Tips on keeping your project on schedule, on budget, and be of high quality
This article has been edited by John Bernero. Original article was written on March 2011.
The odds of an aggressive and success oriented project schedule of being met is around one in ten. So why is it that most development schedules expect everything to happen on time and without surprises?
These success oriented schedules put the project at great risk, end up taking longer to complete, cost more, and compromise product quality. The good news is with proper planning, common product development mistakes can be avoided and the risks to cost, schedule and product quality can be minimized.
When facing cost or schedule pressures, the five common project plan mistakes teams make are:
Most product development processes can be reduced to three basic phases: strategy, concept, and development. The strategy phase discovers product needs and defines the strategy for creating and delivering a successful product to market. The concept phase takes the results of the strategy phase and determines the optimal product architecture and form. The development phase takes the product direction defined in the concept phase, develops it into a production ready design, and validates the design through testing and first-run production.
When under schedule or budget pressures, it is temping to skip steps in the strategy and concept phases and jump straight to the development phase.
The sooner you release the design to production it better, correct?
Wrong. This is a bad idea. The strategy and concept phases provide the foundation for the development phase and your overall product success. During these two critical phases the needs of the user and target market are identified, system-level architecture and product specifications are defined, and the product concept is vetted through testing and user evaluations.
Product development costs increase exponentially as the product moves from the strategy to concept to development phases. Starting the development phase before strategy and concept phases adds great financial risk, resulting in potential schedule delays and unnecessary increases in development cost. Would you rather make a prototype to realize the idea may be a failure in the market or have thousands of units on the shelf and deal with poor sales or product warranty headaches?
Project teams need to create and test prototypes early to verify that the product design meets user needs, product specifications, and design goals. In doing so, your team will uncover necessary design changes earlier in the project that will save time and money in the long-run. However, schedule and budget pressures will drive some organizations to reduce the number of prototypes or prototype cycles to save time and money. In the end, this forces teams to try to do too much with a single prototype and incurs project risks.
For example, if early in a project you choose to make a single prototype to test usability and functionality, you will find it will take longer than making a separate functional prototype and a separate usability model. Furthermore, you are likely to compromise on either usability or functionality by integrating both into this single prototype. This will give you mixed test results when the prototype is evaluated.
Prototypes should be used to answer specific questions. If the prototype is meant to address more than one, it may be better to split these into separate prototypes or make more of them. As the project progresses into development phase, making a few number of prototypes will not allow your team to run tests in parallel. If your drop test failed, was it because of a poor design, or was it because the same test units previously went through a life test first?
Your product must not only meet performance specifications but also cost goals. About 70% of manufacturing costs of a product are determined by the design decisions made early in the development phase. Waiting to engage a production supply chain until the design is complete is a costly mistake.
Additionally, it is important to identify and engage with the production supplier you intend to use. Each supplier will have unique processes, so expect different production design feedback and cost estimates from different suppliers. If you’ve already incorporated design feedback from one supplier but change to another supplier late in the project, expect there to be additional design updates needed to address the second supplier’s feedback.
You need design feedback from your selected production supply chain early. This allows the development team to effectively roll these changes into the design before it is complete. Doing so will keep production costs in check. Early supplier feedback will reduce the overall development time and cost, while also reducing manufacturing cost surprises and ensuring product quality.
The effort to identify and select the chosen production supplier takes time.
Most successful projects have the production supplier identified before the project transitions into the development phase.
Which brings us to the fourth common mistake:
Most of us are familiar with the fuzzy front end of the development process, but little is said about the murky back end once the design is released to production. The development phase is not complete once engineering has released the design to production and all of the specifications are approved. At this point you are only 30% to 50% through the development phase and entering the “murky back end”.
During this time prototypes are built and tested to determine if they meet performance specifications and pass qualification / regulatory testing. The design is also being transferred to a production supplier where final fabrication, inspection and assembly procedures are dealt with. Other aspects of product launch are also being worked on, including field support, shipping, inventory, returns, and product end-of-life planning.
Underestimating the effort after design release is a common and costly mistake. This back end of the development phase can be a lengthy process taking six months or longer depending on the complexity of the product. Many of these items have lead times and interdependencies that will affect the overall schedule and are not completely in your control. It is important that these activities be carefully accounted for an planned to prevent major schedule delays.
Every industry has a myriad of regulations that govern product performance and safety. Discovering that your product does not meet one of these regulations during product acceptance testing in “the murky back end” can be costly. These costs will include time and labor to redesign the product, as well as the added cost and schedule delays to prototype the updated design and redo testing.
At the beginning of the development phase, discussions should be performed with certified test laboratories and applicable regulatory agencies to plan and confirm product verification and validation efforts. Knowing the required regulatory standards before you begin design is the best way to gain confidence the product will pass testing. This will also avoid problems due to insufficient design considerations, selection of uncertified components, or designing to incorrect or non-applicable test methods. You need to review, understand, and plan for the applicable standards as early as possible. In addition, these standards may have revisions or new standards may be added while you are mid-project. Keep abreast of potential changes to industry standards while you are developing your product.
The product certification process can also be complex. It requires a great deal of preparation to ensure the testing was done correctly and for the design to pass the test on the first try. Proper and early planning for the regulatory testing will go a long way toward ensuring smooth results and late project surprises.
There will always be schedule pressures during a project, however it is critical to understand what risks are incurred if certain steps are skipped or underestimated. By avoiding these five common mistakes in your next project, your project will remain on schedule, on budget, and be of high quality at launch.