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Structuring Successful Manufacturing Initiatives

by Jim Anderson, on August 04, 2020

Are you a person who likes to plan? Do you love Gantt charts, organized daily schedules, checking things off of lists? Great! The world needs people like you! But hopefully you’ve learned this life lesson by now: you can’t control everything.

Are you a spontaneous person? Do you like keeping your options open, having a flexible daily schedule, and following your nose? That’s also great, but hopefully you too have learned a life lesson by now: some things just don’t happen without a plan.

In between these two life lessons seems to be a paradox: you want to accomplish something, so you need a plan, but you can’t control everything, therefore you can’t plan for everything, so how can you accomplish anything? Planning is especially difficult if you have complex, multi-year objectives, like, for example, the digital transformation of your company’s manufacturing. You may want to realize some benefits of your program or initiative, but a) there is no way to completely plan everything in advance, and b) there is no way to reach your objective just by spontaneously working on things as they come up.

The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is somewhere between planning what you can and establishing robust processes and teams to handle the things that can’t be planned. In fact, traditional and agile approaches to project management recognize the importance of both.

Develop your team and foundational project documents

Whether you are undertaking a digital transformation or whether you are undertaking some other major organizational initiative, it is important to carefully assemble a team that includes representatives from all of the groups that will be affected. This can include IT, production, operations, and others.

You can’t always start a project with the team you wish you had—your company’s superstar performers are usually too busy to take on additional project work. In addition, relying on superstars exposes your project to the danger of the rest of the team falling into the habit of deferring to the perceived “experts”, rather than speaking up when needed. Further down the road, there is the unhealthy team dynamic where whenever the project is faltering, a “hero” steps in to save the day. That being the case, it is important to carefully consider and develop the team culture early on. As you and the team create the vital foundational documents outlining the project vision, charter, scope, and priorities, try to develop a culture where everyone feels that they have something to offer and where their ideas are respectfully considered.

Once your team has worked together to develop the foundational project documents, take the time to share them more widely in the organization, with managers, stakeholders and other people who are not contributing directly to the effort. Socializing these artifacts will give everyone in the organization a sense of the value of your effort and will give you a better chance of receiving their support later on when you or your team members will need it.

Understand your business objectives and values

In a large-scale project effort, it is critical that you take the time—both personally as a project leader and with the project team—to articulate and understand your organization’s business objectives. Is the objective a paperless fab? Or is it complete tracking and traceability of all production material? At the beginning, people’s ideas around the objective are probably a bit muddled, or people may assume they know the objective without really validating their own assumptions.

Furthermore, most projects experience some level of team conflict due to the diverse personalities and skill levels that comprise the team. Conflict should be embraced as it can often highlight issues that need to be addressed. To help guide the outcome of conflicts, a values and objectives document (sometimes called a “team charter”) helps provide leaders with a framework and language to resolve conflict. For instance, a statement like “I don’t think we should do that” becomes “that doesn’t match with our values statement” and ensures that the focus remains aligned with the core values and objectives of the team.

Treat these objectives and values as living documents and revisit them from time to time—not so often that there is no stable foundation for your work, but often enough to recognize that organizations change. What worked five years ago might need to be updated or at least remembered and reevaluated.

Plan and execute your projects

Once the team is aligned with the documented goals, objectives, and vision of the project, the real work begins: project planning. Using traditional or agile approaches is fundamental to structuring and planning the project. Provide transparency to your project planning process. Make sure the team knows the process and is actively engaged in it. Trust your team to help inform the project planning. Even the best project manager can’t know everything, so use your team’s experience and judgment when planning.

Executing your project plans can be daunting. Identifying good project milestones can help you recognize progress and can give the team an opportunity to share a portion of the work with stakeholders. Milestones are often a good time for the team to do some internal review. What team dynamics or processes are working well? Which ones do we want to change?

For stakeholders, an early milestone that serves as a proof of concept of the ultimate project objective can be a low-risk way to work out some technical details and to give stakeholders a tangible sense of what the work will accomplish.

During the execution phase of your project, if all goes well, you will still have a lot of responsibilities:  monitoring progress, communicating with the team and with the stakeholders, assessing risk, and so forth. Things won’t always go well. Take a little time to think about possibilities like budget cuts, having a technical expert leave the company, new directives from upper management, or other challenges you might face. That is when you and the team will benefit from the careful up-front work on objectives and values. Look to them to provide structure and guidance to keep the project from going off the rails.

Celebrate your accomplishments

Be sure the team is celebrating successes along the way to help sustain individual motivation and engagement throughout the project. A project that goes exactly as planned from start to finish is either rare or trivial. A project with any measure of complexity will undoubtedly encounter set-backs which can wear away at morale. Having good processes and a strong team culture goes a long way!

Also, if your manufacturing initiative includes the exploration of automation strategies, be sure to check out SYSTEMA's guide to digital transformation

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