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How to improve staff productivity in engineering services

The recent UK Budget yet again highlighted static productivity levels as the main drag on economic growth. Whilst the current high levels of employment are to be welcomed, this seems to be at the cost of productivity improvement. As Greg Clarke, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, reminded us recently “It takes people in Germany four days to produce what people in the UK take five days to produce. And that means that they can pay themselves better, or they need to work fewer hours ….This is a long standing challenge of the British economy…”

Whilst all agree that greater investment in more modern infrastructure and technology is crucial, each industry sector faces its own challenges. So what productivity issues face the engineering services sector and how can they be addressed?

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Managing multiple projects with a limited pool of resources faces its own particular productivity challenges.  Individual project plans are, at best, a guesstimate of the effort that will be required to deliver the project commitments. Unless the project is very similar to what’s gone before, the levels of confidence in the project estimate can be well short of 100%.

In a multi-project environment, productivity levels depend on the utilization of project staff across all projects. In predicting the overall skills demand, the uncertainties of each project estimate are compounded into what can be a notably inaccurate picture. There is a real risk of the subsequent workforce planning becoming a house of cards.

So how can engineering services firms get a grip on this volatile mix? Steps need to be taken to increase the confidence in individual project plans if the workforce plan is to stand a chance. The skills capacity must be kept in balance with the overall project demand, if high productivity levels are to be achieved.

Better project estimating is therefore a fundamental building block, and best practice requires the following:

Project scope must be carefully defined and all major risks identified

Sufficient time and effort must be spent on specifying the project’s deliverables; only when each of these has been properly understood and agreed can the scope of work (SoW) be developed. It should be structured around the key deliverables.

The SoW should identify the major project risks. As well as quantifying their potential time and cost impact, the steps that can reduce their impact should also be set out. A prioritised list will keep the project manager’s attention correctly focused.

Estimating metrics from previous projects should be used to produce more consistent project plans.

Measuring project progress

Once the project has started, the prudent project manager will use their resource management software for early warning of deviation from the plan. This gives time for corrective action to be taken. Simply comparing the actual effort spent (timesheets) with that planned can be very misleading, without a separate estimate of what’s been achieved – the earned value.

Whenever the project estimate is shown to be unrealistic, a re-estimate should be triggered. The estimate is the yardstick for measuring project progress, so must be updated whenever it is found wanting.

These simple steps can dramatically improve confidence in individual project plans. If applied consistently to every project, the overall cross project demand will be on firm foundations. Now that workforce planning has a solid target to aim for, productivity levels should be on the rise.

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