Allocating time, personnel and financial resources appropriately is crucial to bringing an assembly project from the concept stage to profitable production, on time and within budget.

Good project managers are hard to find, according to popular wisdom. Well, yes and no. Says Lyn Holley, a training consultant for the International Institute for Learning (New York): "I travel a lot, and I when I see some lonely person sitting [alone] in the corner of a restaurant or bar, I know that person is a project manager."

Holley makes his observation with tongue only partly in cheek. The role of project manager can indeed be isolating, given the heavy dose of responsibility and weighty decisions that come with the job. But, if he's doing his job well, a project manager can find himself leading a team of colleagues to produce a project that's built to spec, on schedule, and within budget. In short, a successful project manager can keep customers satisfied--and coming back.

"In our business, every project is important. Even one bad one can give you a black eye," says Gary Vasey, director of sales and marketing at Assembly & Manufacturing Systems Inc. (Simi Valley, CA). "We can't afford to fail, and the project manager is the person who makes sure that we don't."

When planning an automated assembly project, it’s easier—and less costly—to correct mistakes made early in the process than later. Photo courtesy Assembly & Manufacturing Systems Inc.

How Do They Do It?

The best ones start by doing nothing. Rather than plunging into a project, successful project managers begin a new endeavor by listening.

"You have to hear what the customer is saying, and figure out what they want," says Harold Kerzner, Ph.D., a professor of business administration at Baldwin-Wallace College (Berea, OH).

Part and parcel with that is defining the project's objective. "If the objective is ill-defined, then how do you know when the project is complete?" Dr. Kerzner asks.

The next step is to define the requirements of that objective. "That's the hard part--clearly defining the requirements and understanding the assumptions and all the pieces that go into it," Dr. Kerzner says.

So far, this may all sound like a lot of inaction--and that's the point, experts say. If mistakes are made, they are much easier and less costly to fix early in the planning stages than later.

"If you're talking about installing or developing automated equipment, if you were to make a mistake up front, when you define the project or product that you want, then it will probably cost you a dollar to correct that mistake," Dr. Kerzner says. "If you wait until you start laying out the plans, it will cost you between $5 and $25 to correct it. If you go to correct that same mistake when you're installing it, it will probably cost you $100 to correct it. And if you correct that mistake after the equipment is installed and up and running, it will cost you thousands of dollars to correct it."

In that respect, he says, U.S. project managers would do well to learn a lesson from their Japanese counterparts. "In Japan, the most frightening words to project managers seem to be 'scope changes.' They go to great lengths to avoid such changes," he observes. "But, in America, the approach seems to be, 'Let's rush into a project and make changes downstream, when we get to the manufacturing phase.' But, that's a costly philosophy."

Experience Counts

Learning from past projects is one of the best ways to get a handle on planning a current one. "Typically, if we've done similar types of projects already, we have history and cost data and labor reports that we can refer to," says Vasey. "We'll go through and figure out what sort of engineering hours we spent on a similar type of machine, for example, and create budgets along those lines."

At Universal Instruments Corp. (Binghamton, NY), the approach is similar, albeit less formal.

"We don't keep good written lists of what we did wrong on previous projects," admits David Farley, product manager for the company's applied conveyor engineering group and the total quality project manager in the surface mount division. "But, there are only 30 of us in the organization. So when one of us says, 'We should do it like we did on a previous project,' someone else will jump up and say, 'Yeah, but remember how we had such-and-such a problem with that gizmo?'" Ironically, the best project managers are sometimes seen as a threat to organizations. To create an effective plan, project managers have to be able to communicate across all layers of the company, collecting information about previous projects. Not everyone wants to share that data, however.

"A lot of companies absolutely refuse to try to manage costs on projects because it will show very quickly which functional managers have been providing good estimates all these years and who hasn't," Dr. Kerzner explains. "If a department manager in manufacturing tells you it's going to take 200 hours to get the job done, if you can't crack costs and get weekly logs from this manager, how do you know whether the department manager did the job in 200 hours, 400 hours or 600 hours? There's no way of improving accuracy of your future estimating and planning--and therefore project management--if you can't get history on what you're doing. But, a lot of department managers view this as a threat, and won't release that information to the project managers."

The solution? "If you want to be a good project manager, invest in kneepads," Dr. Kerzner says. "You spend a lot of time on your knees crawling and begging for that information."

Putting the project team in place is another critical--and early--step. That should include everyone who has a hand in ensuring the project's successful completion, from manufacturing and engineering managers to the marketing experts and sales representatives. Leading this motley mix, of course, is the project manager. "It's a mixture of personalities and abilities, and it's the project manager's job to lead this team and keep them all coordinated to get a good final result," Vasey says.

To create an effective plan, project managers must collect information about previous projects. However, not everyone wants to share that data. Photo courtesy Kingsbury Corp.

"You need to identify who all the players are from the outset, no matter how small their role is," agrees Holley. "They need to be involved in the planning process." One of the toughest issues, he adds, is gaining commitment from resources outside the immediate project organization. "Commitments in this area need to be negotiated and documented at the onset of the project. Don't assume you can go and get a resource when you need it."

The client can be considered another team member. After all, as Vasey points out, the customers are the experts in their own processes. "There has to be a lot of sharing of information back and forth to make sure we are designing the right equipment to do the right things," Vasey says. "The customer is a partner, and we're trying to develop a relationship with them."

As with any relationship, this is sometimes easier said than done. "In building custom machinery, typically there's always going to be issues that aren't necessarily defined up front--they come up as the project goes on," Vasey says. "Some of those issues can be very touchy situations, because they typically relate to money or schedule changes.

"And like any business, the customer wants the most bang for their buck," he continues. "Once the project is underway, a lot of times they'll ask for changes. A good project manager will know how to negotiate that with a customer. He'll know when to include things, and when to ask for functional changes and when to tell the customer that the changes will cost extra. It can be a very delicate situation."

Customer relations (not to mention project management) can also be strained by incomplete product designs, a not uncommon occurrence, Vasey says.

"Typically, when we get a purchase order for a project, the product design isn't finalized yet, because they're trying to get a step ahead of the game and bring the product to market as quickly as possible," he says. "The design might be 80 to 90 percent complete, but some of the details are not quite frozen in. That causes a lot of headaches. We'll take on a project and start engineering it, but if the dimensions change once you start fabricating parts, you might have to either scrap out those parts or modify them--either one of which are costly."

Vasey says the key is to inform customers at the outset that any changes to the product can affect price or cause an engineering change midstream. Even then, he says, "They still don't like it. Purchasing doesn't like it, the bean counters don't like it, and you've got problems."

At Universal Instruments, the project team meets at least once a week to discuss ongoing projects. But, if problems arise, the team won’t wait to solve it, even if the next design review is 3 days away. Photo courtesy Universal Instruments Corp.

Ensuring Communication

Clearly, good communication is important early on, and it remains so throughout the life of a project.

Holley recommends putting together a communications plan at the beginning of a project. Such a plan should outline the method of communication--e-mail, phone calls, face-to-face meetings--and the frequency of project updates. Putting that information into the right hands is also crucial. "One of the biggest failures of project managers is they provide performance reporting to the stakeholders, but they leave out their own team," he says. "Make sure everyone on the team is copied on all correspondence, so no one gets blindsided."

At Universal Instruments, says Farley, the project team meets at least once a week to discuss ongoing projects. Impromptu meetings are particularly important to a project's success. If a problem arises, "We don't wait to solve it," he says. "Even though the next design review may be scheduled three days from now, we address any problems right way." Team members even review equipment after it's been installed. "We have a feedback loop from our field engineers who are in our customers' sites," he says. That information, in turn, gets fed into future projects.

Weekly meetings are de rigueur at AMS as well, Vasey reports. "And if we need to meet more, we do. Anybody can call a meeting if a problem has come up. We try to get it out on the table and solve the problem before it becomes a nightmare."

Holley suggests that weekly meetings are most effective when they're used to manage issues rather than report on status. "The meeting doesn't necessarily have to be mandatory for everyone," he says. "If team members are keeping you informed of their progress and they're on track, then there's no point in having them sit in a meeting and report their status. Let them use the time to work on next week's plan."

At AMS, project managers also provide customers with weekly status reports, says Vasey. The reports are broken down according to stations or equipment parts as well as the various project disciplines. Projected start and finish dates are provided for each area, in addition to ongoing tallies of percent completion. The reports give dates of anticipated design reviews, acceptance and installation. They also contain a section that Vasey calls "open issues."

"We might need information from the customer, and we document that on the report," he says. "We also have a chronological section, where we document changes that have occurred on the project." The reports, which typically are sent out on Monday mornings, also contain a section outlining what will be done that week.

"Customers love it," Vasey says. "It's great reporting tool for them, and it keeps them abreast of everything that's happening."

As at Universal Instruments, the discussions at AMS continue post-production as well. "We do what we call a post-mortem on every project," Vasey says. "We discuss what worked, what didn't work so well, and why--all in the form of constructive discussion. We try to keep from finger-pointing, or creating an atmosphere where someone is embarrassed to discuss the problems they encountered."

Project management doesn’t end after an automated assembly system is up and running. Engineers are well-advised to do post-mortems on every project to discuss what worked and what didn’t. Photo courtesy Ismeca USA Inc.

Future Roles

Given the highly technical nature of most projects, it might be expected that a good project manager needs to have a strong engineering background as well as excellent planning and communication skills. That's not necessarily the case, however.

"The belief used to be that project management was simply a tool for engineers," says Dr. Kerzner. "But that's starting to change."

Today's projects are often so large and so complex that no project manager can reasonably be expected to have technological expertise in each area of a project. "So now we expect project managers to have an understanding of technology, rather than a command of it," says Dr. Kerzner.

Down the road, project managers will be expected to possess strong risk management skills as well.

"That's going to be the No. 1 skill needed to be an effective project manager," Dr. Kerzner says. "They need to learn to focus on the future, not the past. Risk management forces you to take a plan you've laid out, bring it into the future, and ask what could possibly go wrong--and then figure out how to address those risks."

In tandem with that, he says, will be the need for project managers to develop an understanding of business issues--an area in which manufacturing engineers and managers have historically not had much training.

"Traditionally, [manufacturers] have looked at project managers as people who are brought on board to execute a plan that's been decided on by someone who's sitting on the top floor behind a mahogany desk," Dr. Kerzner says. "The thinking has been that project managers can't contribute to the business case [for an automation project], and they're not privy to critical financial information."

As project managers assume profit-and-loss responsibilities, however, they'll need to acquire risk management skills such as developing feasibility studies and performing cost-benefit analyses. "Ultimately, project managers need to look at becoming business managers," Dr. Kerzner says. "Because what they do certainly affects the bottom line of the company."