Don’t Fall Behind

Why staying on schedule should be job one.

Writen by Greg Sills

This post was written by Greg Sills, President of Leading Projects, and Mark Robicheaux, Senior Advisor.

Leading Projects does a lot of work for clients in a practice area we call “Strategic Interventions” — which usually involves helping project teams recover schedule slippage — always incredibly difficult. Most project delivery systems are focused on “readiness” for the Execute stage. But what should the focus be during Execute?

During Execute, we believe staying on schedule is the single most important goal that a project team can achieve. Meeting schedule objectives means meeting budget objectives, too, and easily co-exists with meeting other objectives such as safety, quality, and operability. The best way to meet the schedule is never to fall behind. Once a project falls behind, recovery efforts demand un-budgeted money, overstress the staff, and are very difficult to execute.

3 ideas for keeping your project on schedule . . .

1. Project Milestones

Situation:  The project develops about a dozen schedule milestones.

Problem:  A dozen milestones are not enough to know where the project stands. The milestones might not even be visible to the larger team. The milestone(s) are missed, and then people try to convince themselves that they are “working to catch up.” The milestones were visible but disappeared in an effort to hide slippage from senior leadership and other stakeholders.

Recommendation:  We suggest a much more comprehensive milestone program than many projects use. Ideally, we like to see at least two milestones per month during the engineering phase. Each milestone can actually be a set of deliverables issued for construction which makes them doubly meaningful. Make the milestones visible with a multimedia poster campaign. There’s a truth moment here as well — all parties need to admit that missing a milestone actually means the project is behind schedule.

One of the biggest values of this approach is transparency — the entire team can see which engineering leader is responsible for the most urgent activity sequence (the “critical path”), and project leadership and co-workers can check in regularly with that individual, understand their obstacles, support them, and help them.

When a milestone is met, it is powerful to celebrate the achievement. First, make a project-wide announcement about “meeting the milestone.” Then go find the person or people who were responsible and find a way to recognize them in front of their peers. Treat them to coffee or lunch and recognize them personally — make it a big deal! Word travels and recognition might be the most powerful motivator of all.

2. Stepwise Design Freeze

Situation:  The project develops a Statement of Requirements and a Design Basis.

Problem:  Changes creep in anyway, usually at a level below these documents. Engineering falls behind because they cannot address the changes, and they can’t keep up.

Recommendation:  We like to see a “Stepwise Design Freeze” with an associated multimedia poster campaign. As engineering progresses, we would freeze various elements from change. Some freezes are obvious, such as process flowsheets or P&IDs, but the timing is important. Some important things to freeze may not be deliverables — but freezing an aspect of the design protects a future deliverable from change. For example, freezing module dimensions protects the primary steel design from re-work. Freezing equipment locations protects the secondary steel and access/egress design from re-work. This is similar to a milestone program but more focused on preventing changes and associated re-work.

Announcing the individual freezes as they occur sends a powerful message to all parties: engineers, designers, managers, and stakeholders. The message is that these things cannot be changed, or the project will fail to meet objectives.

3. Integrate Engineering and Procurement

Situation: The project has separate engineering and procurement teams.

Problem: The procurement schedule slips. A manager investigates but finds bi-directional finger-pointing. Procurement blames engineering, and engineering blames procurement. It gets even more complicated once the vendor begins manufacturing since one or more inspectors come into play.

Recommendation. We have seen projects in which the procurement report starts with the issue of the request for quotation. Leading Projects would back up — the procurement report should include the issuing of the technical spec/data sheet from engineering to the buyer. This should be tracked by both engineering and procurement and be a regular meeting agenda item within the teams. We also recommend that once a purchase order is placed, the formal single-point contact with the vendor switches to the engineer. It is much more efficient because after an order is placed, issues become primarily technical, and the engineer is the decision maker.

The subject of keeping a project on track is huge, but in our experience, project delays — even those which emerge during construction or commissioning — have their roots in the engineering and procurement phase. At Leading Projects, we advise clients that seemingly small actions like the ones described here can make all the difference.