Industrial Automation Project Management: Communication Plans and Scope Creep Management

9 min read

To effectively lead a project team, Project Managers must have communication plans to share information, gather intelligence and obtain approvals. A strategy to tackle scope creep will ensure the project stays on track and achieve its goals.

In the final chapter, industry experts advise on:

Establishing a communication plan with the stakeholders, team members, and suppliers

Automation projects can fundamentally change the way a manufacturer operates. Professionals agree unanimously that Project Managers should be excellent communicators and have a plan for each group: stakeholders, team members, and external partners.

Who are the stakeholders?

They are the people whose jobs can be changed because of the automation project. From line operators, system engineers to distributors, customers, and nearby communities. One of the most critical communication goals here is to help said operators and engineers bridge the skill gap and adapt to using the new system.

Keeping an open dialogue with its supply chain partners helps the project align with what they value the most. Finally, if a project will impact the nearby communities, it is a company’s responsibility to keep the neighborhood informed.

Be an active listener

Active listening is a vital soft skill in enhancing communication. The listener devotes complete attention to the speaker to understand the message. Active listening helps bridge information gaps, which can be critical to an automation project’s planning phase. Active listening allows project members to understand workers’ operation bottlenecks and build a better project design with their tacit knowledge.

Establishing trust with stakeholders can be done through active listening. Trust-building is the key to rallying support behind a project because it removes the fear of the unknown. It can be a catalyst towards technology adoption as people are more willing to use what they help build. 

Ally with the HR department

The HR department plays a vital role in facilitating effective plant-wide communications. Because of their understanding of each staff member, Project Managers can empower the HR department to:

  • Communicate the reasons for change early and clear,
  • Identify “change champions” that will advocate positively for the business change, and
  • Plan for training materials or courses to help employees adjust to new operating environments.

Who are the team members?

Team members are made up of qualified employees who have joined the task force from the project’s inception. They gather use cases and define pain points. Their understanding of the production process and the industry make them ideal for envisioning the solution best for the company. Finally, if the project team chooses to work with a System Integrator, they collaborate to develop, implement, and bring the project to fruition.

Ensure goals and roles are crystal clear

Not conveying the project goals is like not telling a taxi driver where the destination is. It wastes both the driver’s and the passenger’s time and money. Worst of all, it still does not achieve what the trip sets out to accomplish. Having clear goals reduces distractions and helps team members stay focused, improving overall project success.

Many subtasks will have to be checked off during different phases of an automation project. Defining each member’s specific duties and milestones they must accomplish eliminates confusion between team members and senior stakeholders. Without clear roles, there is no accountability, and motivated team members may feel resentful and burnt-out. Responsibility assignment is unquestionably essential to creating synergy between team members that resembles a well-oiled machine. 

Develop effective decision-making

Automation Project Managers can be tied to many duties, sometimes inevitably becoming a roadblock to the project itself. Communication breakdowns like this are widespread in large-scale projects. They can be costly and inefficient.

Project Management Institute (PMI) recommends complex projects with many moving parts, such as an automation project, using a “RAPID” (Recommend, Agree, Perform, Input, Decide) method that builds on a team that already has clearly defined roles. Each action is assigned to a qualified team member.

  • Recommend: This role is responsible for drafting proposals. This can be done through research or talking to Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).
  • Agree: This role agrees, disagrees, or may have to work with the Recommender to improve recommendations.
  • Perform: This Perform role carries out the agreed-upon decision.
  • Input: Individuals assigned to provide inputs can be SMEs or senior staff who provide information to form recommendations or decisions.
  • Decide: The Decision Maker is accountable for the outcome of the decision. It is generally a senior management role in an organization.

Note that these decision-making steps do not have to happen according to the order above. Having a well-established decision-making model such as this avoids unnecessary delays and minimizes loss of opportunity.

Who are the external partners?

Automation systems are intricate projects that involve integrating technologies from multiple disciplines such as software optimization, PLC programming, controls engineering, and mechanical design. System Integrators or Machine Builders often have dedicated experts in mechanical, electrical, and software engineering. They can work with a project team’s Automation Engineer together to speed up the designing phase. Although they do not work for the company, they are a vital partner to the project’s long-term success.

Use a Front End Loading Framework

Front End Loading (FEL) is a term familiar to many experienced Project Managers. In short, it is a project management process that helps the Automation Project Manager and the external partner to:

  1. Appraise/evaluate for a business case,
  2. Define the project scope,
  3. Carry out the Front-end Engineering Design (FEED), and finally,
  4. Execute the project.

The process only moves forward if the previous phase is assessed worth pursuing. Upon choosing the right System Integrator to work with, the project team should involve them early on and start the dialogue using the FEL framework. FEL helps both parties cover as much ground as possible before the capital expenditure (CAPEX) decision is finalized. This may seem time-consuming at first, but it prevents drastic changes from being made later in the project phase, which will be costly and effortful.

Fleshing out the details of the project as completely as possible minimizes the chances of miscommunication. When the project proceeds to the final stage, the expected outcome will also be more likely to meet both parties’ expectations, thus achieving success.

Hermary’s long-time partner, Concept Systems, also offers more insights into FEL and working with system integrators.

Utilize project management technologies

Often, the System Integrator of choice can be in a different city. The component suppliers it chooses to work with will likely be in another state or other countries. Sending e-mails or making phone calls, albeit convenient, can easily result in confusion and miscommunication. Lacking a centralized storage system makes file version control challenging to maintain, jeopardizing the automation project’s integrity. More and more companies are moving towards cloud-based project management software that can be synced across devices. These platforms can facilitate communication and storage of data, timeline, budget tracking, and most importantly, documenting the project’s progress.

Good communication helps project managers establish leadership and share their vision. A solid communication plan helps stakeholders (future system users) adopt the new solution without a hitch. Effective communication with team members will empower them and create group synergy that effortlessly tackles an automation project’s many subtasks. Finally, project management software can make information syncing and documentation easier across different parties and time zones.

How to spot scope creep and what to do about it?

Industry veterans unanimously agree that automation projects almost always end up different from what they first set out to achieve. This can still be a success for all parties involved as long as the problem with scope creep is managed well. However, inexperienced project teams often let project scope evolve over time, making it challenging and frustrating for Project Managers and System Integrators to meet budget and time constraints.

What is scope creep?

PMI describes scope creep as

Adding additional features or functions of a new product, requirements, or work that is not authorized.

Note the keywords here are “not authorized.”

Scope creep can cause projects to be delayed and go over budget. If left unmanaged, the deliverables can result in improper usage, poor adoption rate, and eventually orphaned by project developers and potential users. Automation projects are especially prone to scope creep because they tend to impact the operations across multiple departments.

Why does scope creep happen?

PMI offers the five most common scenarios that cause scope creep in a project in the same research paper.

  • Lack of scope definition. The project scope is defined in high-level or aspiring terms. These include “more cost-effective” or “better throughput,” which different stakeholders may interpret differently, eventually creating confusion and misunderstanding.
  • Requirements and scope not managed. A project’s needs may evolve due to new “discoveries.” When these discoveries do not undergo proper assessment and are added to the project, scope creep occurs slowly but surely. 
  • Inconsistent process for collecting requirements. This phenomenon stems from ambiguous scope definition, where the project team is unsure of the project boundaries. It can also happen when too many stakeholders are involved.
  • Lack of sponsorship or stakeholder involvement. Lack of presence from senior management or the stakeholder can cause the project to lose focus and traction. The absence of sponsorship or stakeholder involvement is the most common cause of project failures.
  • Length of project. As the project timeline stretches on, the likelihood of project scope also grows exponentially. This happens because senior management has more time to refine their ideas, studies the competition or the business simply changes over time.

Automation projects are most susceptible to the first and last scenarios of scope creep. The following paragraphs sum up advice from industry professionals like Lee Swindlers and Greg McMillian on tackling scope creep.

How to manage scope creep in an automation project?

Scope creep is inevitable because changes always happen to a project. Project members can start by having a healthy expectation that change is the only constant in project management. Being prepared to make adjustments can reduce conflict, frustration, and resentment. Moreover, when scope evolutions do happen, members need not consider them as failures. Instead, Control Engineering recommends documenting the changes clearly and well for future reference once the change is deemed necessary.

As with setting clear goals and assigning well-defined responsibilities, clarifying project scope requires concise language that leaves little room for interpretation. The project team needs to work with stakeholders to draft documents for technical specifications, desired features, and key performance indicators early in the project planning phase.

On top of outlining clear project scope, the International Society of Automation recommends project teams have an acceptance procedure in place. A designated portal collecting project requirements and designated team members conducting discussion and analysis to determine the priority can help mitigate scope creep. As with any automation project, having clear documentation of this procedure is equally important.

Finally, Lee Swindler, the veteran industrial automation expert, and certified PMP, writes that early communication to identify what scope must stay unchanged and what can be changed significantly increases the project’s success rate. Automation experts emphasize the importance of early communication when managing projects with a long timeline. The more completely the project scope is defined in the initial phase, the more successful it is in preventing scope creep and schedule delays. Early communication also aligns with FEL’s framework. A highly-cited research paper by Albert Weijde on the effects of FEL and project success in the Oil and Gas industry proved that schedule predictability and effectiveness are positively correlated to a high FEL usage.

Bringing it all together

Automation projects can represent major CAPEX. They can create significant changes to a manufacturers’ daily operations, and if done right, they become an organization’s competitive strength that is also resilient to fast-changing demands.

Evaluating automation projects based on their short-term ROI is dangerous as it overlooks expenses that may balloon over time and quality issues that are not apparent at first. Instead, automation experts use a Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) framework to plan automation projects.

Under the TCO umbrella, manufacturers will realize a lower total cost of ownership in the long run by:

  1. Choosing energy-efficient components/systems as the cost of energy are projected to increase year over year,
  2. Designing an intuitive interface to reduce operators’ mental fatigue as well as attract younger-generation workforce,
  3. Using technologies that capture high-quality data for analysis and process optimization,
  4. Devising training programs that facilitate employee growth,
  5. Selecting reconfigurable and redeployable components that add manufacturing agility and resilience,
  6. Analyzing the existing production process with the OEE formula to reduce product downtime, and finally,
  7. Implementing a sound project management plan.

Every automation project is unique and complex on its own. Sound project means keeping the following guiding points in mind:

  1. Use the company’s mission, vision, and values to help evaluate the project as a strategic business case, and set clear goals and objectives,
  2. Select the right internal team members and external partners,
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate, and finally,
  4. Be aware of scope creep.

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