Mitigating manufacturing’s biggest productivity killer

In 2009, Trek Bicycles brought on a team of full-time project managers to oversee workloads with the goal of increasing efficiency. Yet basic project visibility remained elusive because

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teams continued to use a broad array of disparate-project management tools, from Microsoft Project and Excel spreadsheets to PowerPoint slides and Word documents to Enovia project approval software. On top of excessive tools and low visibility, project managers were spending an estimated 30 percent of their time manually retyping timeline items into emails, sending them out to team members, and collecting the results, which they presented during status meetings held two to three times a week.

Without visibility and coordination, Trek experienced bottlenecks that affected production so much that a significant percentage of its products rolled off the assembly line late. This resulted in Trek missing time-sensitive go-to-market dates and crucial revenue opportunities.

The company needed a way to connect its teams and capture project data, or risk repeating the same costly product-delivery-under-performance year after year.

Trek began implementing Workfront's automation solution in 2009, using a single platform for project updates, communication and reporting. Within months, the bicycle company saw improved visibility, increased productivity, more “free time” for employees to think creatively, and reported an increase in on-time product-delivery rate from 50 percent to 80 percent, generating millions in new revenue. (Check out the video that details the initiative here.)

Let’s talk through some of the lessons learned from Trek’s integration of automated project-management technology that improved its manufacturing timelines.

Gain real-time visibility

As mentioned earlier, Trek employees were meeting two to three times a week just to review status updates. We know that today’s workers only spend 44% of their workweek on their primary job duties, but work automation tools can completely eliminate these mundane meetings and give people time back in their day to do the job they were hired to do.

But just because we aren’t meeting every day to discuss the status of projects, doesn’t mean production managers don’t have an idea of what’s going on around them. It’s quite the opposite.

Through automated resource-scheduling tools, manufacturers can implement automatic status updates from team members that offer real-time visibility on the status of deliverables and give live pictures of products. Team leads can even see if employees are overworked, if shared resources are diminishing or if deadlines in sub-tasks are not being met, so they can adjust accordingly and prevent surprises.  

Project leads can also give relevant stakeholders the means to see what is happening with specific, requested goods/services/products on their project. For example, Trek is able to send real-time progress updates by sharing a permanent link that gives visibility into a full team’s work.

Stay more agile than the rest

Because Trek’s revenue hinges on the timely introduction of new models to market, it needed to actually be agile, not just talk agile. Manufacturers involved in seasonal projects, such as outdoor sporting equipment, know how important it is to stay flexible in the summer months when demand is high and resources can easily get stretched.

With automated agile dashboards (like the one below), Trek was able to make adjustments on time without the administrative challenges that typically accompany agile practices, such as managing a team backlog and creating iterations.

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All project managers know that changes in budget, customer goals, engineering, marketing, physical resources (I could go on) will inevitably change throughout development. According to a recent Forrester report, being able to see and trust this information as it develops is critical to the decision-making process. Delivering innovative products to market, ahead of the competition, can only be accomplished when decision-makers have visibility into all changes across all departments and can translate disparate pieces of information into meaningful, timely and accurate business insights.

In the past, it was up to managers to manually determine if people or resources were stretched thin. But now, automated resource-scheduling tools enable us to stay fluid, connecting the right people to the right work with the click of a button.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

Manual processes, excessive tools and unnecessary meetings suck up the time we have to do our actual job, but there are other barriers to innovation many organizations still struggle with.

One of those barriers to creative thinking is scattered work or a missing “hub” of information that is easily referenced by team members from project to project. Manufacturers can stay sane and work more freely when all their work is in one place, automatically consolidating content and tasks across departments, functions and roles.

One great example of how automated resource management can streamline a project is resource templates. Templating repeatable work allows teams to reference past projects for tasks they repeat often. This provides teams with a way to capture all of the repeatable processes, information and settings associated with a project, including tasks, assignments, durations, documents, financial details, risks and custom forms. 

Keep tabs on resources and employees

Because Trek had such a distributed network of teams around the globe (that were all using many different tools to manage work), it was nearly impossible to properly manage resources and align team efforts. When we spoke with one project manager at Trek, she told us she believed employees just assumed the supply of shared resources was endless, adding that “suddenly, there would be no resource to work on your project and you couldn’t do anything about it.”

We see the impact of poor resource and people management often in manufacturing. For example, on a much larger scale, we saw what poor resource planning did to Apple’s production line in China during the release of the iPhone 6, where reports surfaced of employees working six days a week in 12-hour shifts, on top of extremely low wages.

Resource and “people planning” technology can be used to automate work assignments and project decisions, while helping to justify the need to hire. For example, since Trek puts every one of their bikes through rigorous examination before being released, bottlenecking can quickly become a problem for the test lab teams. But with automated updates throughout the organization, program managers at Trek can now notify the lab about upcoming projects with enough lead time for the lab to bring on additional resources to support the influx of work.

Embrace automation

Automating workflows—such as automated project creation, approval workflows, critical-compliance workflows and automated updates and notifications—has allowed manufacturing companies like Trek to avoid costly production lags or failures. In fact, since Workfront started working with Trek, it reported an increase in on-time product delivery rate from 50 percent to 80 percent, generating millions in new revenue and increased productivity. Better management of resources also gave its team members 30 percent of their time back for innovation and significantly reduced meeting time and unnecessary oversight.

Manufacturers should never have to make a tradeoff between deadlines and quality. The power of real-time collaboration and automation is at work throughout all points of the production process, from R&D to on-site delivery. To avoid lags in productivity, poor resource scheduling/foresight and costly go-to-market mishaps, consider investing in automated work process tools.

Steven ZoBell is the Chief Product & Technology Officer at Workfront