cut, and reduced the TSs from 11 to 7 and SOPs from 24 to 7. People were feeling fairly good about this reduction effort, but many of us questioned why we couldn’t reduce more. As project managers described their role in simplistic terms, we always came down to the fact that they were accountable for managing cost, schedule, and technical correctness. And it worked; now we had just three main topics!!! We told the team reviewing the standards to be merciless with their reduction efforts, leaving only the core requirements and keeping in mind these three areas. The team came back with a proposal reducing the number of TSs and SOPs to just four each:

  1. Cost Estimating
  2. Project Execution Planning
  3. Engineering, Procurement, and Construction Planning
  4. Legal and Corporate Requirements

As our leadership team reviewed this proposed change, they realized how much “stuff” had been added to the TSs and SOPs over the years. These additional TSs and SOPs didn’t add any actual value and went a long way toward explaining why the project management community was feeling so overburdened. In the beginning we expected our original 11-standard proposal would leave the practitioners feeling that we’d really helped them and streamlined the process. However, all we’d actually done was rearrange the existing data in their closet, making things harder to find. With our four TSs and SOPs, we felt we had left just the right amount of clothes in the closet.

We decided to deploy the four TSs and SOPs, figuring if our project managers experienced problems, we could recreate what we had removed. In our opinion, the risk of negatively impacting our projects was small. We were excited to find out the project management community was delighted with these reductions and felt empowered by them. It gave them more flexibility to manage their projects and develop their own personal management style.

Still basking in the glow of this successful reduction, our leadership team decided to tackle our capability assessment tools — another closet to clean out! We asked for two volunteers to review and propose reductions. Each one of these tools had 16 sections and anywhere from eight to 16 components in each section. Within two months the individuals returned with their proposal and beamed that they had combined the tools (GREAT), reduced the total number of sections from 32 to 16 (not great, but OK), and each section now had 15-30 subcomponents (UGH). Thus, the closet was still full but had been rearranged. We forgot how to clean out the closet again. The team rejected their proposal! I volunteered to try and streamline these tools by reapplying the process we’d used with the TSs and SOPs. In the end we agreed on one tool, four sections, and 6-10 sub-points in each section. The closet was cleaned out!

After six years, the four standards and SOPs and the capability tool have stood the test of time, and our project management success measures have improved. The streamlining process enabled us to:

  1. Reduce the effort, costs and time required to maintain these standards and SOPs.
  2. Focus the project managers on what is truly important, and allow them the creativity to develop their own style.

It is management’s responsibility to understand, review, and periodically edit the requirements it places on its project managers as criteria and times change. This is especially true since in the past we tended to add requirements that may or may not have added value. Thus, we were just building an extra closet to house our new stuff, versus cleaning out the original one to solve the problem.

Management needs to listen to its practitioners to determine how they can help the system. Statements like “do more with less” are interesting, but management needs to be accountable to determine what rules and regulations are truly necessary for project managers to be successful and deliver successful projects.


  • The natural tendency in organizations is to add new standard project procedures and guidelines throughout the years, without deleting old ones.
  • It is management’s responsibility to periodically review and edit standard project procedures and guidelines, leaving only the minimum core requirements.

How can you encourage, in today’s dynamic environment, appropriate flexibility necessary for implementing standard operating procedures?

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by W. Scott Cameron

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About the Author

 Scott Cameron W. Scott Cameron is the global process owner of project management for the Procter and Gamble company in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has both managed capital projects and programs, and developed other capital management practitioners Within the company’s various businesses for more than twenty years.

About the Author

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