In Product Development, Project Management Builds on Process

By George Ellis


I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at project management tools and some of them are very cool. Tons of collaboration. Great mobile connectivity. Attractive, intuitive user interfaces. But very few of them tie to process. And that’s unfortunate because project management should be built on a foundation of process. Why? Lots of reasons.

Process tells you what your organization does under normal situations—we call it “standard work”. For example, when do you decide if you’re going to go for a patent? At what points do the developers connect with the manufacturing team? What steps do you take so quality levels with be acceptable when the product goes to the factory? If you don’t have process, you reinvent the wheel every time you plan a project. And so does every project manager in your company. Of course, process isn’t meant to be enough to do all your planning—not by a long shot. There’s too much variation from one project to the next. But good process ensures every project meets the minimum requirements for your organization.

Process also tells you when you’ve done something properly—it defines what “done” means. You can call a meeting called a “FMEA”, but if you don’t’ have a healthy FMEA process, you’re FMEAs are going to be unreliable—some will be good and others will add no value. Most steps in product development is like that: quality planning, design reviews, validation testing. If you don’t have process, you don’t really know what they are. And if you don’t know what they are, you don’t know when they’re done.

Process is also the key to continuous improvement, like a map. Without one, you’ll get there. Eventually. And each time, you’ll do it differently. And each project manager will do it differently. So, how do you get better? You use your map to guide your journey. When you find a mistake in your map, you fix it. When you find a new way that works better than your map said it would, you mark up your map. That’s like process—use your process to develop your product, and as you do, you notice the weak points. And then you fix them. You find the parts of your process that are too heavy and you skinny them down. When you’re missing a step, you add it. You use the same map every time and every time you use it, you make it a little better. And so does every other project manager. As time passes, your can get very good.

So when you’re evaluating project management software, think about your processes and how they will tie in. Will they help you get better year after year? Will they support all your processes from small cost reduction efforts all the way up to platform development? If not, keep looking. A Facebook look on your smart phone is small compensation if your tool winds up holding you back.

About the Author

George Ellis has worked in the Engineering industry for 30 years. He currently leads a team of 30 engineers designing and supporting industrial control products.

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