Manufacturing needs project management skills too

When things go wrong for a manufacturer, all too often it's down to a shortage of proper project management skills and training, discovers E&T.

Back in late 2007, an internal review revealed some troubling weaknesses in Meggitt Avionics' product development processes. "We had a history of not managing programmes well in terms of cost, quality and time - which was leading to customer frustrations," explains Nick Cooper, divisional head of projects and engineering at the Fareham, Hampshire-based aerospace manufacturer. "We were blaming the customer for changes to programmes and projects, rather than looking internally at our own performance in managing those changes."

At around the same time, at Selective Covers, a manufacturer of customised waterproof covers for applications as diverse as swimming pools, vehicles and garden furniture, a similar review brought the realisation that on-time deliveries had slipped to 25 per cent. "Half the calls to the company were new business, the other half were complaints," recalls Debbie Knowlson, managing director of the Thirsk, North Yorkshire-based business.

In an enormous number of manufacturing companies, project management practice holds the key to unlocking significant gains on the bottom line - either directly, in the case of project-centric businesses such as Meggitt; or indirectly, in companies such as Selective Covers, where a manufacturing improvement project sought to boost on-time delivery performance.

Major IT projects - such as the implementation of a new ERP system - offer another example of project-based business transformation. "IT projects are becoming increasingly complex," warns Sudhir Chaturvedi, European head of manufacturing at IT service provider Infosys. "These days, they're multi-function, multi-site, and multi-country - and much more challenging for both the customer and ourselves to manage."

Yet perversely, the practice of project management turns out to be a skill that appears lacking in many manufacturing businesses. Look at industries such as construction, software development, or transportation, and project management job titles and functions abound.

But in manufacturing, project management seems to be a 'bolt-on' extra - something that people are expected to be able to do, in the same way that basic skills in literacy and numeracy are taken for granted. Even among engineers, project management education might be limited to a short course taken years before, focused on dry theory rather than practical application.

So, in all too many businesses, the results of this neglect speak for themselves: projects that under-deliver, projects that run late, and projects that exceed budget.

From new product development to productivity or quality improvement projects, performance suffers. And failure - rather than under-performance - is a very real prospect. It's estimated, for instance, that almost a third of major IT projects fail, with poor project management being a direct causal factor.

"Giving someone an important project to do which asks them to rely on some tools and techniques that they covered in a course during their undergraduate days is a crash waiting to happen," says Harvey Maylor, director of the international centre for programme management at Cranfield School of Management.

Yet the good news is that it doesn't have to be that way. Simple changes to the practice of project management within manufacturing industry, it turns out, can deliver a surprising boost to performance.

Square peg, square hole

For example, says Cranfield's Maylor, many businesses could benefit from looking for a better match between the competencies of the individuals that they place in charge of a project, and the characteristics of those projects themselves.

"Projects aren't a one-size-fits-all," he stresses. "There's a huge amount of diversity between projects in terms of size, complexity, and the inherent ambiguity brought about by uncertainty and internal politics. Someone who's good at dealing with projects with ambiguity could well be a very different person from someone who's good at dealing with projects of a significant size."

Indeed, warns Dr Stephen Simister, director of project management at Henley Business School, in complex projects with a wide variety of stakeholders and end users, 'soft' skills can be more important than technical skills.

"In a surprising number of instances, competencies such as influencing and negotiating skills - which don't necessarily sit well with technical disciplines - are actually more critical to the job," he notes. "People well-skilled in such areas can make a very valuable contribution."

At Selective Covers, for example, a recommendation from the Yorkshire & Humber Manufacturing Advisory Service prompted managing director Debbie Knowlson to call in Cedric Jeffries, an advisor with Manchester-based industrial engineering consultancy Scott-Grant.

"Cedric pointed us towards improved product flow," she explains. "Simple flow-based procedures were put in place, alongside visual management tools and a better shop floor layout." Manufacturing throughput time very quickly reduced, while on-time delivery performance dramatically increased - with 100 per cent on-time now being the norm.

And it's precisely such projects where the dry project management disciplines of critical path analysis, activity dependencies and work breakdown structures need supplementing by practical real-world skills in making change stick.

"The more you move away from straight engineering process changes, and towards changed ways of doing things, the more you're involving people - and the more necessary a higher set of project management skills becomes," warns Ian Machan, a director of Keyworth, Nottingham-based improvement specialists Machan Consulting. "In such situations, people aren't just part of the process of delivering and achieving the change, they are often very resistant to the change itself."

That said, adds John Docherty, manager of a team of recruiters at Redhill, Surrey-based engineering recruitment specialists CBS Butler, perceived project expertise is best regarded objectively. "We see a lot of people calling themselves 'project managers' or claiming project management skills who in reality have largely run projects that were already in place," he warns.

"Project monitoring and ongoing management is very different from setting up projects from Day One. In the recruitment market we're in, what employers are looking for is that combination of skills and experience that gives people the ability to detect when they're being fobbed off with explanations that don't hold water."

Training

Where gaps in project management competencies exist, training is a good way to fill them. Again, pitfalls lie in wait for the unwary - as well as unexpected bonuses.

It's important, for example, to distinguish between training in project management tools, and training in the underlying project management disciplines.

"One often hears of people being sent on Microsoft Project courses, and then being expected to come back a qualified project manager," says Machan. "Microsoft Project is a useful tool, but such an approach does rather miss the point."

"There's training out there, but whether it's always adequate is another matter," adds Ian Carlton, quality manager at fastener manufacturer TR Fastenings, of Uckfield, East Sussex. "Some people need to start from square one, whereas others need just a refresher. There's plenty of 'basics' training, but less by way of topping-up specific deficiencies."

At Meggitt Avionics, for instance, it was just such 'top-up' training that lay at the heart of the project management improvement programme that was put in place.

"Project management wasn't a core competency," says Meggitt's Cooper. "People in critical roles were engineers who had moved into a project role without having had project management training: they were good at engineering processes, but not project management processes."

On an individual-by-individual basis, he explains, training gaps were identified and filled, leading to a significant turnround in project management performance. The engineering team now hits more than twice the customer milestones - an increase from 25 to 65 per cent - while project overspend has been halved and is continuing to fall. 

Several organisations exist to provide project management training as well as certification that acceptable standards have been achieved in mastering that training.

Globally, for example, the Project Management Institute, based in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, boasts over 300,000 members and a global network of offices and local 'chapters' - including one in the UK. Certified members can be recognised by the letters 'PMP' after their name.

The UK also has its own home-grown project management training and certification body: the Association for Project Management, based in Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, has 17,500 individual and 500 corporate members throughout the UK and abroad.

Alternatively, it's possible to seek training and certification around specific project management methodologies - PRINCE2, for example, originally developed by the UK government as the standard methodology to be used by contractors working on public sector projects, has become widely accepted as a multi-purpose methodology for planning and managing projects.

"The good news is that manufacturing management typically calls for a fairly basic set of project management competencies," says Alan Harpham, chairman of APM Group, a project management training and certification organisation. "Unless you're being tasked with bringing an Airbus to market, the projects are usually shorter and simpler."

It's also possible to undertake master's degree courses in project management. Cranfield, for instance, runs a modular executive development MSc in programme and project management, while London's City University has just launched an MSc in project management, finance and risk.

"We've been very surprised by the response," says Prof Martin Newby of City's School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, who heads the course. "We've a lot of newly graduated engineers doing it part-time."

Better execution

Even so, a focus on project management that stops at the planning stage is doomed to fail. "Project management isn't just about planning: it's about monitoring, control, and a commitment to remedial actions when things go wrong," stresses Jamil Rashid, managing director of Brentford-based consultants JARA. "Well-planned projects can still fail through poor monitoring and execution."

At Chelmsford-based sensor and semiconductor manufacturer e2v Technologies (formerly Marconi) for instance, project monitoring is rigidly enforced. Around a quarter of the company's £200m annual turnover is project-based - including, most recently, image sensors fitted to the newly-upgraded Hubble Space Telescope.

"A single common review process is standardised across the group," says group chief technology officer Trevor Cross. "We insist on this right across the four divisions, because it helps us to prioritise projects and optimise resource allocation. Things do go wrong - and you do have to deviate from plan - and good project management helps you deliver on the ground what was written into the plan."

Business-based metrics make a difference, too. At Telford-based Alcoa Fastening Systems, for instance, continuous improvement projects are firmly grounded in measures that make a material difference to the bottom line. "We look at projects in terms of their impact on tool life, overall equipment effectiveness, and if they help us to increase the proportion of parts sold from the Telford site that are manufactured here as well," says engineering manager Jonathan Craven.

And finally, project focus helps deliver results. At Finnish metals and component manufacturer Luvata - an 8,000-employee business with 36 plants worldwide - a two-year-old 'lean manufacturing' initiative has concentrated on tackling projects with small teams of people directly involved in the problems concerned.

"We call the concept 'narrow and deep'," says Fredrik Vejgarden, the company's senior vice-president of operational excellence. "We think it's important to have project managers on the ground who can work with machine operators as well as senior management. The trick is not to try to change the whole world in one go, but to focus on manageable projects: learn, make sure the change is complete, and then move on."

And the results speak for themselves: inventory reductions of about 30 per cent, customer returns down 15-20 per cent, and 'on-time in full' delivery performance improved by 15-20 per cent. The moral: properly managed, improvement projects can deliver.

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