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12 Best Strategies to Keep
Engineering Projects on Track
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product development or improvement projects can be kept on track. The
following strategies will allow a manager to improve significantly the
probability that a project will complete successfully on time and
budget. These have been accumulated as a result of working on
engineering projects for 20 years as an independent developer, and
seven years as a high tech manager.
In the case of any particular project, not all of the strategies need
to be implemented, but the greater the degree of their implementation,
the higher the likelihood of success. As is always the case, the skill,
experience and judgement of the Engineering or Project Manager will
allow them to determine which strategies are best emphasized for a
particular project. These strategies, taken as a whole, actually fit
into a generic general management process that involves the following
four basic management tools:
Planning (specifying and organizing the task
to be accomplished, including what resources are to be used)
Reporting (how well the plan is working
compared to original plan)
Corrective Action as Required (Management by
Exception, Risk Management, etc)
Process Feedback (to improve future project
planning and controlling)
Learn to value the early days of the Project as if they were the same
as the final days
managers consider the days near project completion as much more
valuable and important than those at the beginning. Momentum gathers
slowly during the early phases, and moves rapidly toward the end. In
reality, a day lost at the beginning, or the missing of an early
milestone, can have as significant an impact on completion date or
budget as missing the final deadlines. Similarly, a project kickoff
meeting emphasizes that the project has begun and starts the focus on
project outcomes and process. This is the time to discuss goals and
objectives with the significant team members. It is surprising how many
projects are started without such a meeting, wasting valuable time and
focus at the project beginning.
2. Generate a Detailed Specification and System
can be more crucial to the success of a project than to have a Detailed
Functional Specification and System Block Diagram. These need to
outline important system characteristics and be written down, and
signed off by all critical team members. These specifications alone can
often make or break a project. The trick is to have them detailed, but
not too detailed. The experience of the manager counts a lot at this
Most product specifications change throughout the project. Plan for
this and have a method for tracking these changes, don't just assume
that "everyone knows" what are the current product specifications. Have
a method to track changes, and make key members again sign off on the
changes and indicate their impact on schedule and budget. Documented
Functional and Software specs that are well controlled keep "creeping
featurism" and a long sequence of "just minor changes" from seriously
impacting the project negatively.
3. Determine high risk areas before beginning
the unknown or undeveloped approaches, circuits and techniques involved
in the successful completion of the project. These can then be broken
out into a special project by themselves, or at least partially
developed before even beginning the formal project. This is another
critical judgement call.
One important factor to be considered during planning is to be sure to
have an alternative Plan B approach. This can be used to replace the
initial Plan A if a high risk element fails to be work. The plans could
include pursuing, at a higher cost, an alternate, "just in case"
approach. As another alternative, a lesser technology could be
substituted. Sometimes having the latest technology everywhere in a
product is not as critical as having a working product in the hands of
users. Effective project managers learn to make these judgement calls.
Another high risk planning factor to consider during planning is long
lead time items that are purchased parts from vendors. These are often
delivered later than vendors' estimate. These can have severe
consequences to the project completion or initial product delivery.
Plan to order these items early. In the alternative, ask the question
what can be done to substitute for the item if the vendor is late? Then
think about an alternate potential plan.
4. Generate a detailed Project Plan
committed to creating a detailed, written, plan for the project. Even a
small project, but especially a large one can not be controlled without
a written plan. This plan must be created by the persons working on on
the project. Plans need to be detailed enough, but not so detailed as
to obscure what is going on. They are not just produced at the
beginning of the project, or because upper management wants them, but
because they are crucial to getting things done within a reasonable
time and budget.
This is the place where the most project management judgement is
concentrated, both before the project begins, and as it progresses. It
is best to consider a few alternatives, instead of just jumping in on
one, as is often the case. A good place to start is a plan that has
worked before. Begin with the basic project steps and milestones, then
make a few example schedules. Show these "top down" cases to the
critical plan resource persons. They should then breakdown the tasks
even further, and give estimates to be integrated upward into the plan.
It is critical that you and the persons that work on your project have
a practical approach to estimating.
One good approach is to use a best, nominal, worst case scenario in the
bottom up estimating. These can then be used to create a statistical
measure of time and cost risk in a project. From this a two or three
sigma nominal, best and worst case plan can be made. Be sure to
approach the cost of items bought from vendors in the same manner. When
the selected and updated "top down" plan is ready for adoption,
feedback the results to the critical resource persons that created the
detailed "bottom up" plan. This process gives them another chance to
make changes and become more committed to the final program. Without
this "buy in", the project can have significant built in problems from
the very start.
5. Develop an approach to handle Unk-Unks
are the unknown-unknowns that come up during the period of a project.
They are important tasks or delays that occur that were not, or could
not, have been planned for. These can be especially vexing to a
project. This is not the time to "throw the plan out the window". It is
a time to update it. The best strategy is to carefully follow the
project being on the lookout for these situations. Try to locate them
as quickly after they occur as possible. Once they are detected, the
plan must be immediately recreated, taking the new situation into
account. Be sure that project tracking reports note the occurrence of
this event for later reference.
6. Develop a practical method to track project
progress and costs
are many methods to track progress and costs on a project, but most of
them are too detailed to actually get useful data for the project
manager or others to use. This is especially true for modern project
management software, developed for large construction or government
projects. It is a full time job entering information and creating
reports. Often the reports don't even help the manager in decision
One good method is to prepare a simplistic set of tables generated on
spreadsheets. These show summaries of overall accumulated project major
event totals and cost totals compared to original estimates. The
important point is that they be easy to generate and compare estimates
to actuals, so that over runs and slips, if they occur, can be detected
early in the project. With graphical plotting, they also can be used to
create best estimates of the amount of slip and over run. In the hands
of a mature management, they can be far better for decision making than
a "gut feel".
7. Have periodic Project Review meetings
project of duration over a few days needs to have review meetings
involving the manager and critical resource persons. This eliminates
the communications problems attendant with the belief that "everybody
already knows what is going on". Often they do not, because they are
busy on their own work. Weekly or bi-weekly meetings are often enough.
The challenge is to avoid meetings that cover too much territory, or
that allow a few people to dominate what is communicated to the others.
This creates the feeling of boredom and frustration that resource
persons often complain about at such meetings. These meetings are a
good time to feedback project status reports that are generated for the
upper management to the team.
After the meeting, a timely report to team members on Action Items and
to whom they are assigned is often important. One of the most critical
things to watch out for at such meetings is that they can be a major
factor in creating "creeping featurism" on the project. Major changes
that are agreed upon must be updated in the Specification and reflected
in Schedule before giving authorization to proceed. The manager must
then act quickly to perform this update so that they do not hold up
8. Give support to the project team
concept of the supporting team of members is a difficult to define, but
it grows out of the experience of the manger and a few basic concepts.
Most effective project managers of complex projects have learned the
ability to coach, rather than overly direct the team. This can be a
style foreign to many engineers, but it can be critical in effectively
achieving overall project goals. One important coaching skill is
learning to really listen to the team members and what they are saying.
Be sure you understand their project related comments and needs
completely. Refrain from judgement until all of the information is
gathered. Then take action on what is heard. Another important coaching
skill is to give, as appropriate, positive feedback to the team.
Often, engineering mangers tend to only give negative feedback. A
manager that feeds back only project difficulties and concerns, and not
the positive outcomes of challenges overcome can slow down a project
significantly due to lower morale. Still another critical skill for the
manager as coach is to assist with fixing ineffective patterns that can
frequently develop in the team. These show up as conflicts, missed
deadlines due to lack of communications, etc. The process involves the
coaching of two or more individuals independently, and then as a group.
The purpose is to assist them in resolving an ineffective pattern. This
skill is complex, but can be modeled from others and learned at
programs that teach it.
9. Follow up on agreements among team members and
are agreements that are made with a team or a team member to receive
some form of support from upper management. This can involve everything
from handling excessive work schedules, to the purchase of capital
equipment critical to a project, to adding additional resources, etc.
Some project managers try to sidestep these agreements, because they
can often be difficult to resolve or accomplish. This can create a
sense of a lack of upper management concern for the team members or the
project. If this occurs, it can definitely im