How to Handle Last-Minute Change Requests (While Keeping Your Cool)

Stressed Engineer

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar:

Your engineering team completes a design, gets approval from the client, and releases it to production. Everything is going swimmingly. You’re on track to complete the project not only on time, but under budget. You decide to take the whole team out to dinner to reward their hard work.

But then…the field engineers call with a problem. You have the wrong number of wires in a cable, or the process is too slow, or there’s not enough room overhead to install the safety valve in an upright position. Or, maybe there’s nothing wrong with the setup at all, but rather the customer has had a change of heart and wants to make a modification to the requirements.

Your mood changes from celebratory to dejected as a last-minute change request threatens to derail your entire project.

Last-minute change requests are the bane of engineering firms. In an instant, they can turn a project from profitable to not, frustrating your engineers in the process.

Unfortunately, they’re also unavoidable, especially as more engineering work is done in a parallel, rather than linear, fashion. No matter how well you plan and execute your projects on a regular basis, you’ll likely have to deal with them from time to time. Here are three ways to handle last-minute change requests while still keeping your cool.

Anticipate

You know those change orders are coming, so anticipate them.

  • Build extra time into every phase of the project. If your design team, purchasing department, production design department, and so on are always rushing to make unreasonable deadlines, the likelihood of a mistake can multiply quickly. Giving everyone a little cushion will decrease the chances of discovering last-minute problems.
  • Standardize your change management process. A study by Aberdeen Group found that best-in-class companies are 81% more likely to have a formal process for reviewing and approving changes and 70% more likely to have a formal plan for implementing engineering changes. By standardizing the process, at least you can ensure that when changes come in, you have a plan in place to address them.

Communicate

Last-minute change requests can have wide-ranging consequences. They may require going back to the beginning to redesign part of the product, they may mean purchasing new parts (which could take a while to be delivered), and, perhaps most importantly, they may affect the final cost of the project.

All of these situations can cause stakeholders to become upset — from the engineers, who now have to do rework, to the customer, whose bill just went up.

As soon as you’ve reviewed the change request, make sure that all stakeholders are on board with the revisions. As they say, “an ounce of communication can prevent a pound of negative online reviews” (or something like that).

Learn

Finally, take a page from the Agile software development process book and make time for a retrospective. TechTarget’s guide to Agile defines a retrospective as a “lessons learned” meeting.

During this meeting, each team member answers the following questions:

  • What worked?
  • What didn’t?
  • How can we improve the process going forward?

The answers to these questions will help you identify the situations that most often lead to last-minute change requests and take steps to prevent them in the future.

For more information about engineering change management, check out these two articles:

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