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Project Managers Unsung Heroes of Automation

Top project managers have two things going for them--a robust and repeatable process, and leadership skills that that are founded on good communication, integrity, and the ability to influence.

Note: this is a reprint of an article originally posted on automationworld.com on Feb 11, 2013. The original article can be found here.

By John Berra


If you ask me to name the most important skill in the automation world, my answer is project management. Projects are how things get done, whether you are a supplier, engineering contractor, or owner. Excellent project management skills make a huge difference in the success of automation products or software, an automation upgrade in an existing facility, or the construction of a brand new facility.

Project management is the toughest test of leadership because most project managers do not have direct line authority over the project team. Good project managers are hard to find and worth their weight in gold!

What makes a good project manager? Top project managers have two things going for them--a robust and repeatable process, and leadership skills that that are founded on good communication, integrity, and the ability to influence.

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Let's look first at the process. Most books on project management talk about an interactive triangle which consists of scope, cost, and schedule. Scope creep raises costs and causes delays, for example. A project manager's process begins with getting agreement from all the constituents on just what constitutes the scope, and on how decisions will be made in the almost certain event that changes will be required. This sounds so obvious and simple, but project management veterans will tell you that most project issues can be traced to spending too little time on the upfront definition of scope and expectations.

The next part of the process is monitoring. Engineers love data and there are many Project Management Information Systems out there. Certainly these systems can be a big help. However, it is so easy to get wrapped up in the data and not see the real issues.

Many good project managers use a set of "stoplight" charts that simply use red-green-yellow to indicate the status of key items. These are excellent tools to use with the team and with company management. Good project managers also use the visual feedback of a war room. Key project information is posted and updated.

Another key part of the process is regular and productive meetings with the team and with management. These should be honest, no-nonsense meetings where risks are brought forward, issues are reviewed, and specific action items are assigned and published.

Let me turn next to the leadership skills. Integrity is absolutely essential in the project world. When the team loses trust in the manager (or each other), the whole thing sinks into a CYA effort. Information is either withheld or doctored. Integrity is really about doing what you say you will do and also holding yourself to the same standard that you expect from the team.

Trust is earned over time, but lost in an instant. Good project managers communicate regularly and clearly. They don't tell different things to different people. They come forward with bad news and take responsibility for corrective action. Project managers lead by influence, but the leadership must be firm. The style of "my way or the highway" will not work, nor will the style of laissez-faire. Project managers need a well-tuned antenna to pick up early signs of bad vibrations.

It is impossible to cover everything about project management in a short column. The Construction Industry Institute (CII) has done some terrific work here (construction-institute.org). CII is an organization dedicated to advancing project management. They have a comprehensive array of metrics, best practices, seminars, and continuing education classes. I can also recommend a book--"Succeeding in the Project Management Jungle" by Doug Russell and published by the American Management Association.

Take good care of your project managers!

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