If you are looking to create product faster, the first step is a well developed and managed product development schedule. Below are the basic steps to creating a schedule. The smaller the organization, the easier the process. Larger organizations will need to gather information from a large variety of people and departments. The time is well spent because those same individuals will later be supporters and can help explain how and why the schedule was built.
Start by listing all tasks that must be completed. Set some guidelines for the size of tasks that will be included, depending upon the complexity of your development process. If you get too detailed, the schedule will become difficult to manage. If you do not include enough detail, an important task might be overlooked. Think in terms of tasks that take days or weeks, not hours.
One person cannot be responsible for the task list. Pull together people from various roles that are involved in the process. Brainstorm with the whole group. A good method is to have everyone list the tasks that they perform on sticky notes and put them up on a wall to see. Later you will start to put them in order.
Estimate Task Durations
You will need an estimated time duration for each task. Gather initial estimates in the brainstorm session but you will want to validate. Do a historical evaluation against previous product development schedules. Hopefully, you tracked if tasks were completed on time and therefore how long they really lasted. You can also survey an expert group. Remember when asking experts that personal experiences will influence responses. Those who work directly on the task, may overestimate hoping to get more time. Management may underestimate the time their team needs in order to please a leader. Using a three point estimate can alleviate biases. By asking for the most likely, optimistic, and pessimistic estimates; you will receive a clearer picture.
Determine Task Dependencies
Now you need to determine which tasks must take place before others can start. For instance, garments must be sketched by designers before the technical designers assign measurements. Sometimes tasks do not have to be finished before the next can be started. For instance, a two week task (D) may only need to be 50% complete before the next (E) can start. Record that the start of task (E) can lag behind the start of (D) by one week.
Again, lay the tasks out visually so a group can brainstorm and validate the dependencies. Once finalized you can assign a task number and record the dependencies like the table below. This information will help you with data entry if you use a software tool to create your schedule.
Visualize the Schedule
Use Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) to create a diagram which will allow you to visualize the critical path and near critical paths. The PERT diagram below was created by entering the above task list, predecessors, and durations into a software tool.
The tasks that add up to the longest sequence form the critical path. There is no slack on the critical path. If a task is late the whole schedule is delayed unless a later task can be shortened. Treat the critical path like the artery of your schedule. Keep that path healthy!
You will also want to identify if you have any near critical paths. For instance if the schedule is 36 weeks long and there is a 2nd sequence of events only one week shorter than the critical path, you will also need to manage that path to avoid delays. In the above PERT diagram the yellow tasks indicate the critical path. The fit review process is a near critical path as it ends only three days before fabric production. Both the fabric production and fit review 2 tasks must be complete before garment production can start.
You will also create a Gantt chart. A software tool may help you place your schedule into a calendar and recognize limitations such as weekends and holidays. The Gantt chart is the tool I suggest sharing with the product development team. Each task can be assigned to a resource, so teams or individuals understand which tasks they own. By assigning resources you can also recognize if any resources are overloaded.
The Importance of Milestones or Gates
The example schedule has three tasks that are milestones: Start, Prototype Review Meeting, End. The equivalent milestone meeting in your organization might be called line review meeting, development meeting, product review meeting, etc. The purpose is a report on the status of development and to insure everyone agrees on the direction of the product line. You can see in our schedule example that a pause is created as multiple development processes feed into the meeting and no production processes can continue until after the meeting. Creating a milestone allows for the status of development to be analyzed at this point and manages the risk that work is being done that will need to be changed. This can also be referred to as a gate. Either it opens and you continue work or it stays closed until issues can be corrected.
There are many scheduling software tools available, many of which are free. Many organizations already use a tool like Microsoft Project and a few PLM systems such as YuniquePLM by Gerber Technology have built scheduling tools into the software. WhichPLM describes this advantage well in this article. Other PLM tools commonly include workflow tracking or task management, but may not include schedule planning tools. There are also several open source software tools for project scheduling. I do not recommend trying to manually create a product development schedule in Excel when more automated options are available. Regardless of the software tool used, remember that the person using the tool needs to understand the theory behind building the schedule. The software tool can’t replace good management skills.
If you have multiple product development schedules that overlap, you will want to look for a software tool that allows you to view overlap between the schedules. For instance, if you develop for multiple seasons / product releases and development of the next starts before the previous is finished. This is true for most of the apparel industry. Project management refers to this level as Program Management (management of a portfolio of projects).
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