For the electronics project team at bf1systems, a leading provider of electrical, electronic, and composite solutions for the motorsport, automotive, aerospace, and sports industries, the lack of a comprehensive project management solution caused several issues. Project estimates were unreliable and priorities often shifted based on ever-changing customer demands. After using date-driven project management solutions proved unsuccessful, the company adopted LiquidPlanner, which employs a people- and priority-driven approach to getting things done. Project planning and estimation have improved, as have collaboration and communication, and the team is now able to successfully push back against ad-hoc requests.
United Kingdom-based bf1systems is a leading provider of electrical, electronic, and composite solutions for the motorsport, automotive, aerospace, and sports industries. The company’s products are used across all top-level motorsport disciplines—including Formula One, Indycar, World Rally, and Moto GP—and in high-end automobiles from Ferrari, Lamborghini, Bentley, Aston Martin, and Maserati. Its diverse engineering capabilities have also enabled bf1systems to work with major players in the aerospace industry, such as Rolls Royce and Airbus. The company has more than 100 employees in its 25,000 square-foot UK facility, where capabilities include design and production of wiring harnesses, electronics for tire pressure and temperature monitoring, force measurement systems, composites, and special projects.
At bf1systems, the company’s electronics project team consists of approximately 15 hardware engineers, design engineers, applications engineers, and test technicians. The team juggles up to 40 projects at a time—ranging from one-month projects (such as designing a new housing for an existing sensor) to “major” 18-month projects with multiple deliverables. One example of a major project is the development of an entirely new wheel sensor system for a Formula One team, which might include sensors, control modules, antennas, embedded software, and diagnostic software. A few years ago, bf1systems had no standard toolset or methodology for project management.
The lead engineer on each major project also managed it, typically capturing the required tasks in Microsoft Project or Excel at the start and then managing the work as he or she saw fit. Smaller, ad-hoc projects were typically “squeezed in” as time allowed and were left up to the assigned engineer to manage as desired. Even for major projects, regular updates to the plan as the project progressed were the exception rather than the rule, only occasionally making it back into whatever tool had been used to capture the plan. “Even when Microsoft Project was used, it provided little more than a static list of tasks to complete,” says Peter Harris, electronics project manager at bf1systems, who joined the company a few years ago. “It was mainly used to create an initial plan, rather than as a tool to help track and manage the work as the project progressed.”
Too Much Work, Too Little Time
For Harris, the biggest problem all this presented was an inability to accommodate change. “We have a huge push at the start of the Formula One season when things can change on a daily basis,” he explains. “Without proper project management, if a customer wanted a change on Project A, we had no way of evaluating the impact on that project—let alone the effects it would have on Projects B, C, D, and so on. The lack of a consolidated view of resource usage across all projects only exacerbated this pain.” Because no project history was captured, Harris had no firm data with which he could push back on requests for new projects.
“People would often come to me with a request for small, ad-hoc work with the expectation of it only taking a few days,’” he explains. “Instinct and experience told me that wasn’t really the case, but without any hard data on how much work it had taken to fulfill similar previous requests, I was unable to prove otherwise and decline or negotiate the request.” Lack of broad access to the project plan and its current status was another major drawback. “Because the project plan lived only on the lead engineer’s computer, it was virtually invisible to other members of the team as they went about their daily work,” says Harris. “We really needed a solution that could help pull together the entire team—keeping everyone on the same page, working toward the same priorities, and accountable for their assigned tasks.”
For Harris’s team, the end result of all this was excessive pressure to meet customer needs. “We were always up against a deadline,” he recalls. “We met our promised customer dates, but it took a few late nights; subsequently, internal projects were often delayed. We were constantly scrambling to meet ever-changing customer needs and, because daily priorities were often unclear, that might mean pulling someone off a larger project to work on one that would only deliver one-tenth the revenue.”
Determining Requirements the Hard Way
Harris initially attempted to use Viewpath, an online project management tool, to address these issues. “Viewpath looked a lot like Microsoft Project and, in fact, was entirely too similar to Project to be truly useful,” he recalls. “While it would show if someone was double booked, I couldn’t get it to adjust for those problems or perform resource leveling across multiple, stacked projects. The problem, as I began to see it, was that both Viewpath and Project appeared to be date driven, whereas we needed a project management solution that was priority and effort driven.”
Harris also had problems extending the new project management paradigm he was trying to implement to his engineers, software developers, and test technicians. “Viewpath may work well for project managers, but we have a team of engineers and technicians,” he says. “Even with a web-based solution, communication was mostly one way; I still ended up having to print the project plan on a regular basis and put a hard copy on each person’s desk.” After several months attempting to use Viewpath, Harris had an informed idea of what he really needed from a project management solution. “We needed a tool that would give us an accurate picture—and defensible proof—of our team’s true capacity and throughput,” he says. “I once again began to look for the right solution; this time, however, I had a firm set of defined requirements.” Those requirements included the following:
- Effort- and priority-based versus date-based
- Support for multiple projects
- Resource leveling across projects
- Project history and time-tracking capabilities
- Extensible to the entire team—in a way they would use
With a list of requirements in-hand, Harris revisited the list of project management solutions that he had assembled prior to trying Viewpath. “After I had a clear idea of what we needed, LiquidPlanner really stood out,” he recalls. “It was the only affordable solution that ticked all the boxes. It was also clear that LiquidPlanner had the right product direction: an effort-based approach to project management that could help us address rapidly changing priorities and keep everyone on the team tied into the current project plan. With the case for LiquidPlanner clear in my mind, I sat down with our technical director and operations director and got their buy-in.”
Harris started with the company’s major projects and, by the end of his LiquidPlanner trial period, he had all of the team’s projects captured in LiquidPlanner. He augmented its rollout to the team with a few training sessions to ensure that everything went smoothly. “Rollout was easy…nothing memorable,” he recalls. “The hardest task was getting people to watch the short training videos.”
Harris now relies solely on LiquidPlanner to help plan and manage work. “Because LiquidPlanner is effort- and priority-based, everyone knows what they need to focus on first—across all projects,” he says. “Test technicians use the My Work page daily, whereas engineers use the solution a bit less frequently because their tasks are broken out into larger blocks of work. Either way, when someone marks a task as complete in LiquidPlanner, I get an email notification that they’ve completed that work.” Moving forward, Harris plans to use LiquidPlanner to integrate with Subversion and establish further granularity in the software development process.
“Today, I may just have a task in the schedule that says ‘Update Code,’” he explains. “Moving forward, we’ll begin to break that work down more granularly—say, on a feature-by-feature basis. LiquidPlanner is well suited for this and will enable us to push the estimation of new feature requests to where the expertise lies, making the entire process a lot more self-managing.” Since his team’s adoption of LiquidPlanner, Harris has also convinced the company’s electronics production department to abandon Excel for project management and switch to LiquidPlanner. “It took a little persuasion to get them to try it, but today they’re fully on board,” he says.
Benefits to bf1systems
For bf1systems, the company’s use of LiquidPlanner has yielded several strong benefits. Project planning and estimation have improved, as have collaboration and communication, and the team is now able to successfully push back against ad-hoc requests.
Improved Project Planning and Estimation
For Harris, as project manager, the biggest benefit of using LiquidPlanner has been his ability to capture the effort required to complete past projects and apply that to new ones. “Having solid historical data on past projects has been invaluable,” he states. “Through the use of that data together with LiquidPlanner templates, not only am I able to create more accurate project estimates, but I’m also able to turn them around faster. Additionally, we can use the history we’ve collected to make data-driven business decisions.” As Harris points out, however, these benefits weren’t immediate.
“As we’ve captured more and more history, our accuracy has continued to improve,” he explains. “We’re just completing some really big projects that we started to estimate soon after adopting LiquidPlanner, and it turns out that some of our task estimates were incorrect. Now that we have that history, that won’t happen again. For example, we’ve learned that we need to drive improvements in requirements capture—and we now have the hard data to support why we need those changes in our process.”
Better Communication and Collaboration
Harris’s team isn’t just using LiquidPlanner to capture hard data, such as task estimates versus the actual time required to complete that task. The team is also using it to capture “softer” aspects of project history, such as the email thread that may have led to a change in the plan. Because this information is accessible to all, it’s helping keep everyone up to speed and on the same page in the face of continual change. “We’re using the community tools in LiquidPlanner more and more,” says Harris. “I love the space it provides for notes; in fact, the extent to which team members are using the commenting features in LiquidPlanner has been a very pleasant surprise.”
Less Pressure and Fewer Late Nights
The aforementioned improvements in project management have, as Harris puts it, given his entire team a “much stronger sense of control.” Employees are more connected to the project plan, can see how their individual contributions contribute to the whole, and are able to stay focused on what matters most. “Not only are project plans improved today, but everyone on our team is more engaged with respect to those plans,” says Harris. “There’s still a healthy level of pressure to get things done, but it’s no longer overwhelming.”
Harris cites a few lessons he’s learned in using LiquidPlanner as contributing to how much better things are today. “My project plans aren’t nearly as deep—with as many levels of subfolders—as I originally thought they’d need to be,” he explains. “Within a project, I’ll use subfolders for each phase of the project, as a means to break the overall effort down into key, shorter-term milestones. These milestones, in turn, serve as sanity checks and shorter-term targets for the team, keeping the pain tolerable at all times. This creates a healthy but not overwhelming sense of urgency versus one ‘project completed’ milestone that’s six or nine months away. LiquidPlanner is great for this, as it really helps surface what’s important.”
Concludes Harris, “We’ve made huge progress since adopting LiquidPlanner. Everyone is happier, and we’re getting more done in the same amount of time.”