Best practices in project management

As materials handling projects become more complex, end users are demanding more of their project managers, not just their systems.

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Project management is emerging as one of the most important phases of a new facility or materials handling system, right along with system design and performance.

Of course, implementing a new system has always been a major project. But how those projects get accomplished is changing. Just what is project management, or more importantly?

The simple answer is that it’s a process for turning vision into reality. Some project managers describe it as the art and science of bringing concepts to fruition. Just as a home contractor turns a blue print and raw materials into a house, a project manager turns plans and specifications into a system that’s handling product the way it was designed to do.

The Project Management Institute (610-356-4600,, the recognized organization for training and certifying project managers, has a more formal definition:

“Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to a broad range of activities in order to meet the requirements of a particular project. Project management is comprised of five Project Management Process Groups – Initiating Processes, Planning Processes, Executing Processes, Monitoring and Controlling Processes, and Closing Processes – as well as nine Knowledge Areas. These nine Knowledge Areas center on management expertise in Project Integration Management, Project Scope Management, Project Time Management, Project Cost Management, Project Quality Management, Project Human Resources Management, Project Communications Management, Project Risk Management and Project Procurement Management.”

With that in mind, there are two components to successful project management:

The first is the project manager who may be involved as early as the design stage all the way through to implementation. Certification from PMI is increasingly becoming a requirement for that position, especially for projects with large customers.

What’s more, some systems integrators are also insisting on certification, or a willingness to get certified, from their project managers, according to Bill Casey, president and COO of SI Systems (

The second is the project plan itself that the project manager will work from.

A man (or woman) with a plan

Project management was once an accidental position. “I was a project manager for about five years in the 1970’s,” says Casey. “Back then, an organization would look around the room and ask: Who’s a good communicator who understands the business and has a feel for technology? That’s the way I got my job.”

Today, project management is a profession, with PMI as the certifying body. Increasingly, project managers are groomed for the post. A good project manager is a communicator and a problem solver. They ought to be detail-oriented and cautious. But, the best project managers also have an imagination: They can imagine all the things that can go wrong, but they can also imagine solutions.

Finding individuals who fit that bill isn’t easy. The best project managers understand their weaknesses, acknowledge them, and learn how to work with the rest of their team to accommodate for them. The best know when to manage by consensus and when to manage by dictatorship because both are important to getting the job done.

Most large customers are going to appoint someone from their team to be the internal project manager. “These are companies that are employing lean technologies and are implementing Six Sigma,” says Casey. “They already have disciplines in place from tracking costs, documentation and communications flow that they want to see replicated on our end.”

Likewise, each subcontractor on a project will appoint a project manager to oversee that company’s piece of the puzzle. Putting up the building is the contractor’s responsibility and they’ll have a project plan which will be a subset of your master plan. Likewise, you might have an equipment provider that will have a project plan which also will be part of your plan.

But at the end of the day, the Project Manager with the ultimate authority – and the ultimate responsibility for getting the project done – is going to come from the lead systems integrator on the project.

Managing the plan

In most large projects, the project manager is going to come on board early in the process. Often, as early as the presentation to the client. “The project manager needs to understand the business, the scope of the work, the proposal and the contract,” says SI’s Casey.

After that, most projects can be broken down into four lifecycle stages.

Definition stage: In this stage, you’re establishing the scope of the project; the performance of the system; the price of the system; and finally any time constraints. At this stage, you’re clearly identifying all the assumptions that will be used in the development of the plan. To avoid project creep, where the scope of the project begins to change after the plan, it’s important to agree up front on which variables are flexible and which are non-negotiable. For instance, if time is a factor, it’s important to establish drop dead dates for the project.

Planning stage: Once everyone agrees on the scope, those goals are turned into deliverables. For instance, a 90-foot tall AS/RS with a certain number of cubic feet of storage will require a certain amount of racking. At this stage, it’s also important to work with the systems integrator’s procurement staff. Finally, all of that information will be used to create a resource-laden schedule that includes the materials, manpower, machinery and methodology. A robust plan can withstand things that happen outside the plan.

Implementation stage: The schedule created at the end of the planning stage becomes the input for the project manager’s execution document. Beyond providing a master schedule for the project, the execution document should include plans to monitor and measure progress. The point is to have clear understanding of the progress to date, the deliverables yet to come, and any problems that have arrived. As part of the implementation stage, it’s important to have a process in place for change orders. The reality of any project is that you plan, you act, you review, and then you re-plan and you re-act because not everything will go according to plan. That’s why it’s important that project managers and customers have a formal change order process in place to approve any changes to the plan or schedule.

Delivery stage: In the last stage, the system is tested, validated, accepted and turned over to the customer. If the objectives have been hit and the customer accepts the evaluation the project has been successful.

The goal of a successful project is that the team is still talking to one another at the end of the job. That’s not always an easy task. But if the project manager has done the work in the first three stages, delivering the system should be routine.

This article previously appeared in the June 2007 issue of Modern.

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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