Digital transformation is an organizational change process as much as it is a technology change process. Regardless of whether the objective is to increase yield or go paperless or otherwise increase manufacturing productivity through digitization, successful organizational change ultimately requires buy-in and alignment throughout all levels of the organization. The thoughtful and early identification of a project team that includes representation from each group that will be affected by the outcome of digital transformation initiatives is essential.

The project team must collaboratively develop project charters detailing the vision, scope and priorities and, subsequently, project roadmaps and milestone plans that synthesize all of the stakeholders’ perspectives. Creating, socializing and adapting these artifacts will ensure that the project is initiated in the correct direction, and often will serve as a framework that the stakeholders and project team will continue to refine as the project continues.

Business Objectives

Manufacturing automation can provide solutions to any number of business objectives. Is the strategic objective to “go paperless” on the shop floor? Is it to track and trace all production material? Perhaps the objective is to increase yield, improve overall equipment efficiency (OEE), or reduce the complexity of manufacturing processes and operational scenarios? Chances are, identifying business objectives will be an evolutionary process as input is gathered from the project team and the objectives are explored, iterated, and refined.

Once a set of objectives has been clearly articulated and agreed upon, leadership must work to establish a coherent vision, define the associated boundaries and establish the business context, goals, priorities, and measures that will be used to influence the project team to successfully negotiate the iron triangle of scope, schedule, and resources.

Project Management Principles

Due to the complexity and risk associated with digital transformation projects within the domain of advanced manufacturing, it’s imperative to adhere to strict project management principles and enlist the assistance of a certified project manager (PM) with both breadth and depth of expertise and experience in the area of advanced manufacturing automation projects.

It has been proven time and time again that spending sufficient time to correctly plan the work results in lower overall costs and increases the probability of project success. The PM is responsible for ensuring that the project is adequately planned – and the plan is relevant to this specific project – and should synthesize the knowledge areas of project integration, scope, schedule, cost, quality, resource, communications, risk, procurement and stakeholder management. The PM must possess expert knowledge and judgement to adequately consider each of these knowledge areas within the context of the project at hand and it is imperative that the PM is provided the time and resources to do so.

Project Teams

In digital transformation projects, collaboration with representatives from groups which will most likely be impacted by changes provides valuable input and buy-in from the users who will be interacting with the final product. Acceptance and adoption of new systems and/or processes are most successful when end users are involved in their development and implementation. Further, these domain experts can help the project manager to fully understand the current situation and offer thought leadership to shape the solutions to be implemented as part of the transformation.

When building the project team, recruit key shop floor personnel as subject matter experts. Doing so will ensure that past experience is leveraged, rather than painfully (re)learned. Finance and manufacturing operations personnel will help keep the project grounded in reality in terms of both budget and practicality. Other key individuals who possess domain-specific expertise will also help focus the project toward a reasonable and achievable outcome. Establishing this cohort of “change agents” who possess deep domain experience and who are motivated to drive change is a best practice. Involving them early and actively integrating their input to balance priorities and objectives ensures that their voice is heard and their efforts are aligned with the vision – sure signs that the team will step up when the project invariably becomes challenging.

Project Planning

Once the vision has been sufficiently detailed, priorities have been outlined, and a rough roadmap and timeline has been established, formal planning can begin. With these resources as a basis for formal planning, aspects of the project requiring further elaboration will be discovered, and addressed as the project plan is created. Although a project plan is really never finalized until the project is complete, the stakeholders will have a common starting point, and a framework in which to make the necessary decisions going forward.

Refining Priorities

Within the planning phase, the PM and the stakeholders begin to fine-tune the priorities for the project. From there, it becomes necessary to reevaluate and refine the project scope. Priorities are often vaguely stated but, through progressive elaboration, the priorities will continuously be revisited, clarified, and calibrated. Developing a common understanding of priorities early in planning phases is critical. Ideally all stakeholders are aligned, as the priorities will continuously be in focus while the project is being executed, monitored and controlled.

Project Roadmap

A project roadmap is conceptually similar to a roadmap used to navigate a cross-country trip. It provides the information needed to reach the intended destination and visibility of the overall route, yet allows flexibility for progress evaluations, course corrections, and changes in cadence as needed.

The initial project roadmap is a roughly-drafted, high-level planning tool that continuously evolves as the project develops. Informed by the expertise of the project manager, project team, systems architects, and stakeholders, the roadmap is focused around the sequencing of major milestones which are motivated based on priority, defined tasks, and associated risks. For instance, careful consideration must be given to team size and capacity, project scope and complexity, dependencies, and issues which may arise related to technology, organizational acceptance and adoption, partial or complete changes to fundamental business practices, or access to resources and domain experts.

Roadmaps are an effective communication tool that can be used to ensure that the PM, stakeholders and project team are further aligned as to the scope, and sequencing of work. Initial assessments of duration, and effort should not be taken as commitments by the team, but instead, should be used to help all parties understand how the project may fit together and be realized. Additionally, the roadmap should be consistent and aligned with the shared vision and scope of the project so that the PM, stakeholders, and team can continue to iterate and evolve these artifacts together to ensure there are limited opportunities to differently interpret the scope of the project.

Project Timelines

Developing timelines requires expert judgement – both in content as well as in process and structure. Timelines are likely represented in the project roadmap as very rough, high-level estimates as to what milestones can and should be accomplished, by when, and include any currently-known dependencies that establish time-sensitive constraints. The timeline may be further elaborated and structured as a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), or as a prioritized product or project backlog. As the PM and stakeholders begin to assign resources and further elaborate on and prioritize objectives, a natural next step is to begin to estimate effort and duration, and in turn develop a project timeline that is used as the baseline plan.

The process of effort estimation, and task sequencing is again heavily influenced by the project methodology. Regardless of whether the project is managed within a traditional or agile project methodology, it is imperative that the resources actually ‘doing’ the work are engaged in developing the plan. Suffice it to say that the process is challenging, and requires expert judgement and guidance of an experienced PM, and the estimates should ultimately reflect the knowledge of the team members that are doing the work – not the desire of the executive sponsor or the PM. All planned work requires acceptance and commitment by the team that is doing the work as well as the stakeholders funding the project.

Proof of Concept

It is often desirable to define a Proof of Concept (PoC) as an initial project phase. A PoC is useful to begin the process of establishing a common understanding of what is meant by digital transformation – specifically to the company, site, and impacted employees. The PoC is also useful in establishing a more realistically informed set of priorities, project roadmap, and a timeline associated with achieving these priorities.

The PoC should be exactly that – and the definition of proof and concept will be different for each organization, project and team. The PoC should include some of the important characteristics or priorities of the final solution in order to demonstrate the overall value of the project conceptually. For instance, if the objective is to control production processes with limited human interaction, the long-term solution would be to integrate and automate all equipment. In this case, a PoC involving the integration and automation of one key piece of equipment can be used to further inform the organization and ensure that the project is adequately scoped, staffed, and supported – while providing an accurate indication of what can be accomplished. An additional benefit, results of the PoC will help to further align the project team and identify other issues for consideration.

The PoC should be used as a pragmatic evaluation used to inform the overall project timeline and scope, based on the results achieved. The PoC is instrumental to ensure that a majority of the stakeholders are aligned in the project vision and scope as well as to understand where the stakeholders envision flexibility in terms of scope, schedule, and/or resources, prior to committing to the larger project.

Project Execution

As the project transitions from planning to execution, active and frequent communication within the project team ensures that inevitable changes are proactively addressed and that the team is able to execute their planned tasks. The PM has the responsibility of monitoring and controlling the project. In parallel, the PM must also manage project knowledge, quality, risk, procurement, resources as well as communication among the project team and stakeholders.

Evaluate & Celebrate Achievements and Milestones

Evaluation of the project at key milestones is an important process which provides the PM, team and stakeholders an opportunity to review and assess the project results against the project plan to gather important information – was the vision achieved? Did the WBS adequately define the sequencing, dependencies, effort and duration? Were there risks that could have been identified or mitigated differently? Were there breakdowns in communication to relevant stakeholders – executive sponsorship, organizational, or otherwise? Were the business objectives and expected benefits realized?

In Agile parlance, this is called a sprint retrospective. The stakeholders are asked to provide constructive input to ensure the next iteration of the project is informed by the prior. In waterfall projects, a closing phase achieves a similar result, while additionally bringing a formal closure to a project phase or the project itself. Closing, or a retrospective, is the opportunity to reflect on the success, failure, and to increase organizational learning and solidify the experiences based on project results. It is also the opportunity to define next iterations based on the actual results, and importantly, to celebrate the success and hard work of the entire organization to achieve the results.

Think Big, Start Small, and Move Quickly

To recap, a large-scale organizational change project, such as digital transformation, requires skilled project management. The project will certainly benefit from following a defined process. Furthermore, we have found that if you live the motto of “Think Big, Start Small and Move Quickly”, your project results will benefit greatly, and your team and stakeholders will be rewarded with satisfaction of success.