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Project Management in a Technical Environment

In today’s world of ever increasing speed, complexity and competitiveness we as technicians and managers find ourselves with the overwhelming need to achieve absolute efficiency. This need forces us to organize and direct our energies in more creative ways. As we surpass one goal, another sets the bar even higher requiring additional improvements. This efficiency is generally a result of taking our experiences and lessons learned and converting them into an improved method or product at the most competitive cost.

Project management helps bring efficiency to our technical challenges. Originating in the days of pyramids and castles, project management has advanced through NASA and the Space Program onto modern construction processes and into the worlds of IT and manufacturing. PM is achieving a maturity in virtually every industry requiring products or deliverables. In many organizational environments, the term program management is used to define the management and prioritizing of a multiple of projects, not to be confused with project management.

At some point in our careers we have all been involved with, been made aware of, or practiced the principles of project management. It is largely defined as the process whereby you are called upon at the inception of a project or deliverable, to plan, co-ordinate and control all the resources required to complete the project or deliverable through to operation within an allotted time, an agreed budget and to a specific level of quality and safety, at a minimum of risk.

In the early stages of our careers or as specialists, many of us play a role in the overall project management process. A project team may have participants exhibiting planning skills; other members of the team may have more technical or quality skills. Generally one individual acts as the project manager, overseeing the entire process and holding ultimate responsibility and authority. It is human nature to appoint a leader. This position is usually achieved after years of playing several roles in the PM process, gaining knowledge and experience or through formal education. Occasionally a project manager is assigned this duty at a premature stage in his career development, which can produce less than acceptable project results. It can also leave the project manager disillusioned and wrongfully perceived as an underperformer when, in fact, a lack of skill sets was the true culprit.

There are countless volumes of literature available to help detail and define the need and application of project management techniques and methods. Many organizations have adopted PM principles and created procedures for their own unique circumstances.

In this article, I wish only to highlight the basics of PM and how it relates to our daily work assignments as participants of a project team.

Why Use Project Management?

As with any task, it makes good sense to create and follow a well thought out game plan. PM helps create that plan. It helps you focus on your objectives by documenting your requirements and building your deliverable on paper before committing expensive and scarce resources to it. PM produces information which increases your level of confidence and communicates the expectations. It forces you to plan your resources, and then use them efficiently and productively.

The Project Management Institute, founded in 1969, is the custodian of The Project Management Body of Knowledge. This document represents years of effort and standardization in the profession of project management. Through education and practice one can achieve the recognized designation of PMP. (Project Management Professional)

Projects can range in size and scope from a new product such as a pipe fitting to a major industrial construction project such as a nuclear plant. Each deliverable has its own unique set of circumstances. They can be standard products with multiple quantities or, as in many cases, a custom application. Regardless of how unique the project is, in general all undertakings require some form of control and organization.

Project Management is made up of many organizational competencies, however, we will deal with the following six main controls which, once mastered will deliver a high incidence of success. These are not in order of importance or significance. Each unique project will have a set of circumstances that will dictate what priority this list should follow.

  1. Scope
  2. Time
  3. Cost
  4. Quality
  5. Resources
  6. Safety

1. Scope

A scope of work defines what it is you want in detail through written documents or an electronic data base. It further serves to avoid interpretations. A well defined scope provides clear instructions understood to mean the same thing by all who are affected by it. The Product Scope is the “What” and the Project scope is the “How”. A scope can also help to define the work breakdown. The work breakdown reduces the scope or project to easily definable and manageable parts that can be resourced and scheduled. The scope of work or a work breakdown is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and constructible. Tender documents generally begin with the scope of work. It should address all the major aspects of a project such as time, cost, quality and safety. Generally, the more detail found in the scope of work, the more efficient the cost and time will be in executing it.

2. Time Control

Schedules are created to plan, monitor and control that precious commodity, time. The scope of work is usually accompanied by a time restriction. This can be in a macro form or a more detailed micro form. Several forms of time control exist. The worst form of time control being memory or, as many of us veterans recall, on the back of a cigarette pack or napkin. More effective methods include lists with dates, day-timers and notes. Modern software now allows us to utilize time-scaled charts, specialized computer applications and risk analysis programs.

In essence, time control involves establishing a timeframe or duration and applying it to an item of work breakdown or activity. It should be measurable so that at specific intervals progress can be determined against the base or original plan. These durations are assigned by the use of actual data from previous results or from estimated results. These activities are linked to other activities via dependencies. These dependencies are called relationships. Activities can be linear or in series or they can be parallel with one another. By creating this network of interdependencies, a critical set of activities emerges which helps to determine priorities. With accurate input of actual progress, the schedule acts as a tool to determine current status and predict future results.

3. Cost Control

Similar to time control, cost control assigns value to the scope of work. Individual items within the scope can be valued and then summarized to a work breakdown item or cost code. Ideally, time control and cost control should support the same basic work breakdown structure thus providing a basis for measurement. This basis serves as the initial cost plan. The value or cost of an item of work can be determined by using historical data, estimated results or through research analysis. Cost is generally broken down into labour and material with possible contingencies, where they apply.

Controlling costs involves careful procurement and assignment of resources and materials within the scope budget or estimate. Any deviation from the scope or changes in work is a major source of cost overruns. Change management becomes a key function in controlling these unplanned costs. Comprehensive documentation is the basis of a well managed cost and change control program.

4. Quality

Quality can be defined as the ability of features and characteristics of a product or service to satisfy stated and implied needs.

This takes a more technical approach to the management of work and the level of expectations in product or process. A good quality program starts with a well defined need through clear and concise scope documents, specifications and drawings. It includes such factors as material specifications, dimensioning, tolerances, welding procedures, codes and regulations. In the case of personnel it involves levels of skill, expertise or, certification and professional designation. Quality programs should be recognized and uniform. Many organizations have adopted recognized international standards of quality control such as ISO. Quality involves inspections and the documentation of results which are compared to the specified needs, which may in turn lead to non-conformance and corrective actions. Needless to say the fewer non- conformances encountered, the more successful the project in terms of cost and time.

5. Resources

Resources include all the elements required to execute or deliver the project such as labour, material, money, equipment, tools and time. It involves procuring and assigning these resources at the point of need in the project in order to avoid waste or delay. Resources introduced too early, too late or inadequately become inefficient or non- productive thus driving cost and time beyond the plan or budget. The key to efficient use of resources is to determine the optimum quantity and apply them at the optimum time.
Procurement of resources, managing, human and labour relations also become key functions in a project in order to ensure adherence to quality, time and cost. Resources too can be planned in the same manner as cost and time applied to items on the schedule. By applying resources to the schedule, histograms and cumulative curves are generated, providing early resource management capabilities.

6. Safety

As a mature, industrialized economy and society, we have developed safe-guards to ensure that people can work at their vocation with a level of confidence in their personal safety. Today, unfortunately, there continues to exist economies which lag behind in basic worker safety practices. Eventually education will help to create a global minimum safe work standard.

The goal of a safe project is to perform and complete the scope of work within a specified time, cost and quality without injury or incident. This begins with a complete safety policy and procedure. The policy and procedure adheres to or exceeds government regulated standards of safety. These policies and procedures must be communicated to all the project participants via several media methods. These include orientation, training, regular reminders, visual and audio awareness techniques. Safety records and reporting are an integral part of a good safety program which generates statistics and lessons learned, thus injury avoidance. Safety audits to ensure compliance are a must as complacency can easily result in an injury to a worker. Another widely used safety technique is the task plan which documents the task process and highlights the potential dangers, and the techniques used to avoid or reduce the risk of injury. Each participant in the task reviews the documented plan and acknowledges his understanding prior to the work. This communication helps to unify the group’s responsibilities and identifies the expectations.

To achieve a competitive edge it is necessary to take an organized approach when embarking on a project. Project management can help to achieve that success by providing techniques and guidance through each stage of a project’s development. Each of the above controls does not act alone. They each relate to one another in a project. If one of the controls is not managed adequately it will manifest itself on some other control item. For instance, a badly defined scope will increase costs and duration due to excessive contingency allowances. A poorly executed safety program can result in serious injury which produces emotional and tragic results but also causes resource inefficiencies and increased costs or time delay. Conversely poor quality or product can force a project into reworking non-conformances utilizing additional unplanned resources.

In conclusion it makes good sense to consider the fundamentals of project management in your assignment. When a project is small in nature a project manager may be on their own to perform all the major functions of control. On larger projects the function of the project manager may be as leader and coach guiding a team of experts. Utilization of project management does not guarantee perfect results in all cases. If applied and executed properly, project management will reduce the risk of failure and increase the rate of success as you gain confidence and experience from project to project.


Robert Mattia’s 30 year career began as a Planner/Scheduler advancing to Project Manager in engineering, fabrication and construction companies, covering projects in steel, paper, wood, manufacturing, automotive, chemical, power, gas and mining industries in Canada, USA and UAE. He teaches part time. He graduated from Ryerson Polytechnical University with a Project Management major is an A.Sc.T. (OACETT) and is Certified in Alternative Dispute Resolution. Robert can be reached at. [email protected].

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