The 5 Things Leaders Should Do to Manage Project Overload
April 13, 2018

Audere Partners was engaged to develop and implement a project lifecycle process at a mature chemical manufacturing site in North America. The site set itself to enhance its processes and implement key upgrades to reliably satisfy customer quantity and quality demands in an increasingly competitive global market. The site was under pressure to execute capital improvement projects rapidly, and consequently, the number of projects piled on engineers’ desks increased significantly, beyond the staff capacity to execute with pace and rigor. The risks of mismanaging the project workload were very tangible for the organization. The likelihood of technical staff burnout was immediate and brain-drain, due to turnover, could truly cripple the organization. Further, clients could easily change suppliers to meet demand, and the company’s reputation could suffer a significant blow as a result.

This situation is not atypical in the chemical industry. Many organizations face the demand for capital project execution in competitive markets while lacking the engineering capacity to implement all the desired projects successfully and on time. The reality is all organizations have limited resources, and the key is to find the best ways to optimize the use of the resources available. In this light, Audere Partners joined forces with local technical staff to implement five specific actions to improve project execution during an 8-week engagement:

  1. Forced the organization to limit the number of projects for each engineer. We assigned projects according to complexity and stage in the existing corporate Capital Deployment Process. These assignments lowered the project workload for each engineer by 50%. Audere Partners’ consulting experience demonstrates that project execution speed will increase by limiting the number of project in progress for each employee. In this way, engineers can increase the project completion rate with high quality.
  2. Agreed to one accountable person to manage engineer workload. We designed an initiative management process from idea generation to project completion that required the Area Manager to serve as “gate-keeper” of projects-in-process. This Area Manager became the only person with the authority to activate a project or improvement initiative, and the one in charge to level-load the process. As a result, the Area Manager fed the workload to engineers in a controlled manner, which smoothed bottlenecks to utilize resources best.
  3. Launched bi-weekly reviews to manage workload for individual engineers. The Area Manager instructed engineers to work only on the projects approved by him, with input from key advisors. This Manager held coaching sessions with each engineer to aid in risk management. These meetings were particularly useful for newer engineers to the organization, aiding in the development of their projects management skills in a new environment.
  4. Built a milestone review meeting for critical projects. This meeting ensured engineers consistently communicated risks, reasons for any delays and impacts to production. Because several of the projects overlapped and shared dependencies, consistent communication was critical to keep the organization focused.
  5. Engaged corporate stakeholders to align priorities and obtain additional resources. The team shared the current initiatives, chosen priorities, and constraints to project success with key internal stakeholders including Operations, Technical Center, and Global Quality. This communication helped align priorities in other departments, and the team was successful in obtaining additional temporary engineers to execute shorter term critical projects.

Three keys made our approach different and successful. First, we implemented management tools and processes tailored to the work environment – we didn’t have time to waste and needed to implement practical solutions immediately. Second, the management systems implemented were not cookie-cutter but instead, focused on the facility’s specific needs to manage execution. And third, our relationship with the client became very powerful as we joined forces to coach engineers daily ensuring the desired behaviors were ingrained. Rooting these desired behaviors is the toughest part of an implementation because it requires continual follow-up for these behaviors to become second nature to employees:

“… I have seen more effective and timely execution of improvement projects in the area. There are fewer projects ‘acted upon’ at one time but over the course of a quarter more projects were completed than before the implementation. [This is a win-win] situation because I have also seen fewer over-stressed and overwhelmed employees.” ~Site Manager

One of the most frequently-asked questions on any implementation is: how do I know this is not going to fall apart in a few months? It is a valid concern and one where leadership continuity is critical. The owner of the process led the change initiative from the client side, therefore it is more certain to drive sustainability in years to come. Because of our collaborative approach, our client can truly build upon this implementation with strong buy-in from engineers and middle-management:

“Taking a very structured approach to resource loading and project prioritization has allowed my team breath, see successes, and be more effective overall. Just as important in keeping the team focused, “managing up” becomes more effective when new high priority projects come into view [and we must decide how to juggle our workload]. It’s a brutal approach to prioritization, and the results are all positive.” ~Production Manager

This implementation has served as a good example for other sites. Upon seeing the rapid results, other managers across the company are asking ‘how can I implement this in my area?’ Our approach is straightforward, but it does take significant coaching, tailoring, and follow-up to build the necessary discipline that is the foundation to sustainability.

Harry Phillips is Management Consultant with 10 years of experience in the industry. Harry has specialized in leading project teams in the installation and sustainability of management systems, process improvement, and continuous improvement programs.