March/April 2014
Channel Chat

Project management is more than a disruption - it is real work

By Brent Karickhoff, PMP

Modern control systems are sophisticated assemblies with varied state-of-the-art technologies. Implementing these systems requires a team of technically gifted technicians and engineers who welcome the challenge of taking the often disparate pieces of a complex system and merging them into an integrated control system.

Although these teams can resolve high-tech matters, they do not always adapt to the less technical requirements of project management. The project manager's focus on controlling schedule, budget, and scope is often viewed as a disruption to the technical, or "real work," of designing, programming, and deploying the system.

The truth is, consistent project success requires strong technical skills and good project management practices. The project manager should apply a focused management process that addresses the critical needs of good project management practices while minimizing the disruption to the technical work being performed.

The following is a list of key components that are the basis of a sound system integration project management plan.

1. Project goals definition.The project team must clearly define the project's functional, schedule, and financial goals, and determine a method for confirming that these goals have been achieved. The time expended defining goals pays significant dividends later by keeping the team focused only on those tasks required for success on the project.

2. Project schedule. Albert Einstein once said, "The only reason for time is so that everything does not happen at once." Every project is made up of a list of tasks that must be done before the project is complete. The project schedule distributes the list of project tasks over the time available. This can be a challenge in the systems integration arena, where there are significant external dependencies beyond the control of the project team. However, even a fundamental list of properly sequenced tasks with planned durations can be invaluable when concentrating the project team's efforts on the immediate tasks at hand.

The project schedule is a "living document," regularly updated to capture project progress. It plays a critical role in the project manager's ability to document and mitigate the impact of any delays.

3. Project risk. Once the goals and the schedule are defined, the next step is to identify all threats to achieving the established goals. This includes developing a list of risk items and a mitigation strategy for each. The most overlooked step is a quantitative evaluation of the potential impact of each risk item to the success of the project. It should include an estimate, in terms of time and cost, of the worst-case scenario for each item.

Project risk analysis should drive the extent to which time and resources are expended to mitigate. Too often, effort is expended to address a high-profile or emotionally charged risk item that is perceived as a considerable danger to the project. However, if accurately quantified, it may be determined that the actual threat is less damaging than the disruption caused by the mitigation effort. In these cases, it is best to take no action and simply deal with the situation when and if it occurs. The project risk list is also a "living document" to be reviewed and maintained throughout the project.

Once the defining tasks are complete and technical work has commenced, the project manager must shift to controlling the project within the established parameters.

4. Project team meetings. Communication between team members can be a challenge. The project manager should define a regularly scheduled time for the team to discuss the status of the project. During these meetings connections between the work being performed and the goals of the project are confirmed, and the schedule and risk items are reviewed and updated. The duration of project team meetings needs to be fixed, so that team members can plan for the time required. Typically a one-hour meeting once a week is all that is needed to keep the project on track. However, this may be adjusted depending on the size and phase of the project.

5. Documentation. Good communication practices must also include documenting the project from start to finish, including updates to the schedule and risk items, along with meeting minutes, notice letters, and notes confirming oral conversations. Documentation efforts will seem tedious and of minimal value. However, the lack of proper documentation is an insurmountable obstacle to recovery efforts if the project drifts off track due to disputes, disruptions, or changes to the makeup of the project team. The key is to make good documentation practices part of the execution process.

6. Project wrap-up meeting. The first objective of the project wrap-up meeting is to confirm project goals were met and documented. A plan for addressing unmet goals is agreed to and documented in a final punch list. The second objective is to identify and document the factors that contribute to the success of the project. Every project has unique challenges. Heed the lessons from the past and avoid time and effort spent resolving the same problems.

Good project management practices cannot overcome all other influences to guarantee a successful project in every circumstance. However, poor project management can lead to disaster for the most promising project executed by the most technically skilled project team. By employing the above suggestions, a project manager can realize the benefits of good project management with minimal disruption to the people performing the "real work" on the project. n


Brent Karickhoff, PMP, is operations manager at Transdyn, Inc., based in Duluth, Ga. Transdyn is a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association.