How to Keep Your Contract Engineers on Task and Performing
By: Leslie Stevens-Huffman
Contractor performance is critical to delivering engineering projects on-time and on-budget. However, even highly talented veterans may veer off course when they’re unfamiliar with the environment and the engineering process.
“Inevitably, there’s something missing from the requirements,” notes project management guru, Ray Sheen, president and founder of Product & Process Innovation, Inc. “And contractors who are unfamiliar with your engineering process and standards may not catch the omission, unless managers check in with them frequently.”
Anticipate and plan
Examine each phase in the lifecycle to see where something could go wrong. Perhaps the software development schedule is so aggressive, it leaves no room for emergencies, vendor delays or transition time as contractors with various specialties enter and leave the project.
Most deadline, scope, quality and resource issues can be mitigated through detailed planning, notes Sheen. And those that can’t be alleviated should be negotiated so the project has a fighting chance to succeed.
Unspoken assumptions, unclear communications and vague specifications lead to disconnects, errors and costly rework. Sheen’s favorite example involves a design specification for lead-free paint that was mistakenly interpreted by an overseas manufacturing team as a requirement for lead-based paint at no charge!
“It’s virtually impossible for engineering managers to over-communicate, especially when they’re trying to coordinate the efforts of a diverse, global team,” says Sheen.
Plan on spending extra time reviewing the scope of work, process and standards when working with new contractors. If you’re dealing with global teams, ask interpreters to review documents and attend meetings.
Employ a bite-size work authorization process
It’s easy for contractors and full-time engineers to get out of synch when they work on big projects with lots of moving parts and different delivery dates. Break down the scope of work into small bites and authorize only two to three weeks of work to keep one engineer from getting too far ahead, while another falls behind.
Listen and inspect
Check for understanding by asking contractors to show you their work as they progress. Co-located managers should schedule five to ten minute meetings to answer questions and ensure that some incredibility talented but inquisitive design engineer hasn’t become distracted by a bright and shiny challenge that is unrelated to the project. Remote managers should use brief, but regularly scheduled, online meetings to review drawings or code.
“You won’t know whether a contractor truly understands the requirements unless you review their work throughout the assignment,” says Sheen. “Plus, your visits will provide reassurance and boost the contractor’s confidence – because no one likes baptism by fire.”
Fail early, fail fast
You can encounter big problems if you wait until the end of a project to test the code or prototype.
Integrate testing throughout the entire lifecycle so you can make course corrections, provide feedback and keep talented contractors on task and performing.
The truth is, that it’s not just contract engineers that need detailed requirements, frequent communication and so on. These practices benefit every member of the team.