According to a 2018 survey, at least 55% of product management teams do not have access to real-time key performance indicators (KPIs). Companies that rely on project management software deliver on-time and under-budget work more often than companies that don’t—but, the statistic above suggests that that too many companies are simply not taking advantage of the tools available to them.
The right software solution for managing complex project pipelines will let you track and visualize projects in such a way as to enable easy and complete visibility. This means unstopping stalled projects more quickly—but it also means easier KPI-tracking and optimization. This raises the question: what KPIs should you track when you’re managing complex, repetitive projects—and how should your tools add value for these processes?
1. Average Cycle Times
First things first, you’ll want to know how long it takes for given task or ticket to be completed, i.e. your cycle time. Certain project management programs can digest and compare similar tasks, and provide managers with the average time it takes to complete a certain type of task. Ideally, your team will be able to deliver consistent, rather than erratic, cycle times for comparable tasks. If this doesn’t seem to be the case, you might need to dig deeper into these tickets to figure out what’s going on. Or, this could be a sign that you are grouping tasks together that aren’t so alike, and you may want to adjust the way you organize and compound data to better understand your project’s progress.
With a critical glance at average cycle times, you and your team can gain a wider perspective of the work you’re all doing. You can also more easily identify trends, helping you to notice when your workers are spending a good deal of their time on repetitive processes that could be improved and streamlined, perhaps by template creation and automation. In looking at your team’s performance through this important metric, you can save both time and money in the future by exploring options such as:
- Accurately forecasting how long it will take to complete a bundle of remaining, comparable tasks
- Creating effective project management templates that can be reset and repeated
- Locating where automation could lighten your employees’ workload, allowing you to more efficiently complete tickets and repeat task processes, perhaps justifying expenditure on third-party solutions services
One potential pitfall here, however, is that many tools will only empower you to track cycle time for individual tasks. While this is valuable, it won’t necessarily give you the same kinds of insights that you would get from tracking cycle times for entire workflows or processes.
2. Workload Distribution
The art of managing a team is a complicated one. A good manager needs a sharp sense of each team member’s capabilities and limitations with an eye towards balancing workloads effectively. Studies has also shown that a balanced workload is key to team satisfaction. That said, a fair and strategic distribution of work does not mean an equal distribution of work, since one employee’s specialty may be more in demand than another’s, and not every employee is going to have the same amount of time per week to commit to the project.
Ultimately, this too comes down to your ability to monitor activity across the entire project pipeline. With a well-designed dashboard, you can monitor:
- Who’s responsible for which tasks and processes
- Which processes are blocked or delayed, and what resources have actually been devoted to those processes
- The amount of time estimated until a given task (e.g., a ticket, story, epic, sprint) will be finished, ideally tracked against the relevant SLA.
- The hard deadlines baked into your SLA, going backwards through every interconnected workflow.
From here, you can make informed analyses of project timing and forecasted costs, adjusting and improving the distribution of work as needed. Are your resources actually allocated to the processes where they’re most needed? Can overdue work be taken from one employee and assigned to another? If one resource is consistently more efficient than others, is she available to help get delayed processes back on track? You can’t answer these questions based on instinct alone—instead, you need full visibility into the entire pipeline.
This is about more than just distribution of internal resources. Sometimes, a talent shortage is beyond your control, but if you can see it coming in advance, you can take steps to address is proactively: e.g. by teaming up with a nearshore services provider that has expertise in your particular area.
3. Sequential Progress, Lag Time, and Dependencies
Often, there will be a gap between when a team completes one milestone of a project and moves on to another. Of course, these pauses are sometimes caused by reasons beyond your control, such as external client or legal approval—but many gaps like this occur simply because there’s no automatic way to initiate the subsequent set of tasks, or because it’s not clear exactly when a particular workflow has actually been completed. To fight this, you need two things:
- A comprehensive pipeline view that sketched out dependencies between workflows
- Automation that enables you to spin up new process pipelines as soon as certain criteria are met
A deeper, more comprehensive view helps you focus on managing a project not so much as a disparate constellation of to-do lists, but as a workflow process composed of numerous blocks of tasks, some of which are dependent on others. This is where it’s useful to have a project management tool that allow you to create workflow templates that can be copied, filled, completed, and repeated. Ideally, your team will be able to integrate your existing ticket management infrastructure with more comprehensive and organized project management software. There’s nothing too novel about many these productivity principles—they have much in common with the Industrial Revolution innovations of the assembly line and the division of labor (the Kanban board as a concept actually originates with Toyota’s car manufacturing practices)—but with the help of the right project management tools, developers and managers alike can be better equipped to think of their project in its fullest form, as a composition of interrelated tasks—less like a grocery list, and more like a pipeline.
This helps protect you from some of the pitfalls of relying solely on ticket management: if you can’t visualize the way that the tickets connect, individual delayed tasks might not stand out too boldly—even when they’re the linchpins of an entire dependent process whose delayed completion could be hugely problematic.
4. Labor Hours Spent
Sometimes, the most rudimentary and obvious metrics are also the most value. It’s essential to be in touch with the time your workers are actually spending on their tasks, for everything from making your team more productive, to preparing for coverage when a team member goes on vacation.
When it comes to the amount of time your engineers, developers, marketers, and other staff spend on work, there are plenty of metrics you can (and should) look at:
- Hours spent per employee per month
- Whether a team member completes a certain type of ticket more efficiently (such that you can play to their strengths in the future)
- Anticipated time remaining for the completion of one or more service-level agreements
- If you have an agile project, the time each employee spends on-call, responding to spontaneous issues such as bugs and client inquiries, so that you don’t burn out you workers with incidental issues you haven’t budgeted into your standard distribution of work
- Similarly, if you run an agile project prone to incidental tasks and requests, you will want to calculate your team’s mean time to acknowledge (MTTA) and mean time to resolve (MTTR) such issues, to see how well you meet you and your client’s service-level agreements
Analyzing and reengineering your key performance indicators is an important part of all sorts of contemporary projects, from software refactorings and cloud migrations, to research and marketing campaigns. But it takes a lot of talent and human ingenuity to make the most of them, both before a project begins—in the difficult work of knowing what data to track and how to digest it—and once a project is underway, where it becomes your responsibility to take in and analyze the right data and the right time to keep everything on track. By using the right tools to track the right metrics, you can create a virtuous circle of improved tracking and improved performance over time. The end result? Reduced costs and improved on-time performance.