Published in “Liquid Planners” website, November 19, 2015
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Projects abound for manufacturers. There’s no doubt that manufacturing is growing, supply chains are becoming more complex, requirements are popping out of the woodwork, and the most successful way to navigate these waters is to design and execute projects flawlessly. Thus, manufacturers must become adept at managing projects to make sure that results follow.
Here’s an example to consider. In my consulting practice, I focus 99 percent+ on manufacturers across all company sizes and industries. If there are common best practices among a six million dollar building products manufacturer, a 50 million dollar food processor and a multi-billion dollar aerospace manufacturer, I pay attention. I ask myself questions like: Which projects are consistently delivering results in the manufacturing sector? Why are these yielding significantly more than other projects or other competing priorities?
To help executives think through priorities, we need to take a step back to consider these best practices for managing manufacturing projects:
- Know that fundamentals remain cornerstone.In manufacturing environments, project management fundamentals remain cornerstone to success. For example, selecting the right team, devoting enough time to the planning phase, gaining executive commitment, and following the critical path are key to success.
For example, rapid progress was the focus when I was working with an aerospace manufacturer to reduce lead times. Consequently, there was a tendency to jump right in and not devote enough time to the planning phase. After significant conversation, we were able to dedicate the time to the planning phase. Thus, the project was set up for success and results followed.
- Master speed.Manufacturers are feeling pressure to make rapid progress. The bottom line is that speed rules the day. If you can deliver a day quicker than the competition, you’ll likely gain the business. Amazon has driven dramatic change in manufacturing and distribution companies as their high service levels have become the standard. Thus, manufacturers need to design their projects with speed in mind.
Of course, keeping the fundamentals intact is critical; thus, we can’t short circuit the planning phase or another aspect of the project that doesn’t seem as important. We must find a different way of designing the projects which accelerates progress. For example, using an Agile method—which focuses on improving iterations and processes over time—can be an effective way to achieve faster results at a high quality. Agile processes also requires improved leadership skills to gain insights from team members.
- Create a cross-functional focus.Although a cross-functional focus is beneficial regardless of the environment, it’s especially critical in manufacturing environments. In order to create rapid and sustainable results with projects, a cross-functional team must be involved. In more than 25 years of leading projects in manufacturing companies, I’ve yet to find a project that could be implemented by a single department successfully.
Even in the most isolated of cases, related departments need to be in the loop and supportive of the changes. Projects have started to involve more and more functions because supply chains have become more complex. Plus, manufacturers are under constant pressure to improve customer and profit performance while reducing costs. Thus, those project leaders who are better able to encourage collaboration among departments and cross-organizations will thrive.
- Have a common goal.Going hand-in-hand with striving for a cross-functional focus is the need for common goals. It’s rare that the project team has conflicting goals; however, every organization I go into seems to have conflicting goals surrounding the project. For example, if the project team’s goal is to support a key customer with improved service levels and reduced lead times, everyone on the project team typically understands that goal. But the individuals are held accountable to a different set of priorities in their day-to-day tasks.
For example, the purchasing manager might be held accountable to purchase price cost vs. standard cost. If quicker deliveries are required to support the customer objective, the purchasing manager of my best clients will likely meet with the supplier to work out a “win-win” agreement. This agreement could have a negative impact on short term purchase cost even though it will be a longer-term benefit. If the purchasing manager is held accountable and evaluated solely on purchase price, he will be in direct conflict with his project’s team goals. Thus, the hard work to create success in manufacturing is derived from involving the appropriate sponsors, executives and related parties to ensure common goals are used.
- Proactively manage the critical path.As in all projects, the critical path is important. In manufacturing companies, the key is to proactively manage the critical path. I have worked with hundreds of project teams, and the one aspect in common across all manufacturing projects is that everyone is busy. Customers’ expectations are high. Demand for immediate progress on several fronts at once comes from many stakeholders: owners corporate, your private equity backers or the board of directors.
In many cases, executives have 16 hours of work to fit into each eight hour day, and it trickles down from there. Thus, even the most well-intentioned project teams get derailed with conflicts and last-minute emergencies. Therefore, proactively managing the critical path becomes essential to success. What helps is to remind critical path task owners that their task is coming up (or make sure they use a project management tool that keeps them on top of things). Ask if there are any potential roadblocks. Work those in advance. Communicate frequently. The bottom line is that success will occur if the critical path is aggressively managed.
Manufacturers rely on project results to grow their business, increase profitability, improve efficiencies, accelerate cash flow and deliver exceptional customer satisfaction. Thus, it is well-worth looking at best practices to ensure success. Start with the fundamentals, keep speed and cross-functional goals in mind and aggressively manage the critical path—and success will follow.