Trek Bicycle rides project management tool to efficiency

By Stephanie Overby, CIO |  Software, project management

It's that time of year when bicycle season begins in the northern hemisphere, and bike sales heat up right along with the weather. For companies like Trek Bicycle, it's a critical time of year. Because the cycling market is largely seasonal, its critical to get new products to market on time.

Until recently, that was a challenge for Trek. Responsibility for on-time product launches was spread out among functions including product management, engineering, industrial design, and marketing and around the world from company headquarters in Waterloo, Wisc., to Germany, Holland, China, and Taiwan. And -- quite literally -- no one was on the same page.

Each group had their own set of preferred tools, from Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides to Word. Updates travelled by email, phone, word of mouth, or -- sometimes -- not at all.

Individual projects managers -- often product engineers who begrudgingly took on the role in addition to their full-time job designing bikes and related gear -- spent as much as a third of their time manually retyping timeline items from one system or another into emails to send out to team members or cobbling together reports for executives. Teams were forced to attend staff meetings several times a week in an attempt to keep abreast of project statuses.

[Related: 11 Project Management Tips for Setting and Managing Expectations]

The lack of visibility resulted in missing time-sensitive go-to-market dates for a significant percentage of Trek products. Not knowing when a new product -- quite possibly a replacement for an existing item--would land could result in excess inventory and increased discounting -- or lack of inventory. Marketing and sales groups weren't able to effectively plan promotions and events. And when a hot new product didn't make it to retailers on time, Trek missed sales opportunities.

"All of our miscommunication cost Trek a lot of money," says Kris Lamp, a decade-long Trek veteran. But given the lack of shared information, no one is quite sure what percentage of new products were delivered late or their actual impact on revenue. "The information was in so many different places it was hard to get a good view of how our teams were performing," Lamp says.

New SaaS Program Management Tool Puts Teams on the Same Page

A few years ago, Lamp took on the newly created role of program manager and began looking for a single system that all employees involved in new product development could use. "We needed to have a tool that allowed us to all see the same thing at the same time, wherever we are in the world," Lamp says. She was looking for one that was user friendly enough that users could see what they needed in seconds, freeing them up from administrative tasks to focus on more important development and innovation work.

[Related: Shortage of Project Managers Sends Businesses Scrambling]

Trek implemented the software-as-a-service program management tool AtTask, starting with one product development group and systematically rolling it out to others over time. That the tool was hosted by the vendor was a plus as Lamp and her team -- not IT -- had to support it. ("IT's project list was pretty long," Lamp says, which is why her team sought out a solution on its own.)

The system made a difference almost immediately, keeping teams on track and making sure everyone knew what needed to be done next for a given project. "Early on it was just getting everyone connected," Lamp says.

"It really helped people understand how their role affected the next person down the line whereas before they were disconnected," Lamp says Creating reports for management was extremely easy. And the system provided support for seven languages enabling a truly global rollout.

Lamp kept customization to a minimum in the beginning. But as the company began to use the system and see what the possibilities might be. "We started to think bigger. They created more customized views, imported more data, developed more detailed reporting. Trek's test labs all over the world, for example, began using AtTask to better coordinated which new products go to which labs and when. The company's prototype lab and mold lab shop (which makes the tooling used to build Trek bikes) soon followed suit.

[Related: 7 Top Wishes of IT Project Managers]

There were change management issues. "It was hard, but one thing that we did pretty well is we kept communicating to team members way ahead of time that this was coming and this was why," says Lamp. "We also received a lot of management support and they communicated to employees that using the new system wasn't an option."

Better Business Process and Delivery Rates -- and 'Time' to Create

Trek's on-time delivery rates have improved more than 20%, and new processes enabled by the system are contributing to the bottom line. "It allowed us to communicate issues better than before, helping us resolve problems and deliver product on time," Lamp says. Having product in stock on time is worth millions of dollars."

Today, there are 800 different projects being managed in the system -- and they're proceeding more smoothly than when the company had just a fraction of projects in play. But the biggest benefit, says Lamp, is that it gives everyone "time to create."

The keys were taking the time to select the right tool and get everyone prepared for it, starting small, and keeping things simple in the beginning. "You can't start with everyone or everything. You'll go crazy and you will fail," Lamp says. "Start with one team and work through the problems. Add functionality as you go."

Now other teams are approaching Lamp asking for access to the system. "We're growing with the tool," Lamp says, "bringing more teams together."

Stephanie Overby is regular contributor to CIO.com's IT Outsourcing section. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

Read more about project management in CIO's Project Management Drilldown.

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