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Ask a Project Manager: School vs The Real World

 “Dear Elizabeth: I am a new project manager in my first internship. I’m out of my depth and overwhelmed with the new jargon. In particular, what I’m finding is that my work environment isn’t exactly like the theory I learned on my project management degree course. What tips do you have for me?”

 

Ah, are you finding out that real life isn’t like the textbooks? Yes, we’ve all been there. I met another intern recently who said to me that he’d learned more in the last 10 months working in the PMO than he had on the previous two years in his business management degree. There’s nothing like a bit of workplace reality for bringing home the skills you really need to make a success of a your career.

First, I should say that the great stuff you learned in your courses is not at all wasted. Please don’t feel so overwhelmed that you start to doubt the value of your education. That has given you a solid grounding in theory, vocabulary, and the concepts you need to be able to work in a project management environment. Even if it doesn’t feel like it right now – trust me, you know more than you think you do.

So, some tips for dealing with the new job.

Learn the jargon.

What you learned in your course might not be the exact terminology that your colleagues are using. There are lots of words that mean ‘risk log,’ and they are virtually interchangeable. However, you’ll feel more comfortable and you’ll fit in more quickly if you use the vocabulary that everyone around you is using.

Start a glossary and note the commonly used terms. If you hear one in a meeting that you don’t understand, write it down and ask someone later what it means. (You can ask in the meeting if you like, but I know it can be difficult to get up the courage to interrupt the meeting to ask newbie questions.)

Find out what your colleagues do.

Everything is less overwhelming when you know who is responsible for what. Then you know who the subject matter experts are when you need assistance.

Ask people to spend 30 minutes of their day with you and talk to them about their job. Where do they fit into the hierarchy? What does their team do? What do they need from your team? And, is there anything you can do to help while you’re here as an intern? Explain that you’re learning about the business and you want to be as useful as you can while you’re there.  I have done this every time I start a new position, and it’s helpful. I have never yet had someone say they didn’t want to talk to me about themselves and their expertise. Reach out. Book five meetings this afternoon.

Do your job.

You are there for a reason, right? At this point in your career, my best advice is to get on with what you’ve been asked to do. Make a good impression and do the work to the best of your ability. If you can offer something more than you’ve been asked to do (for example, an intern I once worked with completely redesigned a tracking spreadsheet I asked him to update, and made it a million times better and less work), then ask if you can do that and deliver it.

The reason I put this point in is that it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the business as a whole. Depending on where you are, you could be a small cog in a team of hundreds. Your day-to-day priority is to turn up and work through your To Do list. When you can break down your responsibilities into smaller chunks that you can do without feeling overwhelmed, then you can see yourself making progress.

It is helpful to understand the bigger picture, and I encourage all project managers to boost their business acumen skills and learn about how the company functions as a system. When you are struggling, it often helps to just think about putting one foot in front of the other.

Besides, you’ll be surprised at how much you absorb and learn just by doing that.

Connect your job to your course.

In no time at all you’ll be making connections between your tasks and what you learned on your course. Try to identify where someone is using a management style you’ve learned about, or what part of the project management process you are in now. Think about how you would identify stakeholders or run this phase, if it was your project, or what tools you would use that you studied that would help you at this point.

You won’t win any friends by going around saying, “In my course, I learned this…,” and, “I just realized your using situational leadership!” But, if it helps to share those thoughts with your mentor or manager, then do. It’s more important to try to associate what you have learned with what you do in the office so you can see the practical implications of using the techniques you studied.

And congratulations on your degree, by the way! That’s a big achievement, and if you can do that you can definitely succeed in your new position using the same skills.

5 Ways AI and Automation Will Change Project Management

Technology has made our lives easier. If you don’t believe that, go watch a few episodes of the PBS series, The Frontier House. While technology and automation have lessened some of the strain, they’ve also stirred up a lot of fear.

The Luddite movement in the early 1800s is one of history’s more famous examples of humans lashing out at automation. During a period of low wages and England’s war with France, English textile workers saw automation and textile machinery as a threat to their livelihood. The Luddites burned and smashed looms and other machines they believed were destined to replace them.

Since then, there have been numerous backlashes against technology and automation. In the 1980s, United States postal workers protested the introduction of letter sorting machines. Today, taxi drivers are protesting over ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber.

At its heart, automation is about solving a problem or a task that can be reliably offloaded from a person to a machine. Manufacturing has seen amazing progress due to automation, and now there are several opportunities for automation in project management to make our lives easier.

Rather than replace the role of project manager, which I don’t see happening any time soon, I think automation will relieve us from some of the more mundane tasks and help bring consistency to our daily lives.

Technology has been steadily impacting the jobs of project managers for years now, but recently the pace has quickened dramatically. Now project managers, like almost everyone else, are seeing automation on the horizon. Rather than run in fear, I suggest that we may find this technology is the friendly kind that can help.

Here are five ways I believe automation will impact our jobs in the near future.

1. Offloading Truly Routine Tasks to Increase Value

We are already making progress in automating things like tracking time, updating estimates, and reporting schedule progress. When put together, these have the potential to reduce meeting time and improve accuracy. All of this can free up your team to focus on the more valuable tasks.

The project manager can use a central hub to collect information and updates from team members, which will help ensure that updates are timely and thorough. We have seen some of this already. But, with heuristics and quality assessment algorithms, the best is yet to come.

2. Improving Assessments to Identify Risks

In the 2002 movie Minority Report, authorities were alerted to serious crimes before they even occurred. You would think all of this proactivity would make life easier, but that would have been a boring story.

Imagine, however, that you had a list of likely delays, risks, and problems before they occurred. This technology already exists in the supply chain world, and it’s only a matter of aggregating the right pieces of data for it to work for project teams.

Some projects already receive weather, traffic, and shipment notifications to alert them to problems before they manifest. Add to that the possibility of supplier problems, failed quality checks, delays, and personnel issues, and suddenly you have the potential for a robust risk tool.

3. Employing Metadata to Detect Problems

You may have noticed how your phone has become smarter in recent months. It can predict what you are going to type next and even anticipate where you are walking or driving. While this is the result of a relatively straightforward process of monitoring and then predicting your behavior and routines, the impact is downright amazing.

We now can unobtrusively collect metadata and look at how team members do their jobs. Many thought leaders believe that we can understand more from this metadata than by looking at the actual work product. There is a gold mine of information waiting. We just need to learn to mine it effectively.

In fact, many industries, including credit scoring, counter-terrorism, and financial institutions, are using metadata to predict events before they happen. In my community, a large EMS provider uses metadata and analytics to predict where and when traffic accidents will occur and proactively station ambulances near those intersections. The results are uncannily accurate.

Soon, project managers will have tools that give us a treasure trove of information about our teams’ performance. A lot of predictions can be made by analyzing the habits, the communication, the focus, the time spent on task, and other attributes of the person responsible for doing the work.

4. Facilitating Communication to Improve Accuracy

Automation can offload mundane tasks. For example, an application could get updates from the team, produce key reports, and raise triggers and alerts when problems were detected. Communication is one of the trickiest areas for a project manager to master. Software already exists to correct grammar, but other algorithms are being deployed to help identify potentially problematic phrases, and improve accuracy and truthfulness

5. Coordinating Tasks to Increase Efficiency

When I started out in project management, the ideal project manager was a directing and controlling figure who handled everything and everyone. Over time, the idea of monitoring more and controlling less has emerged. Today, the role of a project manager is trending toward that of coordinator and coach and less of dictator. This concept of monitoring becomes important because the project manager is supposed to be proactive, and if something can alert us to an emerging problem then we are ahead of the game.

And the good news is that coordinating is something software can help with. Everyone is connected, and now real-time decisions can be made about tasks and their priorities. This allows an algorithm to make decisions about who completes which task in a way that can optimize the project. This has particular potential with agile projects where “generalizing specialists” who can be deployed somewhat interchangeably within the team are favored over siloed individuals. All of this holds the potential of freeing up the project manager from refactoring the schedule repeatedly.

There will always be the need for project managers to get things done (or as Snoop Dogg says, to “put paint where it ain’t”), and the fundamentals of project management remain the same today as they have been for decades. It is our job to develop a solid understanding of success, build a good team, plan carefully, communicate well, adapt, resolve conflict, and manage the value delivery. Automation has the potential to make many of those tasks easier, but it likely won’t replace people any time soon.

How Manufacturers Can Gain Competitive Advantage Through Servitization

In a fiercely competitive global market, manufacturers’ product margins face increasing pressure, forcing them to look for ways to differentiate their businesses. Many are going down the servitization route, a digital transformation that enables them to provide services and solutions that supplement their traditional product offerings.

It also means gaining a better understanding of customer needs by forging closer working relationships with them, overwhelmingly the main reason for adopting servitization, according to the 2016 Annual Manufacturing Report. Three quarters (74%) of manufacturers surveyed cited their main reason for offering servitization was to build “closer relationships with customers”. Almost half, (46%) were seeking to boost profitability through the provision of added-value services, while 44% were looking to increase revenue.

This transition from making goods to selling services represents huge change that creates major challenges for many traditional manufacturers, as their product effectively becomes the platform from which to deliver those services. For some, the solution will lie in developing product-service systems, combinations of products and services, to deliver the outcomes their customers want and value. They will also need to bring in new technologies.

[Further Reading: 5 Project Management Trends for Manufacturing Teams to Watch in 2017]

A study on the future of servitization, carried out by the University of Cambridge, found consensus among capital equipment manufacturers (CEM) on five key technology requirements to enable servitization in the future. These included predictive analytics to anticipate specific failure modes, remote communications to resolve issues from a distance, consumption monitoring to create customer-specific service offerings, pushing information to employees, suppliers, sub-contractors and customers via mobile platforms or the internet, and mobile platforms to access business software remotely for maintenance techniques, production outputs, etc.

Servitization involves digital transformation on a massive scale, and not surprisingly it has created a huge demand for project management skills.

[Further Reading: How to Be a Project Team of the Future]

There are plenty of examples of manufacturers that have been successful in moving to servitization, including Rolls Royce, which famously stopped manufacturing aero engines and instead contracted with customers for its ‘power by the hour’ service. In this model, the customer buys the power that the engine delivers, and Rolls Royce provides all of the support to ensure that the aero engines can continue to deliver that power. It was a seismic shift in business model, but the result was a much closer alignment between the interests of the customer and the provider.

Rolls Royce is the poster child for servitization, contracting with customers for its ‘power by the hour’ service.

In its manufacturing heyday, global technology firm IBM was churning out a range of products, including computers, data storage devices, and software. It also offered a number of services, including networking and related services. When the company began to flounder in the early 1990s, it switched strategy and focused on its services, which included supplying integrated IT solutions to business. The result? IBM became a one-stop shop IT service provider, a move that strengthened its position in the market.

Of course, these global enterprises have the internal resources needed to make the switch from product to service focus.

Can smaller manufacturers achieve the same? Many already are, selling products that are combinations of manufactured goods and services. In the digital age, however, the servitization journey is largely driven by new technology that will take them beyond the bundling of manufactured consumables and spare parts with scheduled product maintenance tasks to forging much closer relationships, some would say partnerships, with their customers, where they know in real time what they need, and can respond in real time to provide it.

For many traditional manufacturers this presents challenges that require the digital skills and expertise of project management professionals to facilitate their transition to a servitization model.

Modern technologies, particularly in the project management and ERP (enterprise resource planning) spaces, are great enablers of this. In some organizations, effective servitization relies on the use of sensors embedded in products, so IoT applications and platforms will have a role to play in this process.  They will need the capability to record and control the services they are offering, which requires data analytics expertise.

Successful project managers are already using technology as an enabler for delivering successful servitization projects, achieving maximum efficiencies in the process, delivering the best outcome for the manufacturer and their customers.

[Further Reading: How Contract Manufacturing Teams Keep Up With the Speed of Innovation]

There are many business benefits of switching to a servitization model; the most obvious being the opportunity to increase revenue streams from selling services as well as selling manufactured products. Delivering consistently well on service contracts will boost customer loyalty and retention and create further opportunities for upselling of additional products and services.

There are also potential risks. Moving to a servitization model needs the buy in of leadership, and that can require a significant shift in corporate mindset – designing services is quite different to designing products – as well as a shift in culture, from ‘make it, sell it’ to ‘support it throughout its business lifecycle’. Investment in skills training may be required to ensure that staff can deliver a customer-centric service, and there is always the possibility that customers may initially be deterred by a new offering, which comes with different contracts and payment models, etc.

If they are to survive in a global market, manufacturing companies need to increase their competitiveness. Servitization is seen by the industry as an effective way of doing that, with a third (33%) of manufacturers polled by the 2016 Annual Manufacturing Report citing it as a means to “shut out the competition”. Around a quarter (26%) see it as a route to improve competitiveness through faster product development and a smaller proportion have identified it as a way to improve cost monitoring and management.

With the right resources available, integrating value added services into their full portfolio offerings would enable manufacturers to achieve these business objectives, but also to become successful digital businesses focused on the complete customer experience.

June Product Update: New Custom Fields for Better Work Management

Custom fields are the perfect way to track and report on any part of your workflow. This month, we’re excited to share several new Custom Fields updates that offer increased visibility, insights, and customization.

Now you have more ways to capture and report on the things that matter to your team, like project health scores, approval dates, and project costs.

Add New Color to Your Dashboards

Bring your dashboards to life with new color indicators. Administrators can now set colors for Pick List Custom Fields on the Custom Fields settings page. Colors can be used to convey project status within the Projects tab, quickly visualize project status, and customize executive reports. The selected colors will show wherever Custom Fields are exposed: on the Edit Panel, in your Personal Columns Display, in Analytics Reports, on Dashboards, in Resource Workload Report, and on the My Work Tab.

To display Custom Field colors on a Dashboard Donut Widget chart, set the Ring Emphasis to your color-coded custom field and select the “Default” Color Palette.

Dashboard Donut Widget chart with colors assigned to custom field values.

Track and Report the Values Unique to Your Business

LiquidPlanner already allows you to track, monitor, and report on things that are common across business and industries, such as estimates and hours logged.

With our latest update, you can now create date, number, and currency fields to track and monitor what’s unique to you.

Date fields can be used to house and track important dates in the life of a project (e.g., kickoff dates, customer sign-off dates, ship dates). Currency fields will now create consistent formatting across all of your custom financial metrics, such as contractor costs or material budgets that are attached to your projects. Number fields can be used to track numeric values, such as quantities and weight of parts.

Ready to add that extra bit of personalization to your workflow? Log in now and give the new colors and custom fields a try.

To learn more about these updates, read the release notes.

Industry 4.0 Series | 3D Printing in Manufacturing: Three Sectors to Watch

This story is part of our Industry 4.0 series, which looks at the new technologies, techniques, and trends that are pushing manufacturers toward a new level of optimization and productivity.

There’s much more to 3D printers than plastic trinkets. The industrial market for 3D printing has been heating up, with manufacturers exploring new ways to capitalize on additive manufacturing’s latest technologies.

By 2020, 75 percent of manufacturing operations worldwide will be using 3D-printed tools, jigs, and fixtures made in-house or by a service bureau to produce finished goods, according to a 2016 Gartner report. Gartner also predicts that 10 percent of industrial operations will incorporate robotic 3D printers in their manufacturing processes by 2020.

While 3D printing is expected to grow in manufacturing operations, there are several sectors that are already utilizing this new technology.

Healthcare

When people think of 3D printing and medical devices, prosthetics or implants usually come to mind. But the applications for 3D printing within the healthcare space span beyond that.

The ability to quickly and inexpensively produce prototypes using 3D printers is a big win for the medical device industry. Engineers and designers can now produce prototypes in-house, making it easier to communicate ideas and designs to stakeholders.

By being able to hold the device in their hands, designers, engineers, and stakeholders can more accurately and quickly evaluate the device. Modifications can be made and tested in a day, rather than weeks. Using 3D printers to create prototypes can also help manufacturers avoid wasting time and money by finding issues in the device design before it moves too far in the development process.

3D printers are also being used to create life-size replicas of the human anatomy, allowing surgeons to practice complicated procedures on realistic replicas.

Such was the case when researchers created a 3D model of the brain of 5-month-old Gabriel Mandeville. To help treat his violent epileptic seizures, Mandeville’s parents consented to a hemispherectomy, a complex medical procedure that removes or disconnects the healthy side of the brain from the side of the brain that’s responsible for the seizures.

Using the Simulator Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, the doctors printed an exact replica of Mandeville’s brain out of soft plastic. Blood vessels were printed in a different color to differentiate them from surrounding tissue.

Before the surgery, doctors were able to do a practice run of what Joseph Madsen, director of the epilepsy program at Boston Children’s Hospital, called “one of the most challenging operations in pediatric epilepsy surgery.” The 10-hour surgery was a success.

Aerospace

The aerospace industry is at the forefront of the additive manufacturing movement. From NASA to GE, aerospace and aviation companies are finding new ways to use 3D printing to create more efficient processes, develop prototypes and parts, and create designs that are unachievable with traditional manufacturing.

In 2016, GE began creating the fuel nozzles for its next-generation LEAP jet engine using direct metal laser melting, a technique that fuses fine layers of metal powders together with a laser beam. Compared to earlier models, the 3D printed nozzles are 25 percent lighter, five times stronger, and printed as one component, rather than 18 individual pieces that required assembly.

Each LEAP-1B engine has 19 3D-printed fuel nozzles, made from a nickel cobalt alloy. Image credit: GE Aviation

Last September, GE acquired two European metal 3D printer companies, Arcam and SLM Solutions, for $1.4 billion, illustrating that GE believes 3D printing can bring big benefits to the company.

Automotive

Rapid prototyping, mass customization, and fast production are the biggest benefits automotive manufacturers will see from 3D printing.

With 3D printers, manufacturers can now quickly produce accurate prototypes to validate design. Previously, manufacturers relied on machine shops to produce prototyped parts. This process cost both money and time, especially if a part needed modification. With 3D printers, manufacturers can now print their parts in-house and test and iterate quickly.

3D printing will also help usher in the era of mass customization for the automotive industry. Last year, automaker Daihatsu partnered with 3D printing company Stratasys to bring customers customizable body panels for its Copen model. The 3D parts, known as “Effect Skins”, are available in 15 patterns available and 10 different colors. Customers can mix and match to create their own unique looks.

Local Motors’ Olli is the world’s first 3D-printed autonomous shuttle. Image credit: Local Motors

And, what about printing entire cars? The potential is there.  In 2015, Local Motors introduced the world to the Strati, the first road-ready 3D-printed car. A year later, they printed a self-driving electric shuttle, called Olli, that has been serving commuters in Washington DC and Berlin.

More in the Industry 4.0 Series:

The Case for Multiple Project Management Methodologies

A multiple-methodology approach to project management may lead to happier project teams, according to a new report by LiquidPlanner.

The 2017 State of Project Management in Manufacturing report found that 74 percent of the respondents who said they were highly satisfied with their existing project management methodology actually used a combination of methodologies.

At first glance, using multiple methodologies seems odd, especially in manufacturing organizations optimized with repeatable processes. The natural reaction is to respond “What’s wrong with my methodology?”

PMOs and process specialists spend months developing standard processes, methods, and templates to achieve predictable results. Believe it or not, the PMO doesn’t create a new template or a new process out of sadistic pleasure. Many PMOs seek to provide structure and guidance while letting project teams adjust and scale the methodology to the project.

Despite the amount of focus user group surveys, subject matter expert collaboration, and thoughtful process analysis, there will never be a single, perfect methodology for getting work done. It’s natural for project managers and teams to use a combination of processes and templates from multiple methodologies, such as waterfall, scrum, lean, and Six Sigma.

Here are six reasons why:

1. Methodology is not a silver bullet.

A methodology is merely a tool in a team’s toolkit to guide them to a successful outcome. The team delivers the project using methodology as a guideline. Effective teams still need strong leadership, project management, and clear communication to deliver. The best methodology in the world won’t help a struggling team from failing; it will help them fail according to the standards. This is why effective teams know to pick the best tool for the job, independent of prescribed methodologies.

I’ve participated in several project turnarounds where the project manager followed the methodology but failed to actually lead and manage the project.

One of my favorite projects successfully launched and delivered its objectives without a signed project charter. Methodology should be used to provide directional guidance and teams need to know how to adjust accordingly.

2. Projects don’t always follow a predictable path.

Projects are not a production assembly line. Methodologies are developed to provide guidance to produce a predictable result. However, few projects follow a predictable path.

When you’re working on a project, it’s likely that there is a methodology to follow. Yet, the journey to get there won’t always be a predictable journey. No two projects are the same; the people, environment, project constraints, and potential risks will be different.

Even my commute to work doesn’t follow a predictable path, and I drive it every day! Traffic, weather, and delays getting the kids into day care all impact my “project” to drive to work. If we can’t exactly predict when we’ll get into the office, how can we be expected to be 100 percent accurate on project end date six months out?

The key is to adapt and adjust. This also means tweaking the methodology.

3. People deliver projects, not methodologies.

We staff projects with talented people to leverage their professional experience and ensure project success.

I’ve met several certified PMPs, Black Belts, and Scrum Masters who shouldn’t ever lead or manage a project. People may be experts in a methodology, but if they lack the professional experience and subject matter context, the chance of project success is lower.

A few years back, a process quality assurance (PQA) analyst wrote me up as “out of compliance” because I wasn’t using a prescribed methodology template for meeting minutes. Instead, I used a mind mapping tool to capture the notes and actions and sent them out in a Word document. The team found the mind mapping format easier to follow and it actually lowered the administrative burden.

I understand the PQA analyst had a role to play, but it wasn’t in delivering the project.

4. Methodologies lag behind best practices and feedback loops.

The time it takes to introduce methodology changes, gain consensus, update documentation, and communicate the change doesn’t enable a project team to shift easily. Within the PMO, methodology changes can be launched quarterly to ensure best practices are incorporated and teams have time to learn and adjust. The lack of an updated methodology should not stop a team from implementing their own best practices.

Project teams need short feedback loops (an Agile principle) and should be encouraged to fail fast and experiment to find the best solution. Just because a methodology has a design phase, doesn’t mean the team can’t run small incremental proof of concepts to validate the design. As humans, we do this all the time and course correct.

5. External pressures and politics influence project decisions over process.

How many times have you presented a project launch date only to be told “not acceptable” or “go back and sharpen the pencil”?

You can incorporate every step of the methodology into a project schedule, but senior management’s requirements (or mandates) will always have an impact on the project.

After all, people are not machines. Politics play a role in project decisions and predictable outcomes. Unfortunately, teams that seek to skip “all that process stuff” end up with a troubled project that fails to deliver the intended result. Consequently, teams look to multiple approaches to solve project problems.

Project teams will always find a reason why a specific methodology won’t meet their needs because their project is “different”. Rather than constraining them to one methodology, allow them to pick the best tool for the job.

Of course, project governance still needs to be in place to ensure the project doesn’t “run off the track.” At the organization level, a portfolio manager or the PMO needs to ensure standard project milestones and checkpoints are being met regardless of the tools, templates or processes used in specific methodology. If project teams are encouraged to use the tools and processes that best fit their projects, the PMO and the project team need to align on the approach upfront.  Otherwise, some project teams will take this advice as not following a methodology at all.

The best way to strike a balance between methodology, delivery, and process-centric organizations is to tailor the methodology to the project and gain agreement. If I had done this one my past project, I may have avoided a non-compliance report from the quality assurance analyst!

After reviewing the 2017 State of Project Management in Manufacturing report, it doesn’t surprise me that more than half of respondents use a combination of methodologies. Those teams are selecting the right tool for the job. While that may not be 100 percent process compliant, it sure is smart!

Case Study: Scientific Equipment Manufacturer Adopts LiquidPlanner for All Product Development

At Lake Shore Cryotronics, a scientific equipment manufacturer, the lack of a project portfolio solution for project management made it difficult for the company’s 50-person product development team to track and manage its complex workload. The company’s move from Microsoft Project to LiquidPlanner gave the team a single view of resource allocation across all projects, including sustaining engineering work. The team can now quickly adjust to changing priorities, and is working together more effectively because LiquidPlanner pulls the entire team into the project management process—in a way that’s easy and natural for all.

 

 

Founded in 1968, Lake Shore Cryotronics develops, manufactures, and markets measurement and control sensors, instruments, and systems for precise measurement and control of temperature and magnetic fields. Users of these products are typically scientists, physicists, and researchers in universities, aerospace, government, and corporate R&D labs, with applications that range from electronics and clean energy to nanotechnology and deep space.

Download a PDF of this case study here.

The product development team at Lake Shore Cryotronics consists of about 50 people, including engineering technicians, design engineers, manufacturing engineers, software developers, and managers. At any time, the team’s workload includes roughly a dozen new product development projects, as well as a continual stream of sustaining engineering efforts. All team members support multiple new product development projects and are expected to ensure that sustaining efforts remain a high priority.

Lower Participation, Inaccurate Schedules, and Reduced Visibility

Prior to mid-2016, the product development team at Lake Shore Cryotronics lacked a comprehensive solution to all its project management needs. At the time, the company used Microsoft Project Professional. Each project resided in a standalone Microsoft Project file, and the team’s single Development Process Manager was the only Microsoft Project user.

“We chose to have only one person manage schedules due to the complexity of Microsoft Project,” says Rob Welsh, who assumed the role of Development Process Manager a few years ago, when the company decided it needed a full-time focus on project and process management.

During the planning phase for each new project, Welsh would work with that project team to define a work breakdown structure and project schedule, upon which Welsh would create a new Microsoft Project file. As the project progressed, Welsh used Microsoft OneNote to collect status updates from the project team. “We utilized OneNote to maintain project records and help keep project schedules updated,” explains Welsh. “Every week, for each project, I would create a table of current tasks in OneNote and ask the resources to update their progress and estimate remaining work. After I received that information, I used it to update the project schedule.”

The major problem with this method was that projects often deviated from the original plan very quickly. Technical issues, changing priorities, new tasks, and changing resource availability all resulted in the tasks that Welsh was asking people to update in OneNote each week not matching what they were actually doing. “The result was lower participation, inaccurate schedules, and reduced visibility to what people were working on,” says Welsh. “The only way to counter this was with frequent meetings that pulled entire project teams away from their work and negatively impacted project completion.”

As Welsh points out, all of this wasn’t due to poor planning or coordination. For example, during the course of a project, the team would often find a way to deliver greater value for customers. “The problem we had, however, was that we had no good way to determine the effect of that change on that project or other ones that shared the same resources,” Welsh explains. “This made it difficult to examine the tradeoffs, if any, and make quick yet fully-informed decisions on how to reallocate resources.”

A Better Way

Lake Shore Cryotronics now uses LiquidPlanner for all its project management needs. “Our adoption of LiquidPlanner was something that I initiated; there was no mandate from management,” Welsh explains. “We had already tried several approaches—to the point that most people were experiencing ‘changing project management methods fatigue’ and there was much skepticism with trying yet another method.”

However, Welsh was dealing with the issues the team faced on a daily basis, and wanted to find a better way. “I kept looking for a project portfolio solution where we could view all projects and tasks in a single place, a collaborative platform that was easy to use by all team members, and a tool that people would want to use because it would help them get their work done,” he recalls.

Welsh found LiquidPlanner through a simple web search. “Upon visiting the LiquidPlanner website, I immediately jumped to the FAQ section, read the paragraph on ‘Why should I give up on traditional project management tools?’, and was intrigued by how well it described our current situation,” he recalls. “Upon closer inspection, LiquidPlanner offered just what we needed: a priority based scheduling engine, a project portfolio solution, and accessibility for all team members to enter and update tasks.”

After signing up for a trial subscription and confirming that LiquidPlanner could indeed meet his team’s needs, Welsh took his recommendation to upper management. Their response: “We now have a new requirement: whichever solution we adopt has to integrate with our ERP system for time tracking.”

Fortunately, LiquidPlanner was built to do so. Welsh spent a few hours designing such an integration, had it setup and tested in less than a week, and received the go-ahead to purchase LiquidPlanner subscriptions for all team members in June 2016.

Today, Lake Shore Cryotronics manages all product development using LiquidPlanner. This includes more than a dozen new product development efforts, which typically range from 3,000 to 5,000 hours of effort. “Users took to LiquidPlanner right away,” says Welsh. “The entire team is using it for all aspects of our work, including electrical design, mechanical design, firmware development, software development, user manuals, marketing literature, and manufacturing process development.”

The product development team at Lake Shore Cryotronics is benefiting from its use of LiquidPlanner in many ways. Schedules and tasks are continually updated throughout the day, with at-a-glance visibility into potential issues and estimated completion dates. Ranged estimates make it easier to estimate tasks, enabling people to apply a best case/worst case approach instead of trying to come up with a single, hard number. All team members now have a consistent method for planning their work, always know their top priorities, no longer need to report their hours in two places, and are able to collaborate more effectively.

“LiquidPlanner is enabling us to work together more closely as a team,” says Welsh. “The key enabler: users have access to relevant project data, including the ability to add, modify, and report on tasks. It’s much more efficient than our previous process, where I had to query all users on a weekly basis, collect their information, and then update the project schedules manually. It also promotes more accurate and complete schedules because it takes the ‘middle man’ out of the process. In the past, with weekly updates, schedules were usually out of date. Now, with the LiquidPlanner scheduling engine always running, our schedules can be considered ‘real time.’”

Read the full case study here.

Advice for Project Managers: Good Questions to Ask in a Job Interview

 Dear Elizabeth: I have an interview coming up. It’s important to me that I find a company with a culture that fits my values and the way I like to work. What questions should I be asking as a project manager to ensure that job is going to be a good fit for me? What are some of the red flags to look out for in the responses?

It’s great that you are thinking about this! So often I speak to people who are just looking at the interview process as a way of showing off their own skills. They forget that interviews are two-way conversations. You need to “interview” the company as well and find out if it is somewhere you would like to work.

After all, we spend so much time at work. It’s going to be miserable for you if you end up taking a job that doesn’t fit with your working style and values. Plus, when you leave after such a short period of time after realizing your mistake, you then have some explaining to do on your CV.

But you aren’t going to have that, because you are going to find a company that is a perfect fit. You’ll be making the right choice because you know you will be happy there.

First, think about the things you want from a working environment. That could be:

  • Flexible working and being able to work from home occasionally
  • Knowing that the talent pipeline supports diversity and that there are strong diversity networks in place
  • Not having to travel, or the opportunity to travel a lot
  • A small team, or a large team, or a medium-sized team environment

Think about the way you do your work. Do you love Scrum but don’t get on so well with Kanban? Do you struggle with some tech but love other applications? Would you be prepared to learn new ways of working if it was required or would you rather fit into a team that uses the tools you are already familiar with?

Some Questions to Ask

Craft your questions around the things you identified above. So if you know that being able to work from home a day a week is a deal breaker for you, be open about it: “I’d like to work from home one day a week. Is that a common working pattern in your organization?” A closed question like this (where they can really only answer yes or no) is a good way to get the information you need. If they are hesitant, or if they say no, you can follow up with: “Would that be something you’d consider for me if I was successful in securing the position?”

Here are some other, more general questions you can ask to get a feel for the culture of an organization:

  • What training can I expect to receive in this role?
  • What support do you have for new starters? Is there a mentoring scheme?
  • What kind of projects will I be working on?
  • How big is my team? Is that the only team doing this kind of work?
  • How long do most people stay in their roles here? Do you encourage promotion from within? What happened to the last person in this role – why is there a vacancy?

I like to ask, “How many women are on the senior leadership team?” Adapt this list so that what is important to you is covered.

What to Look Out For

Your interviewers aren’t going to know everything about everything in the business. Asking for their thoughts on what caused the stock price to drop a few months ago could make them feel uncomfortable and as if you are testing them and trying to prove how much research you’ve done on the company. By all means ask your question, but be prepared for them to hedge the response if it isn’t relevant to their role. They are only human.

However, here are some red flags to watch out for:

  • Saying yes to everything and promising the earth. Unless you can see evidence of that from what you see walking around the office, you should verify claims that seem too good to be true.
  • Not answering the questions or saying, “We can sort that out after you join.” No good. You shouldn’t have to join the company first to work out if you are entitled to childcare help or to understand their flexible working policy.
  • Getting the feeling that they don’t support their staff; hearing that they don’t promote from within; learning that the team hasn’t been together for long because people leave their jobs quickly. While it’s always harder to walk into an established team, it’s more positive to join a team that is expanding because business is growing or because someone has been promoted into a new opportunity, leaving a you-sized gap to fill.

You may only get this one chance to ask your questions, so make it count! You won’t lose anything by asking everything that matters to you. On the contrary, you can only gain by having more information with which to make your ultimate decision. Even if they offer you the job, if you have uncovered insights that would make you think twice about saying yes, you are still a winner because you managed to dodge taking a job that would ultimately make you unhappy.

Industry 4.0 Series: Preparing for the Rise of Collaborative Robots

This story is part of our Industry 4.0 series, which looks at the new technologies, techniques, and trends that are pushing manufacturers toward a new level of optimization and productivity.

There’s a new wave of robots on the horizon. They’re smarter, safer, and cheaper than earlier models. And, they’re going to have a major impact on manufacturing for years to come.

That may be why manufacturing experts consider robotics to be the greatest potential disruptor over the next five years, according to a new study from the University of Kentucky’s Global Supply Chain Institute.

“Robotics have been around for more than 50 years, but they have become dramatically more dynamic in the last five,” says Paul Dittmann, executive director of the Global Supply Chain Institute and author of the paper. “It used to be that robots were in a cage and were dangerous. They had very limited applications and weren’t programmable. Now we have robots that work alongside a human. They’re so easy to program that people can literally move their arm and program the robot, as opposed to complex code.”

Meet Your New Colleague

Stäubli is one of the companies producing these collaborative robots. The Swiss-based company unveiled its new TX2 line at the Automate trade show this April.

This focus on safety and collaboration is part of a second phase for robotics, says Paul Deady, automotive segment manager at Stäubli. In the first phase, robots took over jobs that were too “dangerous, dirty, or mundane for people to do. We put robots in those application spaces. We took people out,” he says. The second phase is focused on “robots that are purpose-built—designed and engineered to be safe to work alongside people.”

An engineer operating the Stäubli TX2 60 at Automate trade show.

An engineer operating the Stäubli TX2 60 at the Automate trade show.

The TX2 models use compact laser scanners to detect the presence of humans. When a technician approaches, the robot reduces its speed. If the technician gets too close, the robot stops until he or she has moved to a safe distance. These models also have a “sensory skin” that immediately stops operations when touched.

One downside of these collaborative robots is that production and speed are sacrificed with frequent slowing and stopping. Dittmann believes that this will change as technology develops.

While safety has been increasing, prices have been going down. The cost of purchasing and operating a robotic spot welder, for example, went from $182,000 in 2005 to $133,000 in 2014, and will drop to $103,000 by 2025, according to a report by the Boston Consulting Group. At the same time, robotics performance will improve by around 5 percent each year.

Lowered costs, lessened barriers to entry, and improved performance of robotics will be a catalyst for increased adoption. Boston Consulting Group predicts that the share of tasks that are performed by robots will rise from a global average of around 10 percent across all manufacturing industries today to around 25 percent by 2025.

At Stäubli, Deady has seen robotics expanding from the traditional automotive space. “We’re seeing a lot of creativity and capital flow into the robotics space,” he says. “It’s a growing market.”

Preparing for the Tech Tsunami

There’s more new technology out there than ever before, Dittmann says. “It’s almost like a tsunami coming at people. Those who ignore it could be in serious trouble,” he adds. But he’s quick to point out that staying current doesn’t mean chasing every new technology. There needs to be analysis and solid ROI.

[ Further Reading: How Project Teams Can Prepare for Industry 4.0 ]

Manufacturers interested in robotics should follow a disciplined and methodical approach. When Deady works with Stäubli customers that are new to robotics at, he recommends the following actions:

Document Your Existing Processes

“If a manufacturer hasn’t embraced robotics before, the first thing I encourage them to do is to document their existing processes,” he says. Document what you do and how you do it, as well as any process variations.

Manufacturers should also take the time to measure process cycle times, error rates, and other key metrics that can establish a baseline. “By documenting your existing processes, you can understand the sequence of operations,” he adds.

Look for the Easy Wins

“Then, you start to look for what we call low-hanging fruit,” says Deady. He recommends manufacturers look for processes that are repeatable, consistent, and don’t have a lot of variability. These are the easiest to automate and bring benefits like reducing scrap rates and waste and improving product quality. Dirty, dangerous jobs are also great opportunities for automation.

Create an Implementation Plan

“Get your people involved early on, and don’t skimp on training,” Deady recommends. “Have them present during the installation and commissioning phases. There’s opportunity for what I like to call informal skills transfer. You’re hanging out, watching the equipment go in, and able to ask questions. You can pick up a lot that way.”

Manufacturers also need to plan for how long installation and training will interrupt manufacturing. Once the new equipment is installed and running, companies should measure the actual performance and document the new processes.

Back Up the System

A mistake Deady often sees is manufacturers not backing up their new robotics programs. “If something catastrophic happens, they are in a world of hurt,” he says. “Back up the system.”

Advice for Managing Robotics Programs

When it comes to managing robotics programs, Deady, who worked as a project manager before joining Stäubli, recommends PMs view robotics as “just another project.”

“Break it down into quantifiable systems,” he adds. “Just like any other project, break down the work breakdown structure. Don’t be intimidated by robotics and automations. Take a methodical, disciplined approach, and you’ll have success.”

[ Further Reading: How Lean Six Sigma Moves Manufacturing Teams Ahead ]

Dittmann advises manufacturers to not lose sight of the methodologies and best practices that have been successful in the past. “Manufacturing 4.0 still needs to have Lean at its core,” he says. “Sometimes you get the bright shiny toy, take focus off what you got there, and get in trouble. Lean manufacturing is at the core of everything. It can’t be ignored or deemphasized.”

What Project Management in Manufacturing Looks Like Today [Infographic]

Manufacturing is essentially a series of sequential steps in a longer process. Because each step must be completed before moving onto the next, even the smallest delay can have a significant impact on delivery. That’s why proper planning, scheduling, and risk management are so important.

We recently asked more than 100 manufacturing executives, engineers, and project managers about their day-to-day project management practices and how these play a role in their work and businesses. To learn what they had to say, check out the infographic below.

Want to read the complete findings? Read our 2017 State of Project Management in Manufacturing report.