The logistics project manager – a smooth operator or a calculating bot?

Structured project management processes rely on robust methodologies with strictly detailed plans and rigorous assessments. Rather left-brained, to say the least. However, being able to communicate smoothly, to negotiate with finesse, to lead and inspire people are skills rooted deeply in emotional intelligence and adaptability. Add the highly dynamic nature of freight transportation as well as the diverse subculture and expectations of the different departments of a logistics business and the task of the project manager becomes even less straightforward.

Case. Consider, for example, a scenario quite common in our industry these days – implementing a new TMS. The natural expectations of Operations Department often include getting more automation and faster tasks, more practical support in dispatching, more data-backed knowledge, etc. But, and it’s a huge but, without changing the way they’ve been operating for years. Even though in a more neutral setting, expecting new results from old habits would be, to put it mildly, rather unreasonable. On the other hand, focused on a mountain of technical challenges, the subconscious expectation of the IT department is for Operations to embrace the new painstakingly refined processes and routines imposed by the new system almost immediately after the initial training. Certainly balancing the two forces while hectically scrambling over daily delivery challenges is not the easiest of challenges. 

Qualifications. So what are the key qualifications of the project managers that would let them lead their projects to success? Industry expertize easily comes as top choice for 45% of the respondents from logistics and freight transport companies. In-depth knowledge of freight transport, logistics processes, and supply chain dynamics is undoubtedly crucial to effectively navigate the unique challenges we meet in daily operations. Then having a developed set of people skills for productive communication and leadership is favoured by 34% of the industry.

Conflicts and strategies to handle them.

Still, even the best-versed leaders in the industry would have to tackle conflicts as they arise. Successfully handling them would require a deep understanding of the sources of conflict. 47% of industry experts consider poor communication as the root of all evil and the most common source of conflict when managing projects in logistics and freight transportation. Followed by a mismatch in expectations – 22%, while resource constraints trail behind with 18%. We would also add another consequential source of conflict – resistance to change. Since projects are usually aimed at changing some aspect of the business, with poor communication and expectations left unaligned project managers are very likely to face severe resistance from within.

Case. Back to our case with the implementation of a new TMS, a mismatch in expectations that was not identified and curbed out would quickly produce nuclei of informal resistance against all changes in the old routines and processes. Poor official communication, either top-down or horizontal between the involved departments will only fuel that resistance to the extent that a project of an essentially technical challenge grows into a monumental change management issue that is very difficult to handle by any department on their own.

Risk management approach. What would be the strategies to handle conflicts then? Considering conflicts are essentially one of the risks, a combination approach borrowed from risk management would deploy avoidance and mitigation. Avoidance works to eliminate the causes that fuel conflicts while mitigation does not remove their likelihood to happen but is instead aimed at reducing their impact on the results of the project. Active listening during the initial phases to recognize conflicting priorities followed by effective negotiation to align interests early on can be key to managing the diverse expectations. Enhance them with a communication plan that is strictly followed through to ensure transparency and discourage undesired informal biases to form during all stages of the project.

Change management approach. The enhanced perspective would also suggest involving an influential figure from the management who can add authority to the project. Active communication (yes, communication again) focused on the planned changes and intended to emphasize the benefits versus the efforts employed as well as to suppress grapevine speculation is crucial too.

Structured PM approach. Additionally, a structured approach to project management would handle another aspect of conflicting priorities – the scope creep. Once a project is set in motion, any modification to its scope, the impact of which is not thoroughly assessed for example, can quickly derail and destroy it.

The latest consideration leads us to the next question. Is a consistent and structured approach actually applied in freight transportation? Our research confirms that the adoption of such varies a lot across freight transport companies and although usually the smarter organized ones rely on well-structured and properly documented processes, for a huge part of the industry it is still the Achilles heel of their project management. Successfully applied or not, the industry is in consensus that it has high impact and is crucial for the successful outcomes – 91% of experts asked.

Case. Just imagine the multiple aspects of our case with the implementation of a new TMS, subtasks and smaller projects within, and throw it in the mix of all other projects run independently by the company. Each led freestyle as the respective manager sees fit. A hot combustive mixture indeed. No surprise the results are often explosive.

At the other end of the spectrum, a well-structured process would include:

  • common framework – governance, processes, tools, techniques, roles, guidelines;
  • common elements of the project plan – scope statement, work breakdown structure, schedule with a timeline & milestones, resource & budget plan, risk management, communication plan, quality & control;
  • clear definition of scope, objectives and deliverables – actually planning for them;
  • risk assessment & management – actually doing it;
  • communication – yes, again. We can never emphasize enough on it;
  • documentation – no-brainer but often overlooked.

Challenges and impacts.

Time management and risk assessment. Considering the broader picture of managing projects in logistics and freight transportation, the toughest of challenges does not seem to be resource allocation in spite of the fact how starved each and every project always is for resources. The industry is instead split between time management – 35% and risk assessment & management – 30% while communication outside team follows third – 19% of respondents.

Case. Back to our case with the new TMS, conducting a thorough risk assessment and adopting risk mitigation strategies for each identified risk according to their assessed impact can minimize potential obstacles. Adequate understanding of the project scope by all parties concerned is paramount. Thus mitigating risks needs to start with a clear definition based on comprehensive analysis engaging all stakeholders. A rigorous TMS provider selection process with detailed SLA would establish a strong basis for avoid issues with integration, customization, data migration, system downtime and last but not least, data security. Then a detailed data migration plan complete with data cleaning, mapping and testing can avoid data inconsistencies and eventually disruption of operations. Establishing robust backup and disaster recovery procedures would be aimed at the minimization of potential disruptions. A comprehensive training plan together with communication that engages users in the early stages and promotes the benefits of the new system would help keeping resistance low. Contingency reserves together with regular control of costs and identification of potential budget deviations while keeping in mind the prioritized critical features and functionalities can ensure the financial resilience of the project. Having defined clear roles and responsibilities is also a must if the planned timelines and milestones are to be met.

Collaboration. May be of a lesser impact but nonetheless crucial is the task to ensure effective collaboration. Our industry prefers to foster it mostly by in-person meetings – 55% preference over methodology, progress monitoring and collaborative tools (apps).  That hints of another unique characteristic of our industry. Even though it was largely caught off-guard by the challenge to operate remote offices which was brought about out of the blue by covid-19 restrictions and struggled to cope during the heat of the crisis it is now happily bouncing back to old habits. And old habits are likely to cause old issues yet again. The ability to adapt is a key aspect of the resilience of both logistics project management and freight transport businesses alike.