Cycle Times

The time from the start of a project through to completion is called a cycle time. Tracking project cycle times can answer important project and portfolio questions, e.g. “When is the project likely to reach its last milestone?”  How long does it usually take to get from Candidate Selection to POC?”

More specifically, a project cycle time is the time it takes to get from one milestone to another.  Each milestone date is the date when a project is approved to proceed into the next phase.  It is important that milestone dates are determined and collected in a culturally acceptable manner.   Getting agreement on the criteria for progression, the decision process and the manner in which the date is formally determined are all critical.

1. Milestone Approval

In some R&D organizations, one of the senior managers assumes the position of “Decision Maker”. For some decision makers the milestone date is simply the date in which that decision maker agreed to the transition.  The official record of the transition in this case would be a simple email or phone call to the project leader with follow-up communication to the portfolio manager.  While this type of decision is less formal, the milestone decision date is quite clear.  This informal style of milestone approval tends to occur in smaller organizations or in the very early stages of Discovery.

In many organizations, the milestone date is the date on which a committee met and formally agreed to the transition.  The official record of the transition in this case would be the meeting minutes.  This type of decision is more formal and perhaps more democratic, since others have had input into the decision, but if it takes days to get the minutes typed, approved and circulated, it could be some time before others get notice of the decision. Senior managers tend to be quite busy, making it difficult to convene an adhoc meeting simply to approve a project milestone transition, thus project milestone approvals tend to occur as part of business in a larger regular monthly meeting. Milestone approval means the project moves on to the next stage. If there are resource issues with that transition, approval may get delayed.

The most contentious milestone in bio/pharmaceutical R&D tends to be the transition between end of Phase 2 and the start of Phase 3 clinical trials. This transition is often broken down into two sub-milestones – Proof of Concept, meaning the goal of the Phase 2 clinical trials has been achieved, and Start of Phase 3, meaning the clinical organization has cleared the way for a the next project and its set of costly clinical trials. If the organization lacks the funds to take on another Phase 3 project or there is concern for the potential failure in Phase 3, the project may never get to start Phase 3.

Either style may be right for the stakeholders in the decision.  It is important for the portfolio manager to not get hung up on the style but to be sure that senior managers are clear about the decision process.

With some stages of R&D it may be important to track sub-milestones – points of definable progress within a stage, as well.  As with a milestone it is critical to get agreement on the criteria for sub-milestone progression, how the transition process will occur and how to gather the sub-milestone date.  Figure 20 shows some useful sub-milestones in Discovery.  From Target to Launch the number of sub-milestones can be surprising.

Figure 20, Useful sub-milestones in Discovery.

2. Challenges to Milestone Dates

Some work may transcend milestone dates, i.e. start and/or stop on a different date – e.g. discovery lead identification campaigns (discussed below), or clinical trial contracts.  It is important to define stages so the bulk of work starts and completes within the milestone dates, within culturally acceptable limits.  Some particularly important assets to a project that typically transcend project timelines may merit tracking on their own (See Section Asset Tracking).

3. Project Terminations

A project cycle time typically refers to successful projects – those that got beyond the next milestone.  The project termination cycle time is the time between the milestone date at the beginning of a stage and the project termination date.  In Discovery many projects fail somewhere along the way.  If senior managers are concerned about learning from the past, they should be as concerned about failed projects as they are about successful projects.  Otherwise attrition will never improve. 

The project termination date is the date on which the project is formally terminated.  Unfortunately, that date may not always be formally determined.  It may also be a rather arbitrary date, e.g. the date of a portfolio review, on which many projects are stopped, due to factors that do not necessarily concern the health of the project.  In other words, it is not correct to assume that a terminated project is a failed project.  It’s quite feasible that a sound, robust project is terminated due to “change of strategy”.  Thus, as confusing as “change in strategy” may sound, it is a useful termination category because it can be translated as – do not consider when examining the reasons for project termination. 

The termination a project should in principle encompass all defined work.  “Pipettes down” – rarely occurs, however.  Work tends to wind down to a logical stopping point.  Termination date loses significance if some work is allowed to continue after project termination.  But the project leaders and certain line departments may want to try a few more things which might remedy the reason for project termination and lead to project re-initiation.  There are two potential  solutions to this dilemma.  A)  Track resource allocation during termination (don’t pretend it doesn’t happen!). B) Define status of such a project as ‘On Hold’ – generally not recommended, unless there are important types of work that must continue (completing a contract is typically a reason for invoking ‘on hold’.

Despite these caveats if termination dates have been collected for several years it would be interesting to compare the project (success) cycle time to the project (termination) cycle time.  Which do you think would be shorter?

4. Project Re-initiations

If the reasons for termination are resolved the organization faces two alternatives: a) re-initiate the project, or b) start a new project on the same asset.  Re-initiation is a true reflection of the situation.  One can even track the project termination period.

Starting a new project will require that the old project can be readily related to the new, and that the line departments can relate their work accurately to the new project.  Dividing a set of work into two or more projects falsely shortens the “project” cycle time.