Controlling is often a misunderstood management function. In everyday use, we use the term “controlling” to mean manipulating or limiting other’s behavior. Yet in engineering management, project management, and new product development (NPD), controlling is an important process that helps the team leader assess the performance of a project and of his or her team.
Definition of Controlling
Let’s define controlling as follows, consistent with the American Society of Engineering Management (ASEM).
“A management function of measuring performance and comparing the results with established standards to ensure that the work conforms to requirements and brings a desired outcome.”
Defined in this way, controlling is a critical function that assures work meets expectations. If at any time, the project outcomes are not meeting expectations, we make adjustments to bring the product or project work into alignment with the plan.
Steps in Controlling
There are typically four steps that product and project managers follow in controlling.
- Set a baseline,
- Measure performance,
- Compare the baseline against performance measures, and
- Take corrective action as necessary.
Set a Baseline
In project management and NPD, setting baselines for performance should be easy. In reality, however, setting baselines requires substantial planning effort on behalf of the project leader. The baseline must reflect the best outcome of project planning. Principles of project management dictate that during the initiation phase, the project leader and team members identify requirements from all project stakeholders. Gathering and documenting project requirements ensures that stakeholder expectations can be met.
In innovation projects, customer needs are documented in the PIC (product innovation charter). During all stages of the structured NPD process, the innovation project team will test customer needs to ensure alignment with the product design. One way in which to map customer needs to engineering design specs is to use the QFD tool (quality function deployment). Read more about process design here.
In Step 2 of controlling, we measure the performance of engineering and project teams. Here, both individual and team member performance are assessed as well as the project requirements. For example, if a new product development project had a customer requirement to increase battery life by 50%, the engineering team would measure all new battery designs against the performance standard. A new battery with just 20% increase in lifetime would be inadequate, while a battery with a life that is 48% longer is considered a successful technology. The project is approved when it meets the technical hurdles and would move along in the NPD process.
Compare Baseline Against Performance
In Step 3 of controlling, the project leader and project team members assess the project performance by comparing current design elements against the baseline set forth in the project plan. It is important to ensure that the baseline and product performance requirements are measurable so that this comparison is meaningful. Objectives are stated in measurable terms and metrics are gathered without difficulty or subject to opinion or interpretation.
Again, for instance, battery life extension of 50% is measurable. The initial battery in the current product demonstrates an average of 3-hour life before requiring a recharge. Sample batteries in lab tests demonstrate 4-hour, 4.2-hours and 4.4-hours. These data points are easy to compare to the initial product performance level. The product development and innovation teams strive for measurable goals and objectives to improve customer satisfaction.
Take Corrective Action
At the heart of the controlling process is the idea that correcting errors early leads to higher quality products and that the development effort will be less expensive overall. Thus, the final step in the controlling function is to take action based on analysis of the data from Step 3. In the case where performance matches expectations and baseline plans, no action is required.
Frequently, controlling will reveal that a project is over-budget and/or behind schedule. In these situations, the project manager and sponsor must work with the customer to modify the plan. Some tools are available to help accomplish the work within the required time frame, but these schedule adaptations normally require additional costs (e.g. crashing and compression). Further, missing the timeline for a new product launch can impact the overall profitability of an innovative new product.
In engineering management, project management and new product development, controlling is an important management function. The four steps in controlling are: (1) set a baseline, (2) measure performance, (3) compare the baseline against performance, and (4) take corrective action as appropriate. To learn more about the controlling function and other ways to improve new product project execution, you must earn your New Product Development Professional (NPDP) certification. Check out our training and speaking schedule for innovation and project management here.
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