Top 3 Reasons To Love & Hate EXCEL For Project Management In Engineering NPDs


What is the most commonly used project management tool for new product development? Having researched the web extensively and talked to several founders I am convinced that the most popular project management tool used is Excel.  It is easy to see why, because the alternates are woefully lacking in meeting new product development needs.

There are three types of project management tools available in general, these are;

Task Managers: In their simplest form these are “to do” list tools like base camp or trello. They have been around from the time of the first palm pilot. The more sophisticated task managers are automated Gantt chart tools like Smartsheet.

Conventional Project management tools: The boom in construction in the early to mid 19th century lead to the development of project management as a science. Hence conventional project management tools revolve around the needs of managing man, machine and money in construction / civil industry. Examples are Primavera and MS project. They have features for adding dependencies and resource levelling, critical path analysis etc. generally non value added features for startups and new product development teams.

Agile Project Management: In the modern day, the development of large IT projects lead to specialization of agile methodologies like SCRUM suited for IT. The number and variety in automated agile PM tools for software development merits its own category.

None of the currently available project management tools meet the true needs of a new product development team. Task managers partly address most needs related to visually managing tasks. And smart Gantt chart tools like smartsheet are the closest to what a new product development team needs. But they are not free. Hence, it still remains that most commonly used tool is excel. Though it is not a free tool, it comes bundled with office package.

Ease of Use, Flexibility and Scalability are the top three features excel that make it great for Project management

The top three features for Excel that makes it so popular for new product development;

  1. Easy to use: Practically zero learning curve. No special skills required and everyone is very familiar with excel.
  2. Flexibility: Project managers can customize the spreadsheet to their use easily. You can easily define the data fields or column headings, sort by field titles (example: view tasks by owners or past due tasks etc).
  3. Scalability: Excel can be scaled to many things more than a simple list. For example, if you are familiar with the A3 concept of project management (promoted by Toyota the creator of the lean principles). Excel is the best way to create a powerful A3 form. Another way to scale is to customize with macros. If you have the luxury of having a smart young engineer with Visual Basic skills (most are familiar with this) you can take your excel PM application to the next level with macros. At this time it starts becoming closer to automated Gantt chart application described above.

Excel or any Project Management Tool fails new product development teams in not providing Strategic Alignment, Intelligent diagnostics and promotion of team collaboration for accountability.

Excel works great for startups and new product development, but the real reason teams resort to excel is because there is not a custom software tool that is designed for their needs. So let’s look at the top three unmet requirements for new product development teams;

  1. Strategic Alignment: There is more to do than the resources to get everything done. In a world of uncertainty, the objectives and goals of strategic project management is to be lean and agile. Agile is to be flexible – team activity should adjust very quickly to changes in goals and objectives (these are the strategic needs). Lean is to eliminate waste – any actions that is not required or prioritized is wasted effort and time. Both are extremely precious in a high performance team. In short – Excel and Gantt chart tools do not deliver Strategic Project Management. Strategic Project Management = Project Management + Strategic alignment
  1. Intelligence and diagnostics: Do you know how well your team execution was in the last quarter or month? How do you measure team execution? Can you tell who was your #1 execution driver? and who was the weak link? Can you tell what project objectives and goals got the most momentum? Do you know if your team spent effort on the right tasks, or more importantly on the wrong tasks?

This is not possible with any of the existing Project Management tools currently available and not just Excel.

  1. Collaboration for accountability: Did you think this was about team messaging and file sharing? No, while these are important features, they are too shallow to warrant standing on their own. Every good platform of any type should have these – it is an expectation (commodity). I want to stress the importance of “Buy-in” and the habit of accountability. Buy-In creates ownership and promotes accountability. It is Project Management’s responsibility to communicate and get buy in on the goals & objectives and responsibilities. I don’t want to pick on excel but usually project management tools do not proactively promote accountability and facilitate making it a habit.

These are my personal thoughts and opinions. I hope you liked this article. I love to hear from you all if you agree or disagree.

Here’s a quick preview on the “Entroids Way”  which enables your NPD teams work on more important & fun engineering activities rather than constantly updating the Gantt Charts as part of project management chores.

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