Learn from others’ mistakes in automation integration project management

Think Again: Minimize risk and maximize rewards of control system integration projects with this advice.

By Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering May 16, 2018

Understanding pain others have felt in control system integration projects can help avoid similar experiences. System integrators learn from each other formally in the "Best Practices and Benchmarks Manual," version 5.0, from the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA; see related news story), in peer groups, and in the "Lessons from Touching a Hot Stove," a conference session at the 2018 CSIA Executive Conference in April.

Wright Sullivan, president and founder at A&E Engineering, moderated the session and joked that when other system integrators see him coming, they cross the street to avoid being asked to be on this panel. Nonetheless, three industry experts good-heartedly agreed to share experiences.

Nigel James, chief strategic officer at Burrow Global; Kenneth Miller, president at Erdo Miller; and Titus Crabb, president at Vertech, explained what they learned, citing CSIA best practices. 

Size, scope, optimism bias

James warned against optimism bias, explaining the lure of a large contract may cause system integrators to overlook key warning signs. Scope creep, where a project gets larger in what seems like insignificant increments, can cause challenges later if not addressed early. Communicate appropriately upfront when a problem arises, discussing the right information, right impact, at the right time, with the correct tone, without delay.

"Don’t be afraid to tell the client what can go wrong" when changes are proposed, James said.

Also, he said, be sure to ask the right questions of project managers.

Poor: "How’s it going?" which will likely return, "Fine."

Better: "What is different?" which may return critical details, such as: "The customer gave us 15 new process and instrumentation diagram (P&ID) changes today, which could set us back 2 weeks." James advocated continuous learning, including learning everything about what you’re doing now. "Even if you don’t need it now, you will need it later." 

Clearly document IP

Intellectual property (IP) rights, as part of many system integration projects, should be carefully spelled out in the contract, and any changes documented as the project progresses, said Miller, echoing advice offered by Mark A. Voigtmann, a Control Engineering Editorial Advisory Board member and partner, Faegre Baker Daniels LLP in a session the day prior.

Project management tips from Miller included the following.

Trust and rely on your team. Don’t agree to a bad deal: "No," is the most powerful word you have. Avoid one client being a majority of your business.

If litigation is involved, don’t panic. Consult with experts, notify insurance and legal teams immediately, talk to clients and employees honestly and transparently, explore every avenue of defense, and try to work it out and settle at the right time. Continue to work toward a settlement. End ongoing relations with the plaintiff. Finish projects and put boxes on the client’s doorstep. Bring the lawsuit to an end as quickly as practical (it takes time) and get back to business; delegate business to others without ignoring family and yourself. 

Trust and verify

Crabb warned against taking on a project that would represent a majority of revenue for a year. Other advice included to ensure the needed experts are available prior to bidding for a project, check programmers’ code often, and ensure random drug tests are in place for everyone. For financials, use tools to manage cash flow. For project execution, set internal milestones and reviews. Develop project methodologies and note they may differ by industry and project type.

When jumping at a system integration project and think, "We got this," think again.

All lessons learned here have best practices written all over them, Crabb said. Learning from others, including reviewing questions in the CSIA’s "Best Practices and Benchmarks Manual," can help avoid taking lumps yourself.

Mark T. Hoske is content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media, mhoske@cfemedia.com.


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