Practical tips for efficient project management

When working in the service sector a basic knowledge of project management and efficient software tools for project management and ERP (enterprise resource planning) are of great advantage. There is a huge amount of literature on project management, often, however, with a focus on more theoretical aspects of project management. Therefore, we would like to give some very practical tips in the following section, concerning project management in the services industry. With this practice-oriented overview we hope to give hints for an easier and successful daily work with projects.

1. Clarify project goals

Although this subject does not directly concern project management but rather project planning, it is crucial to clarify goals or objectives of project in detail with clients, especially when working with new clients. Often the real objectives are only revealed while discussing a project, i.e. what a client actually has in mind or what he really needs. It is also imperative to clarify project goals with all involved colaborators before starting a projest. This may sound Das mag obvious, however in practice great losses of time are often due to misunderstandings and resulting undesired or unnecessary project developments. A few clear sentences and clearly formulated and communicated task descriptions can help to avoid such time losses.

2. Planning of projects with project phases

The more complex a project is, the more important is a good planning. Especially for complex project each minute spent for the planning of projects usually pays off many times! For the planning and controlling of projects a division of projects into project phases has proven very useful. i.e. larger projects are subdivided into several meaningful sub-projects or project phases with a specific work content. These can be planned and controlled more easily. Some software tools (such as ePro-SM) also forcast if the planned working time of a phase will presumably be exceeded, enablelling you to initiate adequate counter measures at an early stage. Additionally you can use the actually used working time of the phases of a finalized project, to estimate future projects more realistically. A graphical representation, which has proven useful for projects with several phases (and which is included in almost all software solutions for project management) is the well-known Gantt-Chart (after Henry L. Gantt, see Fig. 1). In a Gantt chart all project phases are displayed as bars. The project shown in Fig. 1, for example, comprises three phases. Each of these phases can only start when the previous phase is finalized (graphically shown by the arrows between phases). The Gantt chart in Fig 1. also indicates that a delay of phase 1 can cause also a delay of all subsequent phases, possibly jeopardizing the finalization of the entire project (since no safety buffer is planned between phases). The work progress of a project phase can be displayed in a Gantt chart using "filled" bars (see phase 1 in Fig. 1, which has reached a progress of about 1/3 or approximately 30%).

Gantt chart view of project with three phases

Fig. 1. Gantt chart view of project with three phases (simplified).

3. Use of milestones and deadlines

Apart from subdividing projects into project phases also the use of milestones has proven very useful. If a milestone is defined and everybody knows that a specific phase or work content has to be done until a fixed date, then all involved personnel will try to keep that milestone. Defining milestones (or deadlines) for all project phases also helps to recognize if the finalization date of the entire project is in danger, for example if milestones are not kept and subsequent project phases are delayed (in ePro-SM you can anticipate endangered deadlines easily and also the resulting delay of subsequent project phases is displayed).

4. Planning human resources an work capacity

Project planning, of course, includes not only the planning of the timing of project phases but also the planning of your workforce (capacity planning) and other resources, such as material resources. For capacity planning the current workload, planned vacations and potential illness should be taken into account (for this purpose ePro-SM provides a special capacity view of employees). Especially for time-critical projects it may be worth to consider a plan B in advance, e.g. for the case that key personnel call in sick.
Ask your employees to plan their vacations early in advance or stablish rules for vacation enquiries which ensure a permanent and sufficient performance of your team. If you have an experienced team, you and your team members will certainly be able to assess how much time you need for individual project phases very well. However, capacity planning is much more difficult when several teams, department or even enterprises (e.g. subcontractors) are working together. In such cases sufficient buffer should be considered in the planning, especially between time-critical phases. Additioanlly, it may help to introdoce "internal" deadlines before the real deadlines at the end of important project phases.

5. Reducing risk / planning partial statements or invoices

The planning of invoices or bills is hardly an issue for smaller projects. For large projects, however, an unfavorable accounting may endanger the existence of a company. Therefore, you should plan carefully if and how many partial invoices may be necessary to avoid financial bottlenecks. Since the finalization of a project may be substanially delayed by additional demands (or even lack of time) of your customers, payment "after completion" should be avoided for larger projects (in ePro-SM, you can specify if automatic e-mail reminders shall be sent when partial bills are due, e.g. at project finalization or when a certain workload is reached).

6. Plan with delays and unexpected problems

The longer projects are running and the more people are involved, the more likely it is that parts of the project will be delayed and unexpected problems arise. Especially when several departments or different companies are involved, delays are almost inevitable. Hence, plan with delays form the very beginning. Of course, it is not economical to plan too much buffer or work capacity for the unexpected (too little work demotivates most employees whereas a moderately too high workload often does have a motivating effect). In order to be competitive and to be able to offer your customers attractive offers a good balance between sufficient buffer for the unexpected and tight project planning is needed. The better you protect yourself with a well defined contract or quotation with a clear task description, the easier will it be to plan and conduct projects with relatively little risk.

7. Clear processes and responsibilities

Clear structures, processes and clearly defined responsibilities are crucial for a seamless work flow and a successful project finalization. Each involved party should know exactly what are its tasks and responsibilities. Otherwise, omissions and misunderstandings are very likely, following the motto "I thought Mr. XY will do that". Duties and responsibilities could also be written down and distributed among all involved personnel. Also common procedures should be defined, e.g. who has to be is informed in case of problems.
A clear communication of responsibilities of a project is also important, if the people involved in a project have direct contact with the customer.

8. Clear objectives and tasks

Only clearly defined tasks and objectives allow your employees to successfully conduct and complete their projects. If it has been only vaguely discussed what you and your client expect, a failure of the project is very likely. Additionally, your staff will probably also be demotivated, because despite of their efforts there work is not appreciated due to a vague definition of objectives and tasks. Clear instructions are also important for quality assurance. Only if it is clearly (and repeatedly) communicated which reports, analyses and other results are required, can the needed quality be achieved and maintained. To avoid confusion, the same instructions should apply to all involved people (or teams).

9. Regular meetings

Regular meetings usually have the objective to update the project managers or phase responsibles or to solve problems. Regular meetings help but also to prevent misunderstandings, especially at the beginning of a project. But meetings also help to prevent misunderstandings, especially at the beginning of a project. Regular meetings also provide an opportunity to repeat objectives, responsibilities, and procedures, if necessary, to make shure that instructions are not forgotten. Especially when implementing new processes or structures it may be necessary to remind your employees repeatedly. When projects are conducted by several teams, departments or even different companies, regular meetings (or at least video conferences) are particularly important. Such meetings are not only important to exchange technical knowledge or to solve problems, but also to get all participants to know each other personally. Familiarity with contact persons can greatly facilitate cooperation and prevent tensions between employees or teams. One should not underestimated potential rivalry and resulting conflicts. This may be less frequent within established teams, but it can be a huge problem when working with several teams, departments, or enterprises.

10. Project controlling

Controlling is an essential part of project management. It includes the controlling of the progress of project phases and possibly needed corrective measures to ensure a successful finalization. In several software solutions the projects status has to be entered as a percentage (percent work completed). The progress is estimated in regular intervals for each phase, e.g. by the Project Manager. However, estimating the progress in this way is quite time consuming and inaccurate, since the project manager usually has to spend a considerable time to gather information from all involved parties. Also, the people working directly on a phase know the phases status better than anyone and they can estimate the remaining work volume more easily and quickly. A further problem is that some information (such as unexpected changes that can lead to delays) are not always passed on to the project manager. This happens quite frequently, though often without intention, especially when workload is high, i.e. just when such information would be particularly important. For all these reasons, the progress of project phases is not entered manually as a percentage in ePro-SM, but it is calculated automatically based on the actual hours spent (from the time recording module) and the remaining estimed working hours. In addition, you can choose if phase responsibles shall re-estimate the remaining work needed for completion of a phase or the date of finalization in regular intervals (e.g. every other day or every week, etc.). This automatic calculation of the progress of projects allows the project manager to easly assess the status of his projects on a single click, reducing the time-consuming gathering of information from many people.
Also costs or expenses are part of project controlling, considering both planned and actual costs. Fortunately, it is often much easier to plan material costs (or costs for services by third parties) than to plan the needed work force for a project. A detailed project planning and clearly defined statements regarding additional costs (in the contracts with your customers) can prevent many problems regarding additional expenses for material.

11. Debriefing after project finalization

After the completion of a project you will certainly first analyze the actual and planned resources (working time and costs) to get an overview of the performance of your team and to be able to plan future projects better. Depending on the industry sector you may also want to get feedback from quality assurance. But also a debriefing with all involved employees or teams is extremely usefull for you as a project manager and also for your employees, as a debriefing is the best chance to learn from mistakes. If you use this chance consistently you can improve your performance and the performance of your team from project to project. A debriefing after the finalization of a project is also very important for your employees, not only in order to avoid problems in future projects, but also since a personal feedback from you as the project manager is also very important for motivation. Even if parts of a project did not went well, a personal feedback shows that the work of your employees or teams is considered important and that the improvement of their work is something you care about. A positive feedback does not only promote the satisfaction of employees with their job, but can also increase their future commitment.
A debriefing with your customers (as part of your after-sales management or marketing) can be very useful too. Often, you only learn through targeted questions, what a client liked or disliked in a project or with what he was particularly pleased. Such information can be considered in future projects or for your marketing, for example, by revealing how you can improve customer satisfaction or which measures have no impact and only take time or money.

12. Profit from ERP- and project management software

Even if purchasing or hiring a suitable software solution initially causes costs, take advantage of using good software. Just consider how many hours you or your project managers or the controlling department spends in a single year only for routine work that could actually be done by a computer. If you calculate these costs, you will quickly see that any software is much cheaper than the labour costs spent for such routine work.
When selecting a software for project management the first, principle question is if you would like to use several separate programs, for example a time tracking system and a separate project management tool, or whether you are rather looking for an ERP system (enterprise resource planning) in which all modules or functions are seamlessly interconnected (such as ePRO SM). The latter tools usually include modules for time tracking, project planning and management, HRM (human resource management), controlling and others.
An important aspect of software selection is the ease of use. If the daily work with your project management or ERP solution is complicated due to a hard to understand user interface, it is very unlikely that you or your employees will use the full functionality of the software. For establishing some software systems you may need up to several months until everything runs smoothly and everyone gets used to it. Therefore, the use should be intuitive or at least easy to learn. It is a good idea to become acquainted with all functions of a new software at the very beginning. Otherwise you may not use a functions which would save many hours each month, only because you don't know that it exists. Also, if you don't need a function at the moment then it is still good to know that such a function exisits, because you may need it in the fucture.
Another criterion for chosing project management (and also ERP software) is the question of whether your employees are working in different locations, i.e. whether a locally installed software is sufficient or whether you need a system that is accessible from anywhere. If employees need to access to your system from different locations or if they travel a lot, e.g. for submitting working time or accessing project data, then a server solution will probably be the best choice (i.e. programs are installed on a company server, but can be accessed from elsewhere over the internet). Alternatively, you can use online solutions (keyword "cloud computing"), which can also be reached from anywhere over the internet, but for which you don't need to install the software yourself on your server. Instead the software is run and maintained by a provider (for ePro-SM both a server version and an online version is available). Online solutions can usually be booked for a given number of users and a given time period, hence offering a large degree of flexibility.
Another category of project management software are pure desktop applications without a server connection, for example, for project planning. Since such programs can only be reached from a single computer, they are often of limited use.

No matter which software solution you choose, you will save a lot of time using the support of software and it will be much easier to keep an overview of your projects and to successfully finallize projects. Last but not least, the use of a software saves you and your employees a lot of stress. You will have have more time for important tasks, optimization and strategies. Finally, for most software you can request a trial version and test the functionality and ease of use of the relevant modules. If available, you should definitely make use of test, trial or demo versions.

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