Resource management. It's a seemingly simple concept, yet one that continues to bedevil manufacturers as they race to bring new products to market. Get it wrong and six-month projects take nine months to complete, on-time delivery flies out the window, and work piles up on desktops. At an individual level, overworked engineers get burned out, stressed out, and possibly make mistakes that impact quality and certainly curtail productivity.
At its heart, resource management is the "process of balancing supply and demand in a product development setting," explains Eugene Kania, principal of mc2solutions, a Chicago-based consulting and training firm.
Several factors make it a challenge, including the variability of human beings. "In manufacturing, you have a fairly well-established capacity. You have a machine that spits out so many widgets an hour, and so you can figure out how many widgets you can make in a month," Kania says. "In product development, the machines are typically human beings, and they have varied capacity. Some problems are fairly simple to solve, and it doesn't take an engineer long to do that. Others are more challenging and can take three to four times longer to solve. So there's more variability."
Couple that variability with a tendency to overload human resources in an effort to meet customers' demands and the reality that managers don't always properly account for all the work in the system -- and problems in resource management are bound to ensue.
Kania says resource management in product development remains a challenge for many companies, regardless of their size. "There are certainly companies that are doing a good job of it, and they may not want to talk much about it because it's a competitive advantage," he says.
To do a better job at resource management, companies must measure their work-in-process levels and then take steps to manage those levels, the consultant says. But how?
Kania outlined a four-step approach to better resource management:
- Identify supply
- Identify demand
- Analyze the resource demand vs. the supply to understand where overloads exist
- Make adjustments. Potential adjustments include delaying projects, scaling back projects to reduce demand, killing a project or obtaining additional resources via methods such as outsourcing, partnering or hiring more people.
A second method to better resource management is to identify the constraining resource and then synchronize the flow of projects around that resource, Kania says.
For example, if the constraining resource in semiconductor development is the firmware skillset, then flow projects around that constraint.
Analyzing demand upon resources frequently provides a big "aha" moment for firms, Kania says. "One of the first things I do with clients is an analysis of where people are spending their time, and what you find is that there is a bucket called 'projects,'" he says. Management looks at that bucket and recognizes the number of projects and the time involved in each one.
"But there's also a bucket called 'nonprojects' and [management is] just amazed at how much work is involved. That's one of the keys -- recognizing that you have to look at all the work that is in your system."