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Changing face of project management.

By Bob Trebilcock, Editor at Large

As materials handling projects become more complex, end users are demanding more of project managers, not just their systems.

Not always a top priority, project management is rapidly becoming one of the most important aspects of bringing on a new facility or materials handling system. In fact, project management is beginning to be seen by many as important as system design and performance.

'More and more companies are using projects to meet their corporate objectives,' says Mike Ensby, director of interdisciplinary engineering and management at Clarkson University (315-268-6571, ). 'That's true whether they're building a warehouse to increase their capacity, enter a new market or put in a new IT infrastructure.'

Of course, implementing a new system has always been a major project. But how those projects are accomplished is changing.

'What you're seeing is an urgency that wasn't there in the past because time to market is so critical and technology shifts happen so frequently,' says Ensby. 'The sooner you get a system in place at the price promised, the better.'

Just what is project management? The simple answer is that it's a process for turning vision into reality.

'Project management is the art and science of bringing concepts to fruition,' says Ensby, who teaches project management and has developed a software program to train project managers to bring complex warehouses online. Just as a home contractor turns a blueprint and raw materials into a house, a project manager turns plans and specifications into a system that's handling product in the way it was designed.

The Project Management Institute (610-356-4600, ), the recognized organization for training and certifying project managers, has a more formal definition: 'Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to a broad range of activities in order to meet the requirements of a particular project.

Project management is comprised of five Project Management Process Groups:

Initiating processes

Planning processes

Executing processes

Monitoring and controlling processes

Closing processes.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) has also created nine knowledge areas. These are:

Management expertise in project integration management

Project scope management

Project time management

Project cost management

Project quality management

Project human resources management

Project communications management

Project risk management

Project procurement management.

With that in mind, there are two components to successful project management.

The first is the project manager who may be involved as early as the design stage all the way through to implementation. Certification from PMI is increasingly becoming a requirement for that position, especially for projects with large customers. And some systems integrators are also insisting on certification, or at least a willingness to get certified, from their project managers, according to Bill Casey, president and COO of SI Systems (610-559-4027, ).

The second component is the project plan itself that the project manager will work from.

A man (or woman) with a plan

Project management was once an accidental position. 'I was a project manager for about five years in the 1970s,' says Casey. 'Back then, an organization would look around the room and ask: Who's a good communicator who understands the business and has a feel for technology? That's the way I got my job.'

Today, project management is a profession, with PMI as the certifying body. Increasingly, project managers are groomed for the post.

'A good project manager is a communicator and a problem-solver,' says Geoff Sisko, senior vice president of Gross & Associates (732-734-4339, ). 'They ought to be detail oriented and cautious. But, the best project managers also have an imagination. They can imagine all the things that can go wrong, but they can also imagine solutions.'

Finding individuals who fit that bill isn't easy, which is why Ensby includes the ability to know what a project manager doesn't know as an intangible key attribute. 'The best project managers understand their weaknesses, acknowledge them and learn how to work with the rest of their team to accommodate for them,' says Ensby. 'They best know when to manage by consensus and when to manage by dictatorship because both are important to getting the job done.'

Most large customers are going to appoint someone from their team to be the internal project manager. 'These are companies that are employing lean technologies and are implementing Six Sigma,' says Casey. 'They already have disciplines in place from tracking costs, documentation and communications flow that they want to see replicated on our end.'

Likewise, each subcontractor on a project will appoint a project manager to oversee that company's piece of the puzzle. 'Putting up the building is the contractor's responsibility and they'll have a project plan which will be a subset of your master plan,' says Sisko. 'Likewise, you might have an equipment provider that will have a project plan, which also will be part of your plan.'

But at the end of the day, the project manager with the ultimate authority-and the ultimate responsibility for getting the project done-is going to come from the lead systems integrator on the project.

'To be effective, there has to be one overall manager who is accountable for the success of the project,' says Frank Camean, vice president of implementation services for ESYNC / TranSystems (419-842-2210, ).

Managing the plan

In most large projects, the project manager is going to come on board early in the process: Often, as early as the presentation to the client. 'The project manager needs to understand the business, the scope of the work, the proposal and the contract,' says SI's Casey.

After that, most projects can be broken down into four lifecycle stages.

1) Definition stage: At this point, you're establishing the scope of the project, the performance levels expected, price and time constraints.

'You're clearly identifying all the assumptions that will be used in the development of the plan,' says ESYNC's Camean. To avoid project creep, where the scope of the project begins to change after the plan, it's important to agree upfront on which variables are flexible and which are non-negotiable.

'For instance, if time is a factor, it's important to establish drop-dead dates for the project,' says Sisko. 'We've worked on projects where a new building was going up as the lease on the old building was expiring. That end-of-lease date was the variable that was non-negotiable.'

2) Planning stage: Once everyone agrees on the scope, those goals are turned into deliverables. For instance, a 90-foot tall automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) with a certain number of cubic feet of storage will require a certain amount of racking.

At this stage, it's also important to work with the system integrator's procurement staff. 'That all has to be lined up to make sure that all the players are buying into the scope, the price and the time constraints for the project,' says Casey.

Finally, all of that information will be used to create a resource-laden schedule that includes the materials, manpower, machinery and methodology. 'A robust plan can withstand things that happen outside the plan,' says Ensby.

3) Implementation stage: The schedule created at the end of the planning stage becomes the input for the project manager's execution document. Beyond providing a master schedule for the project, the execution document should include plans to monitor and measure progress.

'We have an internal project managers meeting every Monday where we discuss the progress and challenges of each project we're working on,' says Casey. 'We also have weekly conference calls with our customers' project teams.' The point, he says, is to have a clear understanding of the progress to date, the deliverables to come, and any problems that have arrived.

As part of the implementation stage, it's important to have a process in place for change orders. 'The reality of any project is that you plan, you act, you review, and then you re-plan and you re-act because not everything will go according to plan,' says Sisko. 'That's why it's important that project managers and customers have a formal change order process in place to approve any changes to the plan or schedule.'

4) Delivery stage: In the last stage, the system is tested, validated, accepted and turned over to the customer. If the objectives have been hit and the customer accepts the evaluation, the project has been successful.

'I tell my students that the goal of a successful project is that the team is still talking to one another at the end of the job,' says Ensby. 'That's not always an easy task. But if the project manager has done the work in the first three stages, delivering the system should be routine.'
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Author:Trebilcock, Bob
Publication:Modern Materials Handling
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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