Managing the flow of work effectively and staying on top of the obstacles that hinder your performance is the cornerstone to avoiding project delays.

If you’ve committed to a project deadline and along the way you’ve realized you won’t be able to make it, you should evaluate all the options on the table. Often, the initial reaction that comes to mind is to ask your team to work overtime to make sure they meet their commitment or alternatively involve more people. Well, if these are your typical responses, you ought to ask yourself whether the problem lies in a lack of capacity? Chances are it doesn’t. 

If the work is not clearly defined, if it is blocked due to external dependencies, if the team is multitasking and they are constantly being interrupted (just to name a few of the most common impediments that cause delays) then pushing people to work harder or increasing your capability won’t help you achieve your goal. 

In order to better understand what the problem is, you need to look under the surface and reveal the root causes that are hindering your performance.

5 Tips for Managing Your Work Effectively to Avoid Project Delays

Let’s explore our 5 top tips for staying on track and avoid project delays.

1. Manage Realistic Expectations

It is essential that you use a reliable approach to make your future predictions. This is the most effective way to manage realistic expectations. Regardless of whether you’re forecasting the delivery date of a project with a fixed scope or you’re planning your next release, always remember that the future is not deterministic. There are always multiple possible outcomes that we could possibly end up with. There is no model that provides a single certain delivery prediction.

When making your commitments you should take advantage of the tools at your disposal, like Monte Carlo simulations, that will help you communicate delivery predictions in terms of a range of outcomes and the probability that comes with meeting each of them. Ultimately, the most important question you need to answer is: how much risk are you willing to take?

From then on, make sure you regularly reevaluate your forecast over time. Your performance will change as you deliver more work and you gain new information. So, it is crucial to account for that and adjust your course accordingly.

2. Keep Your Finger on the Pulse of Your Work (Not Your Workers)

Now that you’ve set realistic expectations and you have a solid understanding of the confidence level of meeting your goal, you should manage the flow of work to make sure you stay on track and avoid project delays.

A word of caution before we move on! You should focus on managing the work and not the workers. The approach of “stop starting and start finishing” is crucial to reducing delivery times and keeping your commitments. At the moment you find yourself assigning work to individuals or asking questions like “What is taking so long?”, you’re one step away from single-handedly disrupting the flow of work and compromising the efficiency of your system. Always remember that optimizing individuals’ performance contradicts the optimization of the workflow performance.

The most straightforward way to stay on track with your commitments and enable a supportive environment is to figure out which work items are the ones that are getting delayed, and what are the impediments that are slowing you down. That’s where the Aging Chart comes into play.

Manage your work in progress to avoid project delays

The Aging Chart will show you how much time each individual work item stayed in progress and where in the process it currently resides. The chart uses the exact same visual format as your board (with dots representing tasks in progress). The dotted horizontal lines stretching across the chart are called percentile lines and they draw out a timeline of how your work items have moved through the process in the past. We use percentiles to define our service level agreements (SLA) and the probability that comes with each of them.

Pay attention to any dots that just moved closer to the percentile that represents the probability you committed to. These are the work items that are most likely to be delayed, so you need to act upon them quickly.

3. Manage the Flow of Work Effectively

To avoid project delays, you should embrace the fact that not everything may go as planned. Knowledge work is notorious for its unpredictable manner, unexpected and surprising things happen all the time. Regardless, you should still be able to manage the flow of work effectively to be able to meet your commitments.

Every work item that is close to the percentile that you used to define your SLA (as well as all the items that already crossed that line) are potential candidates for your further examination.

Now, it’s time to analyze your work and determine what’s the best course of action. If you support a Kanban pull system and your delayed work items stay in a queue state waiting to be pulled, it’s worth revisiting your pull policies and adjusting them accordingly. From a predictability perspective, the best approach you can apply is to pull the items with the highest age first. That way, you emphasize the importance of handing items that stayed in the process longer than others first, effectively reducing your overall delivery times.

In our Sustainable Predictability program, we reveal all the approaches to effective work management that enable you to maintain stable delivery systems and make reliable delivery predictions in just a couple of minutes.

Now, if your team is already working on the items, there is no point in adding additional pressure by rushing it further. Pushing people to work harder is never the solution. By forcing teams to go beyond their limits, the only thing you manage to achieve is intentionally overburdening your people which, in terms of outcomes, results in low-quality results and unhappy people who eventually quit.

The smarter solution here is to relieve the people working on the delayed work from all the other activities that could be re-delegated or discarded altogether. You can also allocate some of your other team members with more available capacity to help out to enable the work to move forward quickly.

4. Increase Your Capacity

If the low-effort improvements have been attempted but unsuccessful, you may need to invest extra capital into eliminating the source of delay. This could involve spending on better equipment, involving more people or providing additional training, for example. You should look at increasing your capacity. To help you choose the right option for you, here are some strategies you may go for: 

  • Get feedback from your team during your meetings and put forward their ideas.
  • Reallocate people from different teams or give existing staff additional skills training.
  • Look into purchasing new software, tools, and equipment.
  • Always keep in mind that this is a long-term solution.

In fact, most managers jump on this step right away, even though it is much more time-consuming and expensive. But, it shouldn’t be your first point of call. 

After all, what usually happens when new people join a team is your performance will go down at the beginning. Your new team members need to be onboarded on the project’s ins and outs, the management practices and policies. So they will take up a significant amount of attention from the people tasked with the delayed work. 

5. Identify Opportunities for Improvement

At the end of the day, make sure you always evaluate what hindered your ability to deliver on time. Analyze your past performance data and identify the sources of delays – this could be unclear requirements, internal/external dependencies, expedite requests, defects, just to name a few. Carefully assess the reasons that prevented you from keeping your work on track and take appropriate actions immediately. 

Identifying opportunities for improvement and adjusting your management practices accordingly is the bedrock of business agility. The more problems you reveal, the more opportunities you will have to improve your delivery workflow and avoid project delays.

Setting realistic expectations is the first step towards project success. Once the work is started, you should manage it effectively to make sure you stay on track and deliver results in a predictable manner. 

Finally, tackling the impediments on your system and continuously optimizing your delivery workflow for predictability is what will ultimately enable you to deliver on time, every time!

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