Stop Overloading Engineers, While Increasing Project Throughput

by John Carter

Stop Overloading Engineers, While Increasing Project Throughput

Scenario: WebCo, a company with about 200 contributors, was having trouble keeping projects on schedule. An analysis of the root causes showed that engineers worked long days. Many of these workdays included many meetings that were not about their highest priority project. The VP of Engineering suspected that her staff were getting stretched too thin. She did some quick research, counting the number of projects each staff member was juggling day-to-day. She then did some quick math and created the table below.

The table showed that three-quarters of her staff were working on three or more projects. Fifteen percent were juggling five or six projects. Too much of valuable contributor time was occupied with meetings and communications related to too many different projects. This is non-value-added time, time spent on activities that are not in the core skill set of the engineering contributor. Something had to give.

Plotting a curve that maps value-added time over the number of parallel projects per engineer, researchers found a sweet spot. The peak occurs between projects 1 and 2. At that number of projects-per-person, 65% of an engineer’s time is spent adding value to projects. Other research shows that multi-tasking is largely mythical. There’s a costly segment of time lost when an engineer changes focus to another project. The throughput of the system is faster and more efficient when contributors work on no more than two projects at a time.

Project Efficiency

We’ve leveraged this research to create a tool called the Project Efficiency Chart that helps managers visualize project overload. It uses the curve determined by research to estimate the amount of time a project team has available to create work output, based on the number of projects assigned to each person. First, count the number of projects the engineering function is working on. Count everything, big or small. Tiny projects that take less than 5 percent of anyone’s time, can be bundled together. Determine the number of projects each person is juggling. Typically, the total will be between one and seven projects per person.

Create a histogram based on a table like the one WebCo’s VP of Engineering made above, with the percentage of people who are working on between one and six projects. Then compare this histogram to the ideal curve identified by the research to create a Project Efficiency Chart like the one below. It will help you to predict the average value-added contribution of your organization across all functions. Your organization can then rethink the priority list, perhaps delaying some projects. It’s counter-intuitive but corroborated by research and experience: reducing the number of projects per engineer increases the throughput of the organization. Ideally, engineers should have no more than two projects on their desks at a time, one large and one small.

Project Efficiency

The tables and tools we have described above provide a visual map of functions on “overload.” We find that most managers are blind to the negative program management consequences of project overload. They may continue to insist that “more is more.” But if the goal is speeding new products to market “more” is not necessarily better. Management needs to balance and normalize workloads to maximize efficiency, improve morale, and keep valuable talent around, for many successful projects to come.

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John CarterJohn Carter has been a widely respected adviser to technology firms over his career. John is the author of Innovate Products Faster: Graphical Tools for Accelerating Product Development. As Founder and Principal of TCGen Inc., he has advised some of the most revered technology firms in the world.

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