November 2008

Take a bite out of project management

By Kevin Wilhelm and Andre Michel

Automation and process control projects can invoke fear for a newly appointed project manager or project engineer in charge. Instead of biting off more than you can chew, with huge project teams and large budgets, you want to take manageable bites so you can digest your project and move ahead with a healthy working system. You need a systematic approach with an adequate delivery methodology to manage these projects and their complexities. With such an approach, project teams can be more effective (and thus be smaller and less expensive), and you can execute projects on schedule.

Automation projects are more complex than most because you are trying to build an embedded intelligence into an integrated set of computer and people systems, in many cases to run a manufacturing process that has never been done. Complexities include integrating multiple engineering disciplines (software, computer systems, networks, and instrumentation), depending on user requirements of disciplines outside of automation, integrating requirements from several areas (business, engineering, safety, environmental), delays in other areas of the project that spill into the automation area, and new technology or technology constraints.

Phases, deliverables

By breaking your project into phases, you can focus on intermediate milestones, giving a more orderly progression of the engineering process. To get a good plan for the work, you also need to develop a list of deliverables. And when you combine them with project phases, you will not have to define every single deliverable at day one of the project; you can focus on the phase of work you are in at the moment and plan for the next phase. Identify the deliverable for the end of the phase, and for the deliverables at steps in between-a draft, issue for review, reviewed, issue for approval or approved. This approach will provide clarity for you, your project team, and your stakeholders. It will also be useful when you go to model your project plan in your estimate, schedule, and project metrics.

Broad scope

By combining deliverables and phases with a third concept, who is going to do the work, you can build a workflow describing each deliverable in a certain chronology. A cross-functional chart (or swim lane) is a perfect tool to display the phases in the X axis and each discipline and sub discipline in the Y axis.

The value of a swim-lane diagram is it provides a concise visual representation of what (work breakdown structure), when (chronology with predecessor/successor relationships), and who (who performs the work), all available for the entire project team to review and understand (including those outside automation). This swim-lane view can illuminate how much is typically involved and the complex timing arrangements. It also provides a high-level view for automation engineers working on the project, so they can see how their individual piece fits into a broader picture.

The delivery model can also serve as your first schedule. Some engineers try to jump directly to creating a schedule, without having clarity on deliverables, timing, and assignments. Years of experience have proven this approach will generally fail as the creator spirals down into minute details on a certain task but will forget the big picture. Furthermore, to introduce the time factor too early can generate a never-ending discussion around timing when the focus shall be on the sequence of events. Timing will come naturally if everyone understands the sequence.

Tracking progress

The Project Management Body of Knowledge breaks project management into five basic process groups: initiating, planning, executing, controlling and monitoring, and closing. We can break project performance measurement into two main topics: periodic and peer review, and metrics and measures.

You will need adequate project metrics governance forums to garner meaningful information and sponsorship for the project.

A typical governance model might consist of three levels of review:

  • Level 1: Steering team. The project manager reviews project progress on a regular basis (typically once a month) with the management stakeholders of the project. This provides a forum to review progress, escalate issues, and communicate successes.
  • Level 2: Project management. The project manager should review the project metrics and measures on a more frequent basis (biweekly or weekly) to determine status from each sub-disciplines, identify issues, and determine corrective actions.
  • Level 3: Project Controls. Project control representatives perform detailed project tracking by entering project schedule, scope, resource, and budget status information prior to the project management meeting. This information must be accurate; it provides the basis for the project metrics and measures, as well as the reporting to the project manager and steering team.

Peer reviews

Perform peer reviews as you reach specific milestones. You can tie these reviews to approvals to proceed and obtain additional funding. A best practice is to have a series of peer reviews at the end of each phase of work. Independent assessors who are not part of the project team should lead these reviews. Typical peer reviews include assessments of system architecture, software code, project management, and deliverables.

The formality of these systems varies, with some sophisticated systems in use where a rating is generated at the end of the interview. The rating is best viewed as a risk rating, rather than a grade. The best reviewer is someone well experienced, well respected, and objective. A well-documented protocol provided early to project manager is a good planning and educational tool.

Using metrics

How are things going on the project?  Some project managers will answer with, "Good, we are on track." Or they will say, "We are about 90% done," but you cannot control what you cannot measure. Choose a set of measurements early on, and put processes and tools in place to capture the data and provide metrics against these measurements.

Metrics are indicators that are predictive or representative of a project's ability to meet its intended goals. Translating that need into an implementation made on time and within acceptable budget constraints, and delivered to the end-user, requires attention to operational execution.

A typical discussion topic is the schedule. The simplest method to measure schedule performance is just to use the visual tools provided by your scheduling software package. Quite a few project managers will use a qualitative method to update their schedule by asking the team member their progress. Quantitative metrics are more accurate because they are based on countable items.

The most obvious metric is a comparison of your actual cost against your actual budget, which gives you a percentage spent. Depending on your project accounting methods, certain activities might be underway before an associated cost has been accounted for due to delays in the accounting system.

A one-dimensional metric (cost or schedule) does not tell you a complete story.  A more structured methodology, the earn-value method, incorporates the concepts of looking at cost and schedule concurrently. It assumes we have in place an accurate progress measurement system in place and that each task has been accurately estimate in terms of effort.


Andre Michel is an operation manager at Brillig System Canada in Kirkland, Quebec ( Kevin Wilhelm is an engineering consultant at Eli Lilly & Co. in Indianapolis, Ind. (