Improving Time to Market

By Gary Hinkle

(Originally published in the January 2007 International Society for Optical Engineering SPIE Professional; reprinted with permission)

There are many things teams can do to get projects completed more quickly. Some form of investment is usually required, and yes, sometimes it means hiring more people. Here are some practical tips that don’t necessarily require additional staffing.

1) Eliminate Waste

Unproductive meetings, inefficient processes, and poor communication are some common issues that slow down projects. When you know you’re wasting time on somethings, implement a system for measuring the amount of time wasted. Define categories of inefficient activity such as “unproductive meeting time,” “interruptions,” or “design changes due to poor planning.”

Get consensus about the activities that waste time, then monitor the percentage of time in those wasteful activities compared to total work time. If the percentage is high, it should point out specific corrective actions. Without this data, it can be difficult to understand the magnitude of a particular problem.

2) Speed vs. Efficiency Tradeoff

Three general modes describe an organization’s speed and efficiency:

Mode 1: Slow and inefficient (with varying degrees of slowness and inefficiency)

Mode 2: Moderately fast and highly efficient

Mode 3: Very fast and inefficient

Only Mode 1 isn’t good. Managers must understand that to achieve warp speed, you have to pay the price and give up some fiscal efficiency. Most project teams are in Mode 1 striving to reach Mode 2, so in this case improving both speed and efficiency is a reasonable expectation.

At a certain point (Mode 3), boosting resources significantly will provide very little time-to-market (TTM) gain. For example, doubling a development team size from three to six people might get a product out the door in nine months instead of 18. Reducing TTM by even just another two months, however, might require doubling the staff again from six to 12.

3) Invest in Project Planning

Projects of significant size need at least two levels of planning to ensure they’re executed effectively and efficiently. One level of planning should encompass the entire project scope and includes all functional areas involved. Detailed planning at the functional level − especially the engineering function − is often taken too lightly. Ideally, each project should have an engineering team leader who excels at project planning, has enough time allocated for planning, and has good rapport with managers and key team members. If any of these attributes are missing, TTM will likely be impacted, so it’s worth investing in strong technical leaders.

4) Foster Collaboration and Commitment

Is your team environment more collaborative, or competitive? When employees are competing fiercely with each other for raises, promotions, or simply keeping their jobs, collaboration is probably weak. If this is the case, proactive focus on team-building should improve TTM.

If commitment from individuals is lacking, it will certainly slow down a team. The most effective way to build commitment is to give people a sense of purpose. Find out the aspects of work that motivate individuals and align work appropriately with interests. Communicate business objectives in a way that helps people see how the objectives overlap with their personal values.

5) Assess the Cost of Delay

How much does it cost your organization for each day a project is late? There are three major delay costs to consider:

estimated revenue lost for each day of delay

cost to employ the project team for each day of delay

cost of lost opportunities during the delay period because resources aren’t available for new projects

Highly visible cost of delay metrics can be used to improve team performance. No team wants major delay costs associated with their project to be visible, but be careful with this type of measurement. You don’t want circumstances outside of a team’s control to damage their credibility.

Bonus Tip: Create Excellent Road Maps

TTM improvement opportunities typically exist during the “fuzzy front end” of projects. A solid road map eliminates a lot of fuzziness.

World-class road mapping practices will provide high-level guidance at project kick-off such as:

what the project is

why you’re doing it

when you will start

an estimated budget

A road map should have much more detail than brief project descriptions attached to rough timelines. Good road mapping practices require top management’s buy-in and involvement, but strong leaders at any level can influence road mapping practices.

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