How to communicate effectively in engineering project management

Automation System Integration Blog: Action-oriented details are critically important for effective engineering project management, for all team members, not just project managers. See bad and good examples.

11/25/2013


If you are an engineering project manager, or a group leader, or a “boss” of any description, then being action-oriented is a basic tool of the trade. The problem is that the project manager/group leaders/bosses usually represent a small percentage of the population – there are only a few relative to the general masses of engineers that actually execute the work. Therefore, being action-oriented in a project is everyone’s responsibility, not just the project leader.

Example:

  • Engineer 1 is working in a site with significant code standards and is implementing some new program code.
  • This engineer is executing detailed test cases and uncovers a minor code bug that needs to be resolved. (For the purpose of the example, assume the code error is minor, and is not safety related, but still needs correcting.)
  • The engineer, in a desire to ensure the remainder of the team is aware of the issue, writes a note as follows:

Dear team,

While working on site today I encountered scenario XYZ which will, unfortunately, cause code behavior ABC. To rectify this issue you need to download the revised version attached. Please resolve this in your current program and download to the controller."

The problem above is that pretty much nobody will actually do the work requested. OK, maybe few engineers would, but in a team of 20, odds are very few will actually get the bug fixed properly. Why not? No names, no dates, and no actual criteria were provided to create feedback for an effective resolution. For the technical bodies out there, compare the communications to an “open control loop.” You send out the signal... and hope someone closes the loop.

Let’s revise this critical piece of engineering communications:

Dear team,

While working on site today, I encountered scenario XYZ. It is very important this code fix is implemented in all of our current releases. To that end, we need to do the following:

  • Update your program code as per the attached notes. The notes include a short “how-to” guide with screen shots.
  • To confirm the code fix is complete, a test plan is also included. Please print this test plan and execute it, checking the boxes as you go.
  • I will look to each member of the team to drop off their test plan on my desk by Tuesday at 2 p.m. to confirm the fix is implemented.
  • As well, I have listed each team member below and will send the list out daily, deleting those that have completed the task.

Thanks for all the support, much appreciated. If there are any questions about the work, or what the completion criteria are, please email me back. As a note, I will be out of the office on Friday, so you would have to contact me via cell on that day.

What are the key differences in these two communications?

  • Each resource has a “map” that helps them get this done. The examples, the test plan, and the instructions about what to do are clear.
  • There are specific names and dates: Team members understand that ignoring the message is not an option.
  • There is additional detail around contact information. There are no excuses if you send an email on Friday, and it doesn’t get responded to.

Here’s what needs to be acknowledged with everyone involved in engineering project management (PM):

  • The second email requires a lot more work... for everyone!
  • The not-so-funny irony is that email #1 takes less work but gets almost nothing done.

As reference, there is a lot of information on this topic, in general, online. (I’d suggest starting with the Wikipedia “Getting Things Done” post. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getting_Things_Done).  Specific to engineers, most engineers (especially the technical ones) are very task-oriented people: They like “getting stuff done.” I've also found (although I don't really have any stats to prove it) that the majority of engineers also tend to be on the “introverted” side of the personality fence. What you end up with is, at times, is a true desire to affect change (such as communicate to the team about a potential code issue) coupled with a desire to avoid confrontation (such as hold peers accountable for implementing the fix). 

For more experienced project managers, or those focused on the leadership/PM side of work, the information above will be old news. The point I am trying to make is:

  • It’s not just the PM that is responsible for this stuff. Everyone, on all levels, needs to make sure their communications are actionable. That means you, technical engineer or co-op student.
  • You shouldn't be surprised if you write an email like the first one above, and nobody does anything.
  • Writing email #2 can be uncomfortable because you are holding others accountable and that takes trust, ownership, and follow through, but in the end, it’s the only real way to “get stuff done.”

- The Automation System Integration Blog aggregates expert advice from Callisto Integration, providing manufacturing consulting and systems integration. This blog provides integration advice in plant-floor controls, manufacturing execution systems (MES), and manufacturing consulting, from the factory floor through to the enterprise. Andrew Barker, P.Eng., Callisto Integration, compiled the advice. www.callistointegration.com

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