The devil is in the detail

Posted on 20 Feb 2008 by The Manufacturer

Project management skills can be used across many manufacturing disciplines, from implementing new software to managing the design and launch of a new product. Malcolm Wheatley reveals what can be achieved by employing tried and tested techniques

When tea manufacturer Tetley decided to upgrade its SAP enterprise system to a newer version, the company could have gone down a road well-trodden by countless other manufacturers – in other words, engaging a high-priced consulting and systems integration firm to do the job. Instead, Tetley chose another option: performing the upgrade itself, using its own people, and calling on outside expertise only when needed to help with specific technical requirements.

To some, this would doubtless appear a high-risk strategy. Even with experts in charge, goes the argument, complex IT projects are failure-prone enough. Logic, they would argue, dictates that Tetley should have stuck to its core competencies – tea manufacture and marketing – and left the business of an SAP upgrade to an organisation for which IT was in turn its core competency.

But in fact, says Paul Kay, Tetley’s group business systems manager, Tetley’s DIY upgrade was highly successful. Brentford, Middlesex-head quartered international systems integration firm Morse was engaged to provide advice and expertise, working alongside Tetley’s SAP experts, in a mentoring and guidance role.“The approach we took was to say: Tell us what to do, and we’ll do it,” says Kay. “Morse provided guidance, and helped in avoiding pitfalls, while we handled as much of the legwork as possible.” The cost? Around 40 days of Morse consultancy, and an eventual outlay of around £50,000 – a figure almost ludicrously low as SAP implementations go. “We could easily have spent many, many multiples of that,” affirms Kay. Nor, he argues, was the risk especially high. “We’re very fortunate in having good SAP resource, and have been even more fortunate in retaining that resource,” says Kay. “We don’t have high levels of employee turnover – some of our SAP team have been here seven or eight years.
Anyone can deliver a successful project by spending large sums of money: we wanted to be smarter and set out to control costs by managing the project ourselves and only spending on external expertise where we really needed to.”

Yet for many manufacturers, Tetley’s confidence in its own project management abilities remains an elusive dream. For all too often, manufacturers find themselves dealing with the aftermath of projects – and not just IT projects – with very different outcomes. Late, over budget – and sometimes, not even delivering the intended result when eventually finished. From plant and machinery investments to new product development, and from continuous improvement initiatives to IT systems, the sorry truth is that all too many manufacturers’ project capabilities are a worrying weakness.

In part, says David Caddle, a principal manufacturing advisor with the Manufacturing Advisory Service South East, one difficulty is a lack of employees for whom project management is a core responsibility. “Particularly within small and medium-sized manufacturing businesses, the job title project manager isn’t often encountered,” he says. “Projects are just given to people, and they have to do the best job they can within the constraints of their existing workload and existing project management skill set. Why? It’s either a resource constraint, or manufacturers just don’t see the importance of proper project management – or perhaps a combination of both.”Yet this laissez-faire attitude is not entirely without merit, argues Nick Patchett, director of London-based management consultancy Consulting Stream, which specialises in advising on large-scale projects. “Manufacturers often take a very pragmatic approach to project management, and to the amount of project management overhead that they need to invest in a given project,” he says. “Often, it’s not that they don’t care – it’s that they are flexing the amount of project management overhead according to the significance of the project itself.”

At Kelso, Scotland-based electronic contract manufacturer Plexus UK, for example, project management skills are centre-stage – precisely because those skills form a large part of what the company offers its customers, says Roger Duerden, engineering services business development manager. “For a company like ours that relies on establishing long-term strategic relationships with its customers, the success of one project is the key to being awarded the next,” he points out. “So at Plexus, the buck stops with the project manager –he or she is the single point of accountability for achieving the project’s technical, schedule, and budgetary goals. We view our project management expertise as a core competence that significantly differentiates our service offering from that of our competitors.”

Typically, he explains, Plexus project managers are professional engineers with years of experience, able to identify and adapt to changing conditions, and skilled at intelligently conducting trade-off analyses to ensure an optimal path for project success. These personal skills, he adds, are further bolstered by a requirement for strong leadership and communication capabilities, and a proven ability to motivate others.

It’s an impressive mix, and Plexus is visibly proud of its project managers. But to some observers, job profiles such as Plexus (and Plexus, to be clear, is the rule and not the exception) omit one critical detail – a formal qualification in project management itself. In the US, for example, it’s not unusual to find project managers working within the manufacturing industry to be certified as having successfully passed examinations set by the Project Management Institute, a Philadelphia-based global professional institute and accreditation body.

Here in the UK, the government-endorsed PRINCE2 project management methodology, examined and accredited on behalf of the Office of Government Commerce by High Wycombe-based APM Group, is more commonly encountered. Generally, though, it is found in large-scale IT, infrastructure and defence projects – which is one of the prime reasons government influence lies behind the development of the technique, of course: the Government, as a significant customer of large-scale projects, has a vested interest in seeing them managed effectively.

Yet that isn’t to say, stresses APM Group’s managing director Richard Pharro, that PRINCE2 doesn’t have a role to play within the manufacturing industry. “Increasingly, we’re seeing PRINCE2 used for manufacturing-specific projects – and just for IT projects within manufacturing companies,” he asserts.
But the barrier to still-greater adoption, he adds, isn’t access to training, or even awareness of PRINCE2 as a project management resource. Instead, it’s the willingness of manufacturing companies to submit to the PRINCE2 process itself – and accepting the administrative burden it imposes in terms of better governance, clear documentation, stage reviews and planning. “If a project is important enough for a manufacturing company to devote scarce resources to, then it ought to be important enough to devote the time to get it right,” he says.

Others agree. “There are a lot of project management insights and disciplines that manufacturers can learn from – especially in the public sector,” enthuses Stuart Smith, managing director of Rugby-based specialist manufacturing consultancy The Bourton Group (formerly Ingersoll Engineers). “The trick for manufacturers is to take what’s out there, and synthesise it for their own needs.” And here, says Martin Wynn, reader [senior lecturer] in business information systems at the University of Gloucestershire’s business school, the over-riding message is to keep it simple. Having implemented PRINCE2 in a number of 100- to 200-employee manufacturing businesses – including subsidiaries and operating units of Dowty and SKF – as part of the government-backed Knowledge Transfer Partnership, Wynn’s view is that the full PRINCE2 project management methodology is essentially a bridge too far.

“For FTSE 100 companies engaged in large projects, PRINCE2 is a superb set of tools – but for small manufacturers of 250 employees or so, it’s too complicated and too big: no fewer than four separate documents are required just to get a project started, for example,” he says. Streamline the PRINCE2 toolset – by using just one document to initiate a project, for instance – and things become a great deal less unwieldy.

Software tools, too, can help manufacturers capture the benefits of better project management without bogging them down in detail and distraction. While Microsoft Project is a well-known desktop tool, larger projects – especially when they morph to become multiple projects, running side-by-side, termed project portfolios – often need more sophisticated project management applications. Sun Chemical, a world-leading manufacturer of printing inks and organic pigments, uses one such portfolio management application, GenSight, in order to improve the project management of its global portfolio of new product developments. With some 600 researchers and development specialists around the world linked up to the application, explains Sun’s technology process manager Robin Clarke, the company has instant and up-to-date visibility into two critical areas of its new product pipeline.

“First, we can see how we are deploying our development resources globally – enabling us to consolidate development activities, if required, in order to use our resources more effectively. And second, we can see how we are performing against the milestones that have been set for each project – not only allowing us to make better decisions about how to meet those milestones, but also enabling us to fine-tune the risks and rewards of each project, by bracketing high risk high reward projects with lower risk lower reward projects, so as to balance the risk and reward ratio of the whole portfolio.”

Even so, concludes Hugh Buckley, managing director of Reading-based project and change management consultants Quortex, the ultimate responsibility for project success lies with the manufacturing business’s senior management – and not with the project manager, their project management methodology, or the software tools they choose to support that methodology. “Project management methodologies have an important role to play, but they are not a panacea: the real art lies in their application,” he warns. “As the old adage goes, ‘a fool with a tool is still a fool’.”