As a supply chain manager, how do you spend your time? Managing day-to-day operations, addressing people challenges, budgeting, and fighting the inevitable fires might be top of mind. How about managing essential projects?

In our experience, these SCM initiatives are what drive a company’s supply chain performance to the next level. This could entail implementing a new WMS, building out a distribution network, or onboarding a new strategic supplier, for example. Even implementing a straightforward warehouse process improvement can be considered a project.

So it is not surprising that in our consulting work with middle-market company management we are often asked to assist supply chain leaders and their staff to become more effective project managers. And to reach better results faster. In this Brief we highlight seven tips to raise the bar on project management in your organization. The focus is on the practical, and what is often overlooked or underappreciated.

The seven tips

These tips have consistently proven helpful to supply chain managers in delivering the intended project outcomes on-time and on-budget.

  1. Clearly define the project objectives
    Too often we see vague objectives hampering the ability to prioritize and justify assigning scarce resources to the project or keeping the momentum going. A helpful way to ensure clearly defined objectives is to assign measurable key performance indicators and set specific targets that define success. This way the objectives are unambiguous.

  2. Assign leadership – business champions and supply chain-savvy project managers
    You need a business champion to take the lead – someone who recognizes the project’s value to their own organization, as well as to the company at large. The most effective business project leader links the project to strategic business goals and fosters communication with all stakeholders.

    For larger projects, experienced project managers draft and maintain the plan, coordinate resources, track progress, flag issues and initiate corrective actions before they can impact project timelines or expected results. The most effective project managers are both project management- and supply chain-savvy. These dual skillsets are scarce and in high demand. Providing project management training to your junior and mid-level supply chain staff can bridge this resourcing gap, often a challenge in mid-sized businesses.

    Alternatively, outside consultants can be engaged in project management roles. Larger organizations with high demand for skilled project managers seek to build internal capabilities staffed with experienced (and often PMP-certified[1]) project managers. Providing these project management professionals with supply chain know-how is a critical success factor, though. Having strong project management skills is necessary, but understanding the supply chain issues in the project scope enables the manager to be most effective.

  3. Select a project management tool that suits your specific situation
    The tip here is not to be lured into using a tool just because it has all the project management bells and whistles. Simple is usually best. Too often, middle-market companies attempt to use best-in-class project management software only to shift mid-stream to simpler tools. An overly complex solution cannot be justified if it’s too hard to update or for team members to access and understand.

    We recommend taking some time upfront to consider the best tool for the project and your organization. For some projects, simple spreadsheets or checklists can do the job quite effectively. For sure, larger more complex projects with dedicated project managers can benefit from best-in-class project management software. But be sure that training is provided to project managers and team members who will need to use the software.

  4. Clearly define each work task deliverable and who is responsible
    Establishing task-level accountability requires both a responsible party and a defined deliverable. Too often, project plans are vague, lacking task-level deliverables. Clearly defined deliverables give task leaders and team members actionable marching orders. Spending the time upfront – and engaging project stakeholders and team members – to define deliverables cannot be overemphasized; it also serves to build cross-functional buy-in.

  5. Address the exceptions
    Establish an appropriate project progress review meeting cadence, often weekly, and spend time on the exceptions. Project task leaders should come prepared to discuss them and recommend actions to get back on track. These decisions are at the core of the project management process and are the rightful focus of the progress review meetings. Exceptions to address include those tasks that are at high risk – taking decisions early to keep these on plan.

    Daily standup meetings are helpful during critical periods, for example, in the weeks just before going live with a new operation or supply chain system. These are intended to be short, 30 minutes or less, during which each task leader reports on the prior day’s accomplishments, the day’s goals, and highlights any red flags or decisions to be made.

  6. Communicate the plan with all stakeholders
    Effective project leaders and managers make extra efforts throughout the project’s lifecycle to share and explain the plan. This includes staff assigned to the project as well as stakeholders across the organization and relevant external partners. Benefits include buy-in and valuable feedback to refine objectives, deliverables, and other plan attributes. For some projects, the stakeholders may extend to suppliers and customers. Keeping them informed and engaged, as appropriate, on a timely basis yields the best outcomes.

    For senior management briefings, focus the presentation on a handful of key issues and decisions, with details in an appendix. Insert a few photos of the team’s tangible progress.

  7. Capture lessons learned
    Organizations with strong project management skills are also committed to continuous improvement – learning from past successes and missteps. These project post-mortem workshops aim to gather frank feedback from team members and stakeholders – the good, the bad and the ugly. For larger multi-phased projects, do not wait till the end of a project. Schedule these workshops for the end of each phase to enable more timely reflection and course corrections, as needed.

These tips are not a detailed playbook for managing a successful project. Yet they help, in our experience, to drive better results from just about any supply chain project.

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Contact us to explore how we can support your strategic, operational, and investment needs:

David Frentzel is a Partner at New Harbor Consultants. Dave brings 30 years of management consulting and hands-on executive leadership experience to improve business outcomes. Prior to joining New Harbor, he held various senior positions at 3PL and supply chain technology companies. Dave has extensive global management expertise helping companies with their go-to-market, organizational, sourcing, manufacturing and supply chain strategies and operations.

[1] Project Management Professional, see: Project Management Institute.