The Keys to Delivering Manufacturing Projects on Time

Here are some tools and techniques that can help ensure project managers can accurately identify the "when" of project delivery.

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Project managers have the unique task of predicting when a project will be complete sometime in the future and then delivering on the promise. Manufacturing project managers have the additional stress of managing various moving parts, shifting priorities and strict timelines – especially those working within the more technical fields such as aerospace or the pharmaceutical industry. A missed forecast can have a considerable impact on the business as a whole, with delays resulting in a cascading effect on all other parts of the process and teams across the organization. Accurate projects not only boost the bottom line, but they boost company morale, as well. People like progress and feel most motivated when they're successfully hitting their targets.

It would seem logical, then, that the number one goal of a project manager would be to hit their projections every time. However, accurately predicting projects is incredibly challenging. It's hard to determine resource availability, assess all the dependencies, and communicate across teams. There is a lot that can throw the timeline off-track. This process, which is usually very difficult, was exacerbated this year by the ongoing pandemic and the relocation of teams from worksites to remote locations, separated from other team members. Even before the pandemic struck, a 2019 project management survey found only ​19% of organizations deliver successful projects​ most of the time. Manufacturers are no exception. Despite an abundance of tools and dedicated project managers, organizations fail to execute projects successfully. 

Why does the manufacturing industry struggle to complete projects on time? Partly because the conventional approach to project management relies on a static plan and a set list of activities that leave little room for obstacles and varies drastically from the non-linear progression of projects in the real world. Almost all projects experience many setbacks, including unforeseen roadblocks, shifting priorities due to new projects, lost resources, shuffling of project managers or the company shifts course entirely. Traditional tools and trackers fail to account for the inevitable fluctuations that are bound to occur.

This boils down to determining the "when" of project delivery and accounting for roadblocks at a fundamental level. In particular, predicting the efficiency, conflicts, schedules and availability of individual contributors is arguably the most critical factor, and one of the hardest parts of a project manager's job. These people are the resources that are expected to get the job done, and when they're suddenly unavailable, delivery dates are inevitably missed.

Fortunately, some tools and techniques can help ensure project managers can accurately identify the "when" of project delivery. Let's look at two key elements:

Accurately predicting resource availability

Most project management techniques assume that the delivery team workers will have the same 40 hours available for the duration of a project. However, this isn't realistic. Resources are always changing. Team members may get suddenly pulled into a higher-priority project; they could leave the company, become ill and need time off. Or, their motivation could be waning, meaning that they're delivering far less than predicted during their scheduled work hours. Communication is key. For many projects, there is a lack of transparency. Some of the biggest blockers to success:

- No clear delegation – the team doesn't know who is working on what.

- Resources are shared across multiple managers; true availability is guessed, not known.

- Employees overcommit themselves, can't deliver as promised.

Without a way to track this information, you have no insight into where project bottlenecks are or how you can solve them with available resources. The solution is functionality in newer project management tools known as resource leveling. Rather than relying on a manual project management process, these tools consider availability and use artificial intelligence (AI) and automation to identify under/over-capacity resources and automatically redistribute based on availability. This helps ensure that projects keep marching toward delivery, despite fluctuations in resources.

Plan for uncertainty

Uncertainty is a given in any project. The only thing we know for sure is that the unexpected will occur. However, acknowledging this challenge is not the same as effectively managing it. When you tie your team to a specific deadline, one small delay can ruin the entire project and lead to cost overrun. Projects are built entirely around assumptions – in other words – guesses. We estimate how much our team can accomplish in a given amount of time, struggling to allow for some discrepancies but inevitably failing to predict all the challenges that will arise. People are notoriously bad at estimating efficiency.    

Even if you seek input from the delivering team, workers often under-estimate their timelines because they don't want to disappoint project stakeholders, or they overestimate the ease with which they can complete the tasks. Other times they're just wildly optimistic. This "glass half full" mentality results in missed deadlines and shifted sprints because of unanticipated delays or project schedules that almost immediately become out of date. This quickly turns the team dynamic from one of excitement to one of stress and anxiety.

Newer project management tools bring AI and automation to play to forecast scheduling and adjust timelines based on the system's changes. This sort of predictive scheduling uses integrated time tracking programmatically to refresh estimates and schedules for greater project timeline accuracy. A "high confidence" estimate is provided, along with best- and worst-case plan estimates to allow for better preparation in the face of uncertainty, thereby mitigating risk. For those that aren't leveraging a tool or system for their planning, the same idea can be accomplished by setting delivery "windows" instead of set dates. Planning in "phases" can allow for flexibility as the project proceeds and builds team confidence while still allowing for some unexpected challenges.

No project manager or tool can hit every delivery date with 100% certainty. However, by making subtle tweaks to your project timeline, you can empower your team and set them up for success, while still producing for your stakeholders.