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Specific Advice for Project Scheduling and for Managing Customer Expectations

I’ve met project managers who give vague advice, and they’re all cowards.

Like the title says, this article is laid out with rapid fire bullet points of advice for a project manager to schedule and manage engineering projects. Rather than broad platitudes or goals, the purpose of this article is to give actionable tasks for project managers starting new projects.

Scheduling

If you don’t have a realistic and up-to-date schedule, you are guaranteed to have two weeks of crunch right before the deadline.

Like the title says, this article is laid out with rapid fire bullet points of advice for a project manager to schedule and manage engineering projects. Rather than broad platitudes or goals, the purpose of this article is to give actionable tasks for project managers starting new projects.

  • All tasks on the schedule should take between 8 hours and 40 hours of effort. No more, no less. The duration of the task can stretch to accommodate availability, but if it takes less than 8 hours of work to complete it’s too miniscule to worry about tracking and if it’s more than 40 hours it needs to be broken up. ‘Testing’ for 120 hours is not a good plan.

 

  • Assume you get ≤60% of people’s time per week. Engineers are usually working on multiple projects at once, and those other projects will take priority for some amount of their time. You can’t plan for emergencies on other projects months in advance, but assume you’ll only get 3 out of every 5 days of peoples’ time to account for them.

 

  • Add in 1 to 2 weeks of lead time for parts due to shipping and ordering delays. Sending out RFQ’s, getting quotes, making PO’s, and shipping parts all add time that isn’t reflected in the lead time shown on quotes.

 

  • Double the amount of testing in the initial estimate. Triple it if you can. Write this into the schedule. In my experience, everyone is terrible at estimating the amount of time testing requires. Software gets the worst of it since they’re usually the last task, but everyone always wishes for more testing time.

 

  • Get updates from your team and revise your schedule every week. If you leave it unattended, your schedule quickly becomes useless. Update it with task completion percentages and correct start dates to see if anything is drifting.

Customer Meetings

Your customers are paying you for your time. You need to spend some of it talking to them.

  • Have biweekly formal update meetings, and weekly informal meetings. Having monthly meetings means people are in the dark for weeks at a time, while having meetings more than once a week means you spend more time prepping for and holding meetings than getting work done.

 

  • The formal meeting has nearly everybody on the project in it – your entire team, their team, and possibly both of your managements. Your goal is to provide an overview of the status of the project. Make clear, concise presentations of about five to eight slides with a graphic on each one, then provide it to everyone afterwards. Keep the meeting on track - going too long means you’re wasting more than a dozen people’s time.

 

  • For the informal meeting, keep your team out of it. Don’t waste their time. Your goal is to solve specific issues with your customer. This meeting should be a phone call or screen share with your main customer contact(s) to tell them the status, provide back-and-forth updates, build rapport, and get answers and updates from them that they haven’t sent yet in an email.
  • Don’t joke about going over budget or missing deadlines, no matter how good of a relationship you think you have. I have never seen this go over well.

Managing Expectations

It’s on you to set the tone for the project. Keeping your customers happy and informed keeps you and your team from being stressed and scrambling.

  • Setup a project charter at the start of the project. Specify as much as feasibly possible – the number of units, the expected cost, the expected timeline, the intended features, the risks, who is on the project, and on and on. Google “Project Charter Templates” for ideas. Having this worked out before starting the project is critical to prevent scope creep.

 

  • Don’t give deadlines without a schedule to back it up. Verbal deadlines will be the bane of your existence. They’re ‘fuzzy’ in that you can’t look them up in an email, and any weasel words around them like ‘if things go well’ or ‘we’re hoping’ will be forgotten immediately once a definitive date or length of time is spoken. From there, the customer has an expectation you accidentally set, can’t double check, and probably can’t meet.

 

  • If you know a delay will happen or that you will go over budget, tell the customer ASAP. Do Not Wait. This isn’t fun, and you better have a good explanation for why this happened and how you’ll fix it in the future, but telling them about a delay 2 months before a deadline goes a lot easier than 2 days.

In Closing

This is only a narrow slice of what project management entails – this doesn’t even cover how to manage the project! However, I feel that these tips are the most critical ones. You can’t get back lost time and you can’t fix broken promises. If you have a good schedule, you know how the project is doing. And if you have a solid relationship with your customer, you’ll give them what they want and will get their business in the future.

I hope these tips are useful to all you project managers out there.

P.S. If I give vague advice in future articles, ignore the first line of this one.

 

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