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Case Study: Scientific Equipment Manufacturer Adopts LiquidPlanner for All Product Development

At Lake Shore Cryotronics, a scientific equipment manufacturer, the lack of a project portfolio solution for project management made it difficult for the company’s 50-person product development team to track and manage its complex workload. The company’s move from Microsoft Project to LiquidPlanner gave the team a single view of resource allocation across all projects, including sustaining engineering work. The team can now quickly adjust to changing priorities, and is working together more effectively because LiquidPlanner pulls the entire team into the project management process—in a way that’s easy and natural for all.

 

 

Founded in 1968, Lake Shore Cryotronics develops, manufactures, and markets measurement and control sensors, instruments, and systems for precise measurement and control of temperature and magnetic fields. Users of these products are typically scientists, physicists, and researchers in universities, aerospace, government, and corporate R&D labs, with applications that range from electronics and clean energy to nanotechnology and deep space.

Download a PDF of this case study here.

The product development team at Lake Shore Cryotronics consists of about 50 people, including engineering technicians, design engineers, manufacturing engineers, software developers, and managers. At any time, the team’s workload includes roughly a dozen new product development projects, as well as a continual stream of sustaining engineering efforts. All team members support multiple new product development projects and are expected to ensure that sustaining efforts remain a high priority.

Lower Participation, Inaccurate Schedules, and Reduced Visibility

Prior to mid-2016, the product development team at Lake Shore Cryotronics lacked a comprehensive solution to all its project management needs. At the time, the company used Microsoft Project Professional. Each project resided in a standalone Microsoft Project file, and the team’s single Development Process Manager was the only Microsoft Project user.

“We chose to have only one person manage schedules due to the complexity of Microsoft Project,” says Rob Welsh, who assumed the role of Development Process Manager a few years ago, when the company decided it needed a full-time focus on project and process management.

During the planning phase for each new project, Welsh would work with that project team to define a work breakdown structure and project schedule, upon which Welsh would create a new Microsoft Project file. As the project progressed, Welsh used Microsoft OneNote to collect status updates from the project team. “We utilized OneNote to maintain project records and help keep project schedules updated,” explains Welsh. “Every week, for each project, I would create a table of current tasks in OneNote and ask the resources to update their progress and estimate remaining work. After I received that information, I used it to update the project schedule.”

The major problem with this method was that projects often deviated from the original plan very quickly. Technical issues, changing priorities, new tasks, and changing resource availability all resulted in the tasks that Welsh was asking people to update in OneNote each week not matching what they were actually doing. “The result was lower participation, inaccurate schedules, and reduced visibility to what people were working on,” says Welsh. “The only way to counter this was with frequent meetings that pulled entire project teams away from their work and negatively impacted project completion.”

As Welsh points out, all of this wasn’t due to poor planning or coordination. For example, during the course of a project, the team would often find a way to deliver greater value for customers. “The problem we had, however, was that we had no good way to determine the effect of that change on that project or other ones that shared the same resources,” Welsh explains. “This made it difficult to examine the tradeoffs, if any, and make quick yet fully-informed decisions on how to reallocate resources.”

A Better Way

Lake Shore Cryotronics now uses LiquidPlanner for all its project management needs. “Our adoption of LiquidPlanner was something that I initiated; there was no mandate from management,” Welsh explains. “We had already tried several approaches—to the point that most people were experiencing ‘changing project management methods fatigue’ and there was much skepticism with trying yet another method.”

However, Welsh was dealing with the issues the team faced on a daily basis, and wanted to find a better way. “I kept looking for a project portfolio solution where we could view all projects and tasks in a single place, a collaborative platform that was easy to use by all team members, and a tool that people would want to use because it would help them get their work done,” he recalls.

Welsh found LiquidPlanner through a simple web search. “Upon visiting the LiquidPlanner website, I immediately jumped to the FAQ section, read the paragraph on ‘Why should I give up on traditional project management tools?’, and was intrigued by how well it described our current situation,” he recalls. “Upon closer inspection, LiquidPlanner offered just what we needed: a priority based scheduling engine, a project portfolio solution, and accessibility for all team members to enter and update tasks.”

After signing up for a trial subscription and confirming that LiquidPlanner could indeed meet his team’s needs, Welsh took his recommendation to upper management. Their response: “We now have a new requirement: whichever solution we adopt has to integrate with our ERP system for time tracking.”

Fortunately, LiquidPlanner was built to do so. Welsh spent a few hours designing such an integration, had it setup and tested in less than a week, and received the go-ahead to purchase LiquidPlanner subscriptions for all team members in June 2016.

Today, Lake Shore Cryotronics manages all product development using LiquidPlanner. This includes more than a dozen new product development efforts, which typically range from 3,000 to 5,000 hours of effort. “Users took to LiquidPlanner right away,” says Welsh. “The entire team is using it for all aspects of our work, including electrical design, mechanical design, firmware development, software development, user manuals, marketing literature, and manufacturing process development.”

The product development team at Lake Shore Cryotronics is benefiting from its use of LiquidPlanner in many ways. Schedules and tasks are continually updated throughout the day, with at-a-glance visibility into potential issues and estimated completion dates. Ranged estimates make it easier to estimate tasks, enabling people to apply a best case/worst case approach instead of trying to come up with a single, hard number. All team members now have a consistent method for planning their work, always know their top priorities, no longer need to report their hours in two places, and are able to collaborate more effectively.

“LiquidPlanner is enabling us to work together more closely as a team,” says Welsh. “The key enabler: users have access to relevant project data, including the ability to add, modify, and report on tasks. It’s much more efficient than our previous process, where I had to query all users on a weekly basis, collect their information, and then update the project schedules manually. It also promotes more accurate and complete schedules because it takes the ‘middle man’ out of the process. In the past, with weekly updates, schedules were usually out of date. Now, with the LiquidPlanner scheduling engine always running, our schedules can be considered ‘real time.’”

Read the full case study here.

Advice for Project Managers: Good Questions to Ask in a Job Interview

 Dear Elizabeth: I have an interview coming up. It’s important to me that I find a company with a culture that fits my values and the way I like to work. What questions should I be asking as a project manager to ensure that job is going to be a good fit for me? What are some of the red flags to look out for in the responses?

It’s great that you are thinking about this! So often I speak to people who are just looking at the interview process as a way of showing off their own skills. They forget that interviews are two-way conversations. You need to “interview” the company as well and find out if it is somewhere you would like to work.

After all, we spend so much time at work. It’s going to be miserable for you if you end up taking a job that doesn’t fit with your working style and values. Plus, when you leave after such a short period of time after realizing your mistake, you then have some explaining to do on your CV.

But you aren’t going to have that, because you are going to find a company that is a perfect fit. You’ll be making the right choice because you know you will be happy there.

First, think about the things you want from a working environment. That could be:

  • Flexible working and being able to work from home occasionally
  • Knowing that the talent pipeline supports diversity and that there are strong diversity networks in place
  • Not having to travel, or the opportunity to travel a lot
  • A small team, or a large team, or a medium-sized team environment

Think about the way you do your work. Do you love Scrum but don’t get on so well with Kanban? Do you struggle with some tech but love other applications? Would you be prepared to learn new ways of working if it was required or would you rather fit into a team that uses the tools you are already familiar with?

Some Questions to Ask

Craft your questions around the things you identified above. So if you know that being able to work from home a day a week is a deal breaker for you, be open about it: “I’d like to work from home one day a week. Is that a common working pattern in your organization?” A closed question like this (where they can really only answer yes or no) is a good way to get the information you need. If they are hesitant, or if they say no, you can follow up with: “Would that be something you’d consider for me if I was successful in securing the position?”

Here are some other, more general questions you can ask to get a feel for the culture of an organization:

  • What training can I expect to receive in this role?
  • What support do you have for new starters? Is there a mentoring scheme?
  • What kind of projects will I be working on?
  • How big is my team? Is that the only team doing this kind of work?
  • How long do most people stay in their roles here? Do you encourage promotion from within? What happened to the last person in this role – why is there a vacancy?

I like to ask, “How many women are on the senior leadership team?” Adapt this list so that what is important to you is covered.

What to Look Out For

Your interviewers aren’t going to know everything about everything in the business. Asking for their thoughts on what caused the stock price to drop a few months ago could make them feel uncomfortable and as if you are testing them and trying to prove how much research you’ve done on the company. By all means ask your question, but be prepared for them to hedge the response if it isn’t relevant to their role. They are only human.

However, here are some red flags to watch out for:

  • Saying yes to everything and promising the earth. Unless you can see evidence of that from what you see walking around the office, you should verify claims that seem too good to be true.
  • Not answering the questions or saying, “We can sort that out after you join.” No good. You shouldn’t have to join the company first to work out if you are entitled to childcare help or to understand their flexible working policy.
  • Getting the feeling that they don’t support their staff; hearing that they don’t promote from within; learning that the team hasn’t been together for long because people leave their jobs quickly. While it’s always harder to walk into an established team, it’s more positive to join a team that is expanding because business is growing or because someone has been promoted into a new opportunity, leaving a you-sized gap to fill.

You may only get this one chance to ask your questions, so make it count! You won’t lose anything by asking everything that matters to you. On the contrary, you can only gain by having more information with which to make your ultimate decision. Even if they offer you the job, if you have uncovered insights that would make you think twice about saying yes, you are still a winner because you managed to dodge taking a job that would ultimately make you unhappy.

Industry 4.0 Series: Preparing for the Rise of Collaborative Robots

This story is part of our Industry 4.0 series, which looks at the new technologies, techniques, and trends that are pushing manufacturers toward a new level of optimization and productivity.

There’s a new wave of robots on the horizon. They’re smarter, safer, and cheaper than earlier models. And, they’re going to have a major impact on manufacturing for years to come.

That may be why manufacturing experts consider robotics to be the greatest potential disruptor over the next five years, according to a new study from the University of Kentucky’s Global Supply Chain Institute.

“Robotics have been around for more than 50 years, but they have become dramatically more dynamic in the last five,” says Paul Dittmann, executive director of the Global Supply Chain Institute and author of the paper. “It used to be that robots were in a cage and were dangerous. They had very limited applications and weren’t programmable. Now we have robots that work alongside a human. They’re so easy to program that people can literally move their arm and program the robot, as opposed to complex code.”

Meet Your New Colleague

Stäubli is one of the companies producing these collaborative robots. The Swiss-based company unveiled its new TX2 line at the Automate trade show this April.

This focus on safety and collaboration is part of a second phase for robotics, says Paul Deady, automotive segment manager at Stäubli. In the first phase, robots took over jobs that were too “dangerous, dirty, or mundane for people to do. We put robots in those application spaces. We took people out,” he says. The second phase is focused on “robots that are purpose-built—designed and engineered to be safe to work alongside people.”

An engineer operating the Stäubli TX2 60 at Automate trade show.

An engineer operating the Stäubli TX2 60 at the Automate trade show.

The TX2 models use compact laser scanners to detect the presence of humans. When a technician approaches, the robot reduces its speed. If the technician gets too close, the robot stops until he or she has moved to a safe distance. These models also have a “sensory skin” that immediately stops operations when touched.

One downside of these collaborative robots is that production and speed are sacrificed with frequent slowing and stopping. Dittmann believes that this will change as technology develops.

While safety has been increasing, prices have been going down. The cost of purchasing and operating a robotic spot welder, for example, went from $182,000 in 2005 to $133,000 in 2014, and will drop to $103,000 by 2025, according to a report by the Boston Consulting Group. At the same time, robotics performance will improve by around 5 percent each year.

Lowered costs, lessened barriers to entry, and improved performance of robotics will be a catalyst for increased adoption. Boston Consulting Group predicts that the share of tasks that are performed by robots will rise from a global average of around 10 percent across all manufacturing industries today to around 25 percent by 2025.

At Stäubli, Deady has seen robotics expanding from the traditional automotive space. “We’re seeing a lot of creativity and capital flow into the robotics space,” he says. “It’s a growing market.”

Preparing for the Tech Tsunami

There’s more new technology out there than ever before, Dittmann says. “It’s almost like a tsunami coming at people. Those who ignore it could be in serious trouble,” he adds. But he’s quick to point out that staying current doesn’t mean chasing every new technology. There needs to be analysis and solid ROI.

[ Further Reading: How Project Teams Can Prepare for Industry 4.0 ]

Manufacturers interested in robotics should follow a disciplined and methodical approach. When Deady works with Stäubli customers that are new to robotics at, he recommends the following actions:

Document Your Existing Processes

“If a manufacturer hasn’t embraced robotics before, the first thing I encourage them to do is to document their existing processes,” he says. Document what you do and how you do it, as well as any process variations.

Manufacturers should also take the time to measure process cycle times, error rates, and other key metrics that can establish a baseline. “By documenting your existing processes, you can understand the sequence of operations,” he adds.

Look for the Easy Wins

“Then, you start to look for what we call low-hanging fruit,” says Deady. He recommends manufacturers look for processes that are repeatable, consistent, and don’t have a lot of variability. These are the easiest to automate and bring benefits like reducing scrap rates and waste and improving product quality. Dirty, dangerous jobs are also great opportunities for automation.

Create an Implementation Plan

“Get your people involved early on, and don’t skimp on training,” Deady recommends. “Have them present during the installation and commissioning phases. There’s opportunity for what I like to call informal skills transfer. You’re hanging out, watching the equipment go in, and able to ask questions. You can pick up a lot that way.”

Manufacturers also need to plan for how long installation and training will interrupt manufacturing. Once the new equipment is installed and running, companies should measure the actual performance and document the new processes.

Back Up the System

A mistake Deady often sees is manufacturers not backing up their new robotics programs. “If something catastrophic happens, they are in a world of hurt,” he says. “Back up the system.”

Advice for Managing Robotics Programs

When it comes to managing robotics programs, Deady, who worked as a project manager before joining Stäubli, recommends PMs view robotics as “just another project.”

“Break it down into quantifiable systems,” he adds. “Just like any other project, break down the work breakdown structure. Don’t be intimidated by robotics and automations. Take a methodical, disciplined approach, and you’ll have success.”

[ Further Reading: How Lean Six Sigma Moves Manufacturing Teams Ahead ]

Dittmann advises manufacturers to not lose sight of the methodologies and best practices that have been successful in the past. “Manufacturing 4.0 still needs to have Lean at its core,” he says. “Sometimes you get the bright shiny toy, take focus off what you got there, and get in trouble. Lean manufacturing is at the core of everything. It can’t be ignored or deemphasized.”

What Project Management in Manufacturing Looks Like Today [Infographic]

Manufacturing is essentially a series of sequential steps in a longer process. Because each step must be completed before moving onto the next, even the smallest delay can have a significant impact on delivery. That’s why proper planning, scheduling, and risk management are so important.

We recently asked more than 100 manufacturing executives, engineers, and project managers about their day-to-day project management practices and how these play a role in their work and businesses. To learn what they had to say, check out the infographic below.

Want to read the complete findings? Read our 2017 State of Project Management in Manufacturing report.

 

 

4 Strategies to Prepare for Industry 4.0

Robots operating autonomously on factory lines, drones delivering packages to doorsteps, 3D printed organs working alongside our own. Just 15 years ago, these ideas may have sounded like plot lines out of a sci-fi novel. Today, they’re in the news.

It’s evident that we’re on the precipice of something big. Industry 4.0, the term being used to describe these innovations in manufacturing, IT, and materials, will lead to sweeping changes.

Whether you see Industry 4.0 as an opportunity or a threat, it’s important to make provisions for the inevitable shift that is happening.

Learn more about Industry 4.0: What Does the Fourth Industrial Revolution Look Like?

To take full advantage of this change, business owners need to commit to being a leader in this new environment. They also need to invest in the technology and skills that will make them competitive now and into the future.

Related: The Fourth Industrial Revolution Is Here: What Do You Need to Succeed?

As we move into Industry 4.0, here are four strategies to keep in mind.

1. Don’t ignore the inevitable.

New technologies are developing quickly. While it can be tempting to take a “wait and see” approach to the coming changes, executives and business owners need to remain vigilant. Monitor emerging technologies, watch what competitors are doing, and start thinking about how you’ll implement these new technologies.

 2. Try before you buy.

In a fast-changing environment, it can be difficult to decide what technologies and trends will positively transform your business and what could end up an expensive and ineffective add-on. Planning and testing are key. Don’t buy the hype; buy the solution that will work for you.

3. Create a plan for retraining current employees, and recruiting for the skills you cannot train.

 Industry 4.0 will require new skillsets, and manufacturers will need to attract and train the right talent. Existing training programs may need to be expanded to include new technologies that are introduced to the marketplace. Manufacturers also need to recruit for Industry 4.0, which may differ from how they have done it in the past. Instead of focusing on qualifications determined by degrees and certificates, companies should recruit for capabilities to succeed.

4 . Implement, test, revise, and repeat.

Staying ahead of the competition during Industry 4.0 will require constant iteration and flexibility. It’s not about buying software and then watching the new system play out. To compete in Industry 4.0, manufacturers must be flexible and agile in the face of change.

In our guide, “Are You Ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?” we take a look at what it means to thrive in Industry 4.0, and what tools are necessary to keep up with new world market demands.

Download the guide here:

Are You Ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

5 Time Tracking Myths Debunked

Hello! You’re probably here because you don’t track time on your projects. I’d like to convince you that you should.

I get why you don’t – I really do. For a long time, I resisted timesheets too. They took too long to fill in and weren’t accurate enough to use for any serious management information.

We used spreadsheets. We don’t do it that way any longer.

Time tracking is all grown up, and it’s a totally different game today. Here are 5 of the most common myths about tracking time. It’s time (did you see what I did there?) to shake off those limiting beliefs and embrace digital time clocks!

Honestly, it’s worth it. This first myth will tell you why.

Myth #1: Time Tracking Adds No Value

I hear this myth the most, so let’s address it first. Time tracking for time tracking’s sake adds no value. That’s the same as anything else you do that delivers no benefit and is just an administrative overhead – any process can fall into this category. And you strip those out pretty quickly, right?

There is immense value in time tracking, if you know what you are looking for.

First, tracking time on projects records how much effort was spent on particular tasks. LiquidPlanner has intelligent scheduling, and the data feeds into that. The more data you feed the engine, the more accurate your schedule becomes. The better your schedule, the easier it is for you to plan upcoming tasks, anticipate future problems, and help steer your project over the finish line.

Second, tracking time gives you accurate management and status reports. Automating reporting takes a whole extra task off your plate. And off your team’s plate too. They’ll no longer need to complete timesheets and report their hours to you. Because you’ll already know.

Third, you get to find out how much time work takes. This is gold! You can plan better. You can put together more accurate proposals for new clients. You can schedule your recruitment based on upcoming work and be able to justify to senior management why you need the extra hands. And you can be confident when you tell clients when their job will finish.

Truth: If you set it up for success, you’ll get a ton of valuable data out of your time tracking system.

Myth #2: Time Tracking Leads to Employee Burnout

You think your team is going to work more hours because they are tracking their hours?

That might happen for a week. Then they’ll realise that you aren’t measuring them on hours worked, or expecting them to do more. Modern businesses judge by results and help employees be productive while maintaining a work/life balance.

Share the data from the timesheets with the team so they can see what they are being used for and how helpful the data is for their future estimates. You need to help them move beyond thinking timesheets are a tool to beat them with. See Myth #1 for all the good stuff you get from time tracking.

Truth: The benefits far outweigh any frustrations the team might have at the beginning.

Myth #3: Time Tracking Is Only Ever a Guess Because People “Forget” To Do It

Nope. Putting off your timesheet is an excuse that might have worked a few years back. But tech moves on.

LiquidPlanner makes it easy to report your time because time tracking is built in right across the app. It’s just there in front of you.
Start the timer when you start work on a particular item and update your timesheet in real time. The system will also prompt you to add time as you add each task.

No more excuses. You don’t have to guess. You just have to click and start tracking in real time.

Truth: You can track activity in real time if you make the system simple to use.

Myth #4: Time Tracking Is All About Micromanagement

While I know there must be micromanagers out there, I haven’t come across them in the nimble organizations that make a success of their industry. They don’t last. And if your boss is great in all other respects, having timesheets isn’t going to suddenly make her a micromanager.

I guarantee that your normally-sensible line manager is not going to pour over your timesheets like they’re the latest J. K. Rowling novel. He might get over excited at first with all the lovely rich data that’s coming out of them, but very soon you’ll all come to expect that level of management information to help you make the best decisions.

Truth: Managers are looking for trends and big picture data, not how you spent your last hour on Friday afternoon.

Myth #5: Time Tracking Takes Too Much Time

Well, it might, if you ask people to keep spreadsheets of their hours and then you have to collate the team’s timesheets manually each month. Ain’t no one got time for that!

But that’s old-style thinking. Cloud-based tools offer fast, slick solutions to tracking time, all of which take you minutes per week.
The Timesheet tab on the LiquidPlanner workspace lets you see a list of all your work sorted by weeks. Everything is there: your top priorities for the day, last week’s tasks, and what you’ve got planned for the future. It’s simple to add time to the tasks in this view, or add the hours as you work on the tasks if you prefer. You have options. Pick the one that works best for you or mix and match depending on how you are working that day.

Truth: You can complete your timesheets quickly if you use the right tools.

Time tracking’s all grown up. It’s frictionless. The hurdles and hoops are gone and the benefits are huge. What’s still holding you back from gaining a better view of how your business makes and spends money?

AskElizabethCTA

5 Stats You Need to Know from the 2017 State of Project Management in Manufacturing Report

In manufacturing, time is money. Every delay, machinery breakdown, and defective product adds up and, ultimately, hurts the bottom line.

But following structured project management methods can help companies reduce delays, stay on budget, and deliver quality products.

To better understand how manufacturers practice project management, we surveyed more than 100 executives, engineers, and project managers, resulting in the 2017 State of Project Management in Manufacturing report. It details project stats and methodologies, the lowdown on major challenges, and a look at manufacturers’ plans for cutting costs and building revenue in the coming year.

To learn more about the challenges facing manufacturers today, download the free 2017 State of Project Management in Manufacturing report here.

Here are some of the most interesting highlights from the report:

1.) More than half of manufacturers use a combination of project management methodologies.

Waterfall, agile, scrum, critical path—there’s a wide range of project management methodologies, and they’re rarely one size fits all. In fact, 57% of respondents use a combination of methodologies to keep their projects on track. Manufacturing is an industry that’s built on the principle of continuous improvement, and a hybrid approach allows for increased flexibility.

Fifty-six percent of manufacturers use a combination of PM methodologies.

2.) Those who use a combination of methodologies are also the happiest.

Of the respondents who said they were highly satisfied with existing PM practices, three-fourths use a combination of methodologies.

3.) “Work smarter, not harder” could be manufacturers’ motto in 2017.

Sixty-nine percent of respondents said that revenue growth and cost reduction are equally important this year.

4.) This focus on building revenue while cutting costs is leading many manufacturers to invest in new technologies and solutions.

As we move into Industry 4.0, manufacturers need to invest and experiment with new solutions or risk falling behind their competitors.  Supply chain management (56%), Lean manufacturing (52%), and cloud computing or SaaS offerings (47%) are the top three technologies manufacturers are looking into this year.

This focus on building revenue while cutting costs is leading many manufacturers to invest in new technologies and solutions.

Learn more about Industry 4.0 in this eBook.

5.) Deadlines, costs, and communication are the top project management challenges that manufacturers face this year.

Like many project teams, manufacturers’ cited managing project costs (50%) and hitting deadlines (46%) as their top challenges. Sharing information across teams came in at number three (44%).

A-20_State_PM_3

 

Intrigued? This is just a preview of the insights found in this report. Download the free 2017 State of Project Management in Manufacturing report to discover how manufacturers practice project management across their organizations.

Download the free report.

Advice for Project Managers: How do I measure the success (or failure) of my projects?

ADVICE_COLUMNIST-1-1

“Dear Elizabeth: I want to get better at measuring the success (or failure) of my projects. What project management metrics should I be focusing on? And how can I use these metrics to improve project performance?”

OK. I don’t mean to start off by being controversial, but you’re asking the wrong person.

It’s your project stakeholders who decide if your project is a success or a failure. So what you should be asking is: how will they judge me?

Do they care if you are late by a few weeks as long as you deliver something of supreme quality? Is it essential that you hit the delivery milestone by any means possible, even if that means sacrificing a few bits of functionality?
You can measure time taken to fix defects, number of change requests, deviation from schedule baseline, percent complete, burn rate, or anything else you want. These measures will give you some interesting management information and might help you manage the team. But if your sponsor is unhappy in the end, she won’t feel any better by you telling her you were under budget by 1.3 percent.

So, let’s split your question.

First, talk to your project sponsor and the important stakeholders about what they value. What do they want to get out of the project? How will they know if the project has been a success? Typically, they’ll judge on time, cost, or quality, but it could also be customer/staff satisfaction. Or, they might rate something else. When you know what it is, you can measure it, track it, and prove that you are doing it.

The thing to bear in mind here is that expectations will change as the project progresses. The sponsor who thinks he wants you to hit the delivery date at all costs might change his mind when he realizes he can have extra functionality that’s going to boost customer retention by 20 percent — if he’s prepared for the schedule to slip by a month.

You need to stay close to the expectations of your project decision makers. Keep checking in with them and seeing if their definition of success has changed. Talk to them often and tell them how you are doing against meeting the targets they set with you and the targets they think are important.

AskElizabethCTA

At the end of the day, the stakeholders decide if you met their needs and if the project did what they wanted. You can deliver something on time, on budget, and to the specified scope, and they will still be unhappy. I don’t want situation for you. So check it out with them in advance, and tailor what you measure to their expectations.

That will give you clarity on what success (or failure) looks like and how best to track it. But for your project management purposes, you probably want some other metrics to go on.

Performance metrics help you see how the team is doing and let you spot where there might be problems. If this is the first time you’ve really focused on measuring project performance, don’t make it too complicated. People hold up Earned Value as the way to go for the ultimate in performance tracking, but it’s overkill for most projects.

Try these:

Schedule Variance: Plot your baseline project schedule. Then track your actual performance. Measure the difference between where you thought you’d be and where you actually are. This can be represented as a discrete number of days (“We’re 10 days behind.”) or a percentage (“We’re 6 percent ahead of schedule.”).

Cost Variance: This is the same principle as schedule variance. First, establish your budget baseline. Then, track what you actually spend and compare the two. You’ll end up over- or underspent (it’s rare that you’ll be exactly spent in line with your baseline, but good for you if that happens). You can represent this as a fixed price (“We’re underspent by $5,000.”) or a percentage (“We’re 10 percent over budget.”).

Number of Change Requests: This useful measure offers an indication of how good your requirements were at the beginning. When people want to make a lot of changes, it means you didn’t really know what you were doing upfront. That might be an issue for you. It depends on the methodology you are using. Agile methods tend to be more flexible in dealing with change. Waterfall development methodologies are less good at coping with change to the extent that adding more changes late in the project can be very costly. Either way, tracking trends on the volumes of change requests will let you spot if it’s worth taking a deep dive into requirements or your backlog again.

When it comes to metrics, it’s the context that makes the knowledge valuable. Knowing you are six percent ahead of schedule is meaningless without some narrative that explains why. Perhaps you just cut a huge portion out of your scope, so it’s obvious that you are ahead–you have less work to do overall. Perhaps you got a new starter on the team who is picking up the tasks at a rapid pace (but costing you money on your resource line).

Whatever you choose to measure, make sure you can interpret it intelligently and use your professional judgment to help uncover what it really means for your project. Then you can explain it to your team, use the data in a helpful way, and make better decisions about how to manage your project.

I’m sorry if you just wanted a few easy answers! I think it’s better to give you a realistic view of how to manage successfully than a list of bullet points that make an attractive but pointless project dashboard.

Are you grappling with a stubborn project management work issue? Ask Elizabeth! Email your question to: marketing@liquidplanner.com.

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin is a project and programme manager with over a decade of experience. She writes about project management and careers at her website, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management.

May the Fourth Be With You: Project Management Lessons from the Star Wars Rebel Alliance

In honor of today’s celebration of all things Star Wars, I thought it would be worthwhile to mine this epic tale for project management lessons. While many have written about the Empire’s challenges constructing the Death Star, I’m interested in what can be learned from the victors, the Rebel Alliance.

Build a Diverse Team

The project team in A New Hope was fairly diverse. (Okay, not great gender diversity, considering everyone but Leia was male). Their ages varied, ranging from 19-year-old Luke and Leia to 200-year-old Chewbacca. Some were biological; others droids. Some were experienced; others less so. Some thoughtful, others prone to action.

Obi-wan was a Jedi master and military commander. Leia, despite her young age, was an experienced diplomat. Han and Chewie had extracted themselves from many a tough situation. And Luke was courageous, enthusiastic, hardworking, and force-sensitive. R2-D2 was a veritable Swiss Army knife of capabilities. His tools and skillset included the ability to communicate with main frame computers, a fire extinguisher, spaceship repair, and data storage. C-3PO was good for comic relief without being too annoying (see Binks, Jar Jar). Everyone brought their unique gifts to the team, and gave 100% (except C-3PO).

Better to have diversity than a team who are all very good at the same thing. Diversity brings different approaches, which makes innovative solutions more likely.

I once worked with a team of smart, young engineers. They were great about asking the experienced engineers for design reviews or brainstorming sessions. They were open about trying new ideas and quickly built prototypes to test their ideas. In a few weeks, they had a working proof-of-concept for a problem that our client had worked months on without progress. A team of just the “grey hairs” or just the young’uns would not have been as effective.

Work the Problem

When presented with a problem, our heroes never gave up. They continued to work whatever problem they were presented with. When Han, Chewbacca, Luke, and Lela were trapped in the cell block on the Death Star, they just kept working the problem:

  • Escape the attacking storm troopers by shooting open the garbage chute and jumping into the trash compactor
  • Shoot the door, which was magnetically sealed, so that it would not open
  • Save Luke from the monster
  • Use material in the compactor to keep from being crushed
  • Call C-3PO and R2-D2, who stopped the compactor and opened the door by talking to the main frame computer

Sure, there was some insults hurled and not every idea worked. But they kept at it until they had a solution.

Often when working on a project, things don’t go as you planned: one of your risks becomes an issue, a requirement changes, or a key contributor leaves the team. Focus on the problem that you need to solve, not the one you planned to solve.

It’s also important that your stakeholders know how things have changed. It’s possible that the proper response to the new situation is to cancel the project, and the stakeholders must be given an opportunity to recommit to the new plan or cancel the project.

Share Your Plan

For project managers, creating a plan and not sharing it with the entire team is a common mistake.

In the beginning of A New Hope, the construction plans of the Death Star are uploaded by Leia into R2-D2, and no one else sees the plans until the team arrives at Yavin IV. Until then, R2-D2 is a single point of failure. If he’s destroyed, the project fails. [Spoiler Alert] The Rebel Alliance does not learn of the weakness designed into the Death Star. And, thus, Luke cannot destroy the Death Star.

Why not give everyone a copy, so that if anyone gets to the Rebel base, the project will succeed?

Have you ever worked on a project where the PM has created a detailed plan in MS Project, and the only copy of the plan is on the PM’s computer?

Even if everyone had a copy of the .MPP file, most engineers don’t have MS Project on their computer. Maybe the PM converted the plan to MS Excel. But now the plan doesn’t have the dependencies and critical path clearly labeled. The team can’t interact with the plan and point out where it’s out-of-date.

That’s why I prefer using web-based tools, like LiquidPlanner. It’s easy to share the plan with the entire team and easily get their input in the creation of the plan.

Use the Force (Go with Your Gut)

The most important lesson from the rebels is that sometimes you need to “use the force” to make decisions with incomplete information.

I’m not suggesting we go through our project with the blast shield down, unable to see what’s is right in front of your face. But there are times, especially early in a project when there’s a lot of uncertainty, that even with your eyes wide open there’s no way to be certain what the right path is.

That’s when you use the force to understand what is that best path through the asteroid field.

As project managers, it’s nice to be able to look at a plan, focus on the work breakdown structure and critical path, and know what the most important tasks are. But sometimes things aren’t that clear, and you’ll have to fall back on experience to provide direction. Tools like a risk register can help, but they don’t stand in for being force-sensitive.

Your mission may not be “vital to the survival of the Rebellion”, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.

Every project deserves a solid team with the needed skills and a “work the problem” attitude. Every project manager needs to share their plan and communicate to meet their stakeholders’ needs.

And sometimes, you just need to set the flight computer aside and pull the trigger like you’re shooting womp rats back on Tatooine. Maybe you won’t get a medal at the end, but neither did Chewie or R2-D2. They understood that success is its own reward.

7 Signs Your Project Management Tool is Working for You

Imagine this. You walk into your Monday morning stand-up meeting. Everyone’s there, coffee in-hand, smiling. Why are they smiling, on a Monday no less? Because last week’s project was completed early and under budget.

Smiles on a Monday morning is just one sign that your PM solution is working. Here are seven more:

Your project schedule is up-to-date and reliable.
When each team member is responsible for updating project progress and communicating changes, your project management solution becomes integrated into your daily work. Your project manager is facilitating the project and working with the team, instead of chasing them for updates.

Priorities are clear.
When projects and tasks are organized by priority, you never doubt what you should be working on. A solution that notifies you when priorities change gives you access to the most up-to-date project plan.

You know what your team is working on.
At any moment you can see what your team is working on, what they have done this week, and what is coming up. You have complete visibility. You never worry about a project slipping due to a communication error because all project information is in one location.

Your project deadlines are realistic.
Your project deadlines are based on ranged estimates that account for uncertainty. At-risk items are flagged so you can react fast. Deadlines are reachable, and you have the data to back that up.

New work doesn’t destroy the plan.
With an agile, flexible project management tool, you can easily see if you have the bandwidth to take on more work and who has the flexibility to work on this project. Or, you can use data to explain why a new project needs to be pushed off.

Resources are not overbooked.
You know how to reallocate team members when deadlines change. You have the ability to look at each person’s workload and decide who has time to take on more work or if you need to recruit more help.

Your relationship with clients and stakeholders is strong.
If you have a reliable project plan, you can give your clients and stakeholders real information. You can show them why a project will not reach a deadline or what will happen if they make a change to the plan. Rather than guessing or giving false information, you are giving them answers based on data.

So, did you find yourself nodding along? Or does your project management tool leave something to be desired?

Take our project management heath check to find out if your project management tool is working for you or against you!