When you work on a manufacturing project, you face some unique challenges, often with a lot at stake. You have to deliver your product at consistently high-quality standards, navigate end-to-end supply chains and manage strict time-to-market deadlines driven by demanding customers or seasonal demands. To top it all off, the entire project might be following a process where design, scope, cost and time scales were fixed at the very beginning of the project—or it could be a first-time project so who knows how long parts will really take?
Here, we’re going to look at some of the challenges specific to project teams working in the manufacturing industry—and how to solve these problems using project management practices and a dynamic tool.
1. Managing Stakeholder Expectations
It’s always tricky to manage a disparate set of demands, visions, and expectations on any project; but it’s even trickier in manufacturing. A common problem is that stakeholders have a tendency to set unrealistic deadlines and make unreasonable demands—and through no fault of their own, really. This happens because expectations aren’t set early on in the project.
For example, a stakeholder responds to a date the customer requests, without knowing how long it takes to complete the work. And then you’re stuck managing an overwhelmed team who has to work overtime, and maybe even sacrifice quality, feature requests or more. So how do you set stakeholder expectations realistically from the very conception of the project?
Estimate work and share the schedule
Get stakeholders involved from day one and make them a part of the process. Start by providing a schedule that includes thoughtful estimates for everyone’s work—by the people doing the work. If management challenges the timeline and wants the product launched sooner, you can have a data-driven conversation by using the schedule and estimates.
Encourage teams to estimate their projects as realistically as possible. Insert buffer-time and account for risks that might occur. When people estimate there’s a tendency to be over-optimistic which can set a team up for failure. Some teams invite outside experts to help them improve their estimation, and make use of methods such as ranged estimates or three-point estimation. Make the schedule accessible and visible throughout the project—so status is clear, and there are no unexpected surprises.
To share schedules, use a project management tool that offers a way to curate project reports with just the information your stakeholders need, like dashboards. This way stakeholders can keep up with everything throughout the project lifecycle.
2. Inflexible processes
Since manufacturing projects are highly sensitive to time, cost, and quality, they can be extremely demanding to run. This often results in senior management asking for a very controlled and rigid project management framework to be followed. In my years as a project management consultant, I’ve observed in manufacturing of machinery, consumer goods, instruments, and chemicals, that such a controlled framework has its place, but it can be a big challenge as well.
The downside of a controlled environment is that project teams have to commit to a solution and a timeline upfront. Consequently, they’re left with little scope to make adjustments as the project evolves and new information comes to light. Imagine for instance that you are running an 18-month project to design and produce a new type of consumer appliance and you have to commit to the design and plan very early on without the ability to later adjust it. Now that’s a challenge!
Use a dynamic scheduling tool and test early on
There is a way to address inflexible processes while still satisfying senior management’s need for control. Allow teams to experiment more up front and to iterate through the solution to prove the concept before they commit and lock down the design and manufacturing process. In other words, a longer inception phase with some trial-and-error, and with the view of driving down risk and uncertainty early on can be a win-win for all parties.
Build this time into your plan from the get-go. And use a scheduling tool that is adaptable and dynamic—one that updates automatically every time a change is made. This way the team can keep up with changes as they occur and respond accordingly earlier on in the process to meet hard delivery dates.
3. Change management
The more a team experiments and creates physical prototypes that can be assessed by their clients, the less likely their clients are to change their minds—or to ask for new features. But even the best of prototypes and the tightest of scope statements won’t protect against changes.
Change requests are an inherent part of product development, and they’re bound to happen—either because of wrong assumptions, unexpected constraints from the vendor, a change in the marketplace or a change in the client’s strategy. Imagine for instance that a new technological advance in the marketplace will make your planned product look markedly inferior. You have to respond and make the adjustments. Otherwise, you could be working on a project that is out of date upon delivery.
Get buy-in for all hands on deck
If a project needs to be fast-tracked it’s imperative that the path of escalation is clear and that the project has an effective steering committee and decision-making forum. Research by PMI shows that senior level buy-in is one of the most significant factors for success on projects. Also, if the team really must deliver sooner than they’re comfortable with, the team leader can ask for dedicated resources all the way through the project and ensure that issues can be unblocked and decisions made swiftly by management.
Use project management software that integrates resource management features like workload reports and resource leveling into the project plan.
A project might have many different departments involved during the project lifecycle, from market research, R&D, production to sales, marketing and distribution. For the project to be delivered successfully these different departments need to collaborate instead of operating within each of their silos. One particular decision that’s important to get right, is deciding who should lead the project.
In most cases, a technical project manager will lead the project because the majority of the effort is focused on designing and producing a technical product. But when a technical project manager is in charge, the risk is that he or she focuses on the technical aspects only and forgets about the business case, the market need, sales, and distribution.
In some companies, project management responsibility is transferred from one department to another as the project passes through the different departments; but then, a sense of continuity and overall accountability suffers as no one has the end-to-end view.
Consider sales and marketing
Another option is to have someone from Sales or Marketing (or the commercial department) lead the project. Due to a strong commercial awareness, Sales and Marketing will find it natural to focus on developing the right product for the market and ensuring that the business case stacks up. These team members aren’t technical experts they aren’t equipped to lead the technical aspects of the project, but they can still be excellent owners of the project from beginning to end as long as they work with a strong technical lead.
In my experience, many organizations would benefit from choosing a project manager from sales and marketing, instead of forcing an excellent technical manager to also own the many milestones that aren’t technical.
5. Managing Supply Chain Complexity
Adding contractors, vendors and additional third parties to the production process increases the risk of error and miscommunication exponentially. Not only do you have production work occurring in different locations by different teams, but each team might also be using their own tracking software for their scope of work. Accounting for all the moving parts—materials, people, teams, quality, supply chains, product cycles, etc.—gets tricky.
Historically, manufacturing organizations have used tools that are driven by fixed start and end dates. They’re too rigid to accommodate the changes inherent to project and production work. The schedule is often overseen by one person, so the rest of the team—and teams—don’t have visibility into what’s happening. Plus, manual updates are laborious and can’t keep up with the rate of change. So, as priorities shift, and events occur that delay production or shipping, there’s no way for teams to see this reflected in the project schedule and react immediately.
Use collaborative software with visibility for everyone
The best fix for seeing what teams are doing across the production process and the globe is to find a project management tool that’s collaborative and provides visibility for all. This way, anyone at any time can access the project schedule, see where progress and status stands, and follow communication strings that relay important information.
This is the best front-line defense to knowing what’s going on with all your multiple vendors and manage dependencies. If all the vendors—and the project teams—can access the same project management tool, it takes away the blinders and lets everyone see how various aspects of the production are going.
Focus on the Work That Makes a Difference
Manufacturing projects are complex and filled with endless challenges—in a good way! The work is innovative, creative, hugely collaborative and global; and it’s all those moving parts that make the industry such an exciting one to be part of. What teams need is a dynamic project management system that can respond as fluidly to the changes and unexpected occurrences that are part of manufacturing project life cycles. By taking out some of the stressful uncertainties and reactive demands, teams can focus on making a product that best meets the customer needs day after day.
Is your project management process working as effectively as it could? Find out! Take our Project Management Health Check, a 9-question multiple-choice assessment.