New Technology Keeps Projects On Time and On Budget

Visibility, communications and collaboration tools help managers master project management.

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Most projects have two things in common—they break the budget and they're late. New technology tools have emerged to help project managers keep their projects from slipping off the rails. The common theme in project management technology is visibility, communication and collaboration. The goal is to let everyone involved know when things look like they're starting to slip. The idea is to catch the project before it blows the budget or bogs down in broken deadlines.

If you find your projects are continually falling behind and slipping over budget, it's not just you. "Projects are generally difficult to keep on time and on budget," says Sanjeev Gupta, chief executive officer at Realization, a project management technology company in San Jose, Calif. "Normally, you'll find about 80 percent of projects are over schedule and 40 percent are over budget. Fewer than 20 percent of projects finish on time."

The overarching goal in advancing project management is to reduce delays and unplanned expenditures. Both affect the bottom line of the organization. The tools for improving project management come in the form of enhanced technology—software firms compete to help managers stay on time and on budget—yet process improvement also plays a part in recent advances in project management. Improved training and the use of metrics and best practices are helping project managers keep down costs and avoid delays.

Time is dollars for any plant project. "One thing we're seeing is that speed is critical for success. The faster you can get something built, the faster you can get it out to market," says Brian Frank, industry solutions manager at Autodesk Inc., a software supplier based in San Rafael, Calif. "It really affects the bottom line if you can minimize delays in the production line, so there is a huge focus on reducing delays."

Visibility is everything

If cross-functional teams are all watching the progress of the project, there's a greater chance that managers can catch a project before it bogs down in the mud. Visibility is its own form of communication, and communication is its own form of accountability. If one team knows another team will be handing off a project in a couple of weeks—and also knows that the project is running a few days late—the delays can more easily be made up.

The trick is to make sure that everyone knows a delay has occurred. "There's no replacement for good communications. You can't replace that with a tool no matter how important the tool, "says Bill Robertson, senior product manager at automation supplier Emerson Process Management, in Eden Prairie, Minn. "We communicate the status of the project to our customers in weekly and monthly meetings, and any time we start to see things go off the scale, we bring it to the customer's attention."

Part of the visibility process is to give everyone access to the documents and technology running the project. "The goal is to improve teamwork by allowing team members to easily access documents and create new product workspace," says Jeff Wallis, product unit manager for Dynamics SL 2011, at Microsoft Corp. the Redmond, Wash., software behemoth. "We work to make it easy for non-technical people to easily create a SharePoint site. They can keep all their documents in one easy place and also share the documents with fellow team members."

Technology is the key to delivering visibility, communications and collaboration to the plant's project managers. Much of the new technology includes improved communication and collaboration. Some technology helps managers literally see the project more clearly. "One of the biggest things we see is a huge adoption of 3D technology," says Frank, of Autodesk. "When people are looking at 3D imagery, it is easy to understand, even for people who are trained to understand blueprints. The acuity of 3D enhances understanding."

The 3D model is built by taking data from different sources and merging it into one more-detailed image. "We take pieces in 3D and aggregate it into a document. You can take the plumbing and add it to a view of the plant building," says Frank. "When you see it altogether, you can create boundaries—barriers that say you can't build anything near this. That really helps the project manager get a better grasp of what's going on."

Not all technology actually helps the project management process. "The dirty secret of project management software is that most solutions are so complicated that the software requires the user to be a project management expert," remarks Ty Kiisel, manager for social outreach at AtTask, a software company in Orem, Utah. "We send our designers to watch the project management process so we can see where it's broken and where it needs fixing."

One of the things the designers realized is that projects often break down at the end-user level, with the engineer who neglected to update his status before going home. "We watched our customers and discovered the end-user was the lynchpin. If the data collected at the grassroots level was inaccurate, the whole project was inaccurate," says Kiisel. "We had to figure out why the end-user would neglect to update the project, then go home and update his Facebook page."

Designers discovered that there were difficulties in the user-friendliness of the end-user interface. Arbitrary deadlines were also a problem. "The light bulb goes on. Why have we ignored the end-user for so long? It's because he's not part of the buying process," says Kiisel. "Our first take now is to tackle the problems of the end-user, and then we move up to the project manager."

Standards and training

Sometimes it doesn't take sophisticated technology to see that things are slipping off schedule and budget. Sometimes it just takes a set of metrics. "We're working on developing much stricter standards. It may not sound like a big tool, but it is," says Larry Christie, program manager at automation provider Honeywell Process Solutions, in Phoenix. "We're able to monitor the project and see cost savings by using standards. When someone does an excellent job in, say, Australia, we capture that and use it around the world as a standard."

Standards and best practices are not new, but sharing them across the globe is. "The use of standards has been going on for 20 years, but what's new is the scope," says Christie. "We've always had the certification and the tools, but 15 years ago when these tools were in their adolescence, there was much less stringent compliance globally. Today, we make sure we get compliance to the standards worldwide. That gives us the quality."

Project management has become its own professional discipline. An increasing number of projects are run by managers who have been trained in project management skills. "Certification in project management is becoming more important. People are advertising that x amount of their staff consists of certified project managers," says Russ Novak, research director, ARC Advisory Group Inc., in Dedham, Mass. "Many companies that run plant projects have their own in-house universities." He notes that certified managers work side-by-side with non-certified managers to share knowledge. "If you're assigned to a project and you have gone through the company's in-house university, you'll be paired up with someone who has not gone through the university."

Some vendors are taking professional standards developed academically and bringing them in-house. "We have adopted project processes from the Project Management Institute. Those processes are well defined and detailed," says Kim VanCamp, product manager at Emerson Process Management.

Just as plants are working to improve their manufacturing processes for continuous improvement, project management technology and techniques are in a state of constant development. The prod for improvement is the same in both cases—saving money and resources. On-time, on-budget projects save dollars. Technology advances are obvious and expected, but improvements are also showing up in the form of greater training, specific standards, metrics and best practices.

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