Proper Planning, Establishing Milestones, and Smart Staffing Keep Projects on Track
Speed in completing product and process development projects means fewer surprises. There is less likelihood that the market has changed when teams complete projects and get new products to market quickly. Another reason for keeping projects on schedule is business executives’ desire to get the new products’ cash flow into the current year’s financial statement. For the laboratory manager, doing this means that the next year’s proposed R&D budget will be considered more favorably.
However, laboratory managers frequently find their R&D projects falling behind schedule. They and their project managers (who are often team leaders) must balance project scope and goals against constraints and developments that make the original project timetable unrealistic. Common constraints include inadequate funds, insufficient resources and scope creep. In addition, how the project is structured can make the time allotted inadequate. Finally, disappointing results can mean that required project goals take longer to achieve.
What are laboratory managers and project managers to do in these situations? The task begins with initial project planning and later involves identifying why the project fell behind schedule in order to take remedial action.
Initial project planning
Careful planning from the beginning can help keep projects on schedule. When initially designing the project, all project stakeholders must agree upon the project goals. Stakeholders include the laboratory manager, project leader and staff members working on the project. Stakeholders also include the appropriate people in the business functions who will use the results of the research to grow or maintain the organization’s business.
In the case of both product and process development projects, stakeholders include the appropriate production plant manager and plant engineers who will use the results of the research in their plants. Business managers, marketing specialists and sales personnel who will be selling the product also are stakeholders.
Once there is agreement on project goals, a clear plan must be developed to reach these goals. This plan defines the critical path to the project goals and the work required to meet and achieve them. The plan should include project milestones—intermediate goals that serve to define and maintain the project schedule. These milestones serve to define success—success being the readiness to move forward to the next phase of the project. Failure to meet early milestones on time should serve as a clear indicator that remedial measures are needed to keep on schedule. The earlier the project manager understands that the project is falling behind schedule, the less time and money are expended before remedial measures are taken to get back on track.
PERT (Program Evaluation Review Technique) charts1 provide a quickly understood means of determining if a project is on schedule. Gantt charts1 also can be used for the same purpose. Project tasks are placed on a time line, with tasks that may be performed simultaneously indicated and milestones noted. The critical path is the longest path through the network of project activities. Activities on the project’s critical path cannot be delayed without delaying the entire project.
Figure 1. Example PERT chart: The critical path length is A – B – D – E. Estimated time requirement is 11 months.
The project plan serves to define the resources, funding and staffing required to maintain the schedule and achieve project goals. This plan serves both to establish clear responsibilities for the various phases of the work to be done and to determine the skill sets required by the various project participants. Only after these skill sets are defined should laboratory staff members be assigned to the project. By defining clear responsibilities for each project participant, each participant knows what he/she is responsible for and when.
A good plan also provides the framework for estimating the resources necessary to accomplish each milestone. This aids the project manager in determining if his/her organization has the internal technical and financial resources necessary to achieve project goals. Insufficient technical expertise helps define the need for outsourcing some phases of the work. Insufficient financial resources can result in the organization borrowing funds to support the project or bringing in outside participants who financially contribute to the project. It also can mean the organization decides not to pursue the project.
In some organizations, business functions take a lead role in determining project funding, particularly for large projects. In others, it is a senior laboratory manager. Both the laboratory manager responsible for the project and the project leader must have the courage to voice concerns if insufficient resources are assigned to the project. They should do this as soon as it becomes clear that the budget and resources assigned to the project are insufficient for the task. In addition to stating their concerns, these leaders should define what is required to meet the project timetable and achieve its goals.
Project scope creep
A well-designed project plan adhered to by all project participants is the best insurance against the insidious threat of project scope creep. “Scope creep means adding work, little by little, until all the original cost and schedule estimates are completely unachievable,” notes Eric Verzuh, author of “The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management.”1 “The scope estimate should describe the major activities of the project in such a way that it will be absolutely clear if extra work is added later on.” Scope creep is insidious because adding work usually seems like such a good idea at the time.
All the project costs, the resource estimates and the schedule are based on the definition of the project’s scope. To obtain agreement on project funding and resources, particularly staff, to be devoted to the project, it often is necessary to narrow the project scope during initial project planning and discussion. It can be very tempting to add back the eliminated work later during the project, particularly if things are going well. However, this means deviating from the project’s critical path. Unless additional funding and resources are assigned to the project, this runs the risk of causing the project to fall behind schedule. Therefore, the project scope initially should be made absolutely clear to all project participants.
Project scope creep can be based on sound reasoning. For example, if a product is designed to serve Purpose A, later adding the related Purpose B to the project scope can seem both desirable and logical. However, the delay in project completion can outweigh the benefits of broadening the project scope. Only if it is very clear that the benefits of broadening the scope outweigh the adverse effects of delaying project completion should the scope be expanded. When considering this, laboratory managers must not be swayed by emotional considerations. Project staff members often will argue vehemently for broadening the project scope because it appeals to their scientific interests. Sales managers may do the same because it expands their commercial opportunities.
However, the better solution is to maintain the original project scope and develop a subsidiary project to be pursued after the original project is completed and the results commercialized. In the generic case mentioned in the previous paragraph, this can mean only later doing the work that demonstrates that the newly developed product can be used for Purpose B.
Solutions to project delays
The most effective solution to the problem of a project falling behind schedule is to use the PERT chart to identify and monitor the critical path of milestones that must be met for the project to finish on time with its goals achieved. This critical path defines the minimum time the project will take and the required minimum budget. Making sure all critical tasks begin and end on time is the surest way of making the overall project end on time and within budget.
Frequent project team meetings serve to emphasize to team members the importance of staying on the critical path and to identify schedule problems as soon as possible. If schedule slippage is discovered quickly, shifting people from noncritical tasks to critical ones can bring the project back on schedule. Noncritical tasks can be performed later.
Rather than shifting people, one can add people and other resources to the project. This actually may be more cost-effective than just increasing project costs due to delays. Consultant Bradford Goldense (Goldense Group, Inc.) has noted that, while adding people initially adds costs to the project, finishing the project on time rather than late can result in a lower overall project cost.2 However, before doing this, managers need to be sure that the critical tasks actually will be performed more quickly by adding people to the project. For example, training new or transferred employees added to the project actually could delay completion of a critical task because skilled project participants are spending their time training the additional personnel.
According to the Goldense Group, Inc., specialists in product development metrics, to combat later scope creep, laboratory managers can begin to use “proactive measures” after a product concept is approved for development and before approval of a product development project.3 Proactive measures help define the goals and activities needed for a project before developing a detailed project plan. Predictive measures can begin when data becomes available on a partially completed project. These metrics can be extrapolated to the anticipated or planned end of an activity or project, or to some point prior to the anticipated project conclusion, such as the next milestone. These early data are used to predict a project’s final outcomes. If there are large differences between the predicted information and the desired result, corrective action may be taken early, with minimal project delays or cost increases.
Re-examining your project staffing decisions can improve team productivity. For example, putting the same people to work on similar tasks requiring related skills that are part of different projects can create internal experts who work more productively. Be sure your top performers are working on critical-path tasks where their high productivity will enable shorter project schedules to be achieved.
If people with critical skills are not available in your laboratory, an alternative is to outsource critical-path tasks to external experts. Another alternative is to outsource some aspects of the project to suppliers or customers. These decisions are best made at the beginning of projects.
By designing projects to minimize the possibility of delays and taking remedial action should they occur, lab managers can enhance the reputation of their laboratories and increase their value to their organizations.
1. E. Verzuh, “The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management,” John Wiley & Sons, (1999), p. 57.
2. J.K. Borchardt, “Using Research Metrics Helps Get More Bang for Your R&D Buck,” Laboratory Manager (April 30, 2007), www.labmanager.com/articles.asp?ID=67.
3. Goldense Group, Inc. (Needham, Mass.), www.goldensegroupinc. com/