Eight factors for process automation project success

Process automation projects are complex and can go through many challenges before completion. Remaining open, honest, and demanding high expectations from everyone can help ensure the project will be successful.

By Robbie Peoples, Cross Company October 23, 2018

Complex integration projects can present a level of ambiguity even for seasoned project managers. Keeping a close watch on budget and schedule are critical for success, but are not enough to ensure the project is a success in the eyes of a customer. Maintaining customer satisfaction can be the most challenging aspect when managing an integration project.

Customer satisfaction, as perceived by the customer, goes through transition cycles just like project phases. The customer’s view of the performance of the integration team is a complex element that can be difficult to accurately measure. Effectively managing perceptions and expectations can be challenging. To succeed, one must understand and relate to the customer’s pain points.

As projects progress through the life cycle, the number of interactions and exchange of data between stakeholders also fluctuate. The figure below outlines the typical definition and planning phase of the project lifecycle. The summation of time and effort of both the definition and planning phase typically exceed the total effort of the execution phase.

Generally speaking, more interaction is needed with clients on the front and back-end of project phases. The planning stage also requires accurate and timely delivery of data from the customer to progress into the execution stages. These customer demands put pressure on clients to produce information and can be a bottleneck for the entire project. In many cases, clients do not have the expertise and/or available bandwidth to spend the time to produce the information needed for execution.

The eight points below highlight key characteristics to pay attention to and are derived from real-world experiences of managing complex automation projects and identify key attributes to help manage the experience.

1. Don’t underestimate the demands

To ensure project demands can be met, it is recommended to evaluate the workload requirements for all stakeholders prior to the execution of a large project. If the company does not have large project execution experience, it is highly recommended to discuss with knowledgeable professionals to define the requirements. One common misconception is that the current work responsibilities can be maintained while taking on additional project loading activities as well. Another common oversight is underestimating the detailed knowledge required to provide accurate data or review/approvals required. These oversights can be detrimental to success and all work loading should be properly planned and staffed for success.

2. Engage with stakeholders early

It is important to have a solid working relationship between all stakeholders. It is recommended to dedicate time of the front-end of the project to establish a solid foundation based on ethical business practices. Face-to-face meetings are always recommended over video or conference calls. It is important to discuss the interactions between groups and define scope boundaries.Define the expectations of how requests, submittals, deadlines, and out of scope requests will be handled. Doing business is easy when the project is within schedule and budget. However, when deadlines are looming and stakes are high, it is always better to understand how to work together to address issues and concerns prior to a high-stress situation. Over communicate the expectation from all stakeholders to ensure everyone understands.

3. Request feedback often

Embracing the aspect of continual improvement. Meaning, all stakeholders should check their ego in at the door, humble themselves, and ask for direct honest feedback. Positive feedback is great but the only way to improve is to define the negative aspects. This is a two-way street for all stakeholders. Both customer and contractor should have an open discussion because we all have responsibilities to deliver. Depending on the project size, milestone reviews can be performed on a periodic basis. All issues and actions should be published and follow-up on for each feedback session.

4. Get management involved

Involving upper management on a periodic basis shows a commitment to the responsibilities. This cultivates an open door policy to help clarify current issues at hand and provide primary decision makers with first-hand information. These meetings should be more strategic than tactical. Identify all roadblocks or critical path items but keep the topics at a level that everyone can follow and do not allow conversations to get into the weeds, which might lose the interest of the management team. Review meetings should not be the standard weekly or bi-weekly meeting attendees. Identify a separate time to review the key issues to keep management aware of the project status.

5. Hold stakeholders accountable

All stakeholders should be held accountable to deliver the associated data and/or information needed to move the project forward. Always assign specific deadlines for delivery and do not allow generic time frames to be assigned. If items are delayed then the following predecessor items will be delayed as well. All deliverables and deadlines should be reviewed at every meeting to ensure everyone fully understands and accepts the responsibilities. Collective synergy and commitment from all stakeholders will result in project success.

6. Follow the process

Partnering with a professional group with a defined and qualified process of implementation can be the difference between success and failure. Do not allow a custom approach or non-proven strategies to creep into the project. Cutting a new path or re-inventing the wheel only invokes a level of uncertainty to the outcome. The only way to predict the future is to understand the past. When schedules become tight, most people search for ways to cut corners. Be sure to fully evaluate the impact or potential impact of all actions and trust the proven process to lead to success.

7. Do the right thing

Mistakes will happen, but what is important is, to be honest, and admit the mistake, identify how to correct the situation, and provide a solution to prevent that mistake from happening again. To provide honest, fair, and open communications with all stakeholders is always the best policy. Always act in the best interest of the customer and lead by example.

8. Remain persistent and open

Common attributes of successful projects are acceptance and upholding responsibilities from all stakeholders. All successful projects have hardships throughout the project life cycle. However, persistence to work through those issues establishes a level of trust and understanding that builds healthy relationships. An open culture of continuous improvement and dedication to success are critical to forming a bonding partnership. Partnerships are a deeper commitment by a stakeholder to provide long-term engagement.

Dedication to those relationships include the give and take scenario. Meaning, solutions are identified together that are fair practices and not one-sided. It is a good idea to keep management involved, solidifying the commitment. Be sure to communicate openly and honestly with realistic expectations while adhering to the most ethical business practices. Doing these things will surely bring success to the project.

Robbie Peoples, integration manager, Cross Company. This article originally appeared on Cross Company online. Cross Company is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Emily Guenther, associate content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media, eguenther@cfemedia.com.

This article appears in the Applied Automation supplement for Control Engineering and Plant Engineering.

Original content can be found at www.crossco.com.