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Material Handling Equipment Project Management

It’s Like Herding Cats

Whether you’re building a new home or outfitting an automated distribution center, getting all vendors to communicate and work together towards a common goal can be difficult.  Add to that the equally daunting challenge of getting your own leadership team to agree on what exactly that common goal is and you understand why project management can sometimes feel like herding cats.  Or as someone else I used to know was fond of saying, “It’s like monkeys getting to know a football in the biblical sense”.  Although he was a little more terse, vulgar, and direct in his word choice!

On Time And On Budget

The project has to come in on time and on budget.  No really, it’s possible!  I’ve heard about this happening once.  I think it was a local farmer that was commissioned by a traveling official who needed an emergency wagon wheel replacement.  Sure, it was a government official spending government money, and yeah, the official was on the way home and in no particular hurry; but still, I heard it happened.  Ok, seriously, with the technology available to us we should be able to get reasonably close to an attainable budget and then do a relatively good job of tracking to that budget.  All that stands in the way is human nature!  To give yourself a fighting chance here are three things to avoid:

  1. Committing too early. “Just give me your best guess, I won’t hold you to it.”  Have you ever heard that?  No bigger lie has ever been told!
  2. Time seems to move slower at corporate than it does “on the floor” or on the jobsite.  You likely will need answers within hours to avoid paying people to stand around on site.  If you need an answer from corporate, make sure the urgency is understood, and follow up if you don’t get the answer.  Everyone is busy these days and often times the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
  3. “I thought Joe/Mary/Hector/Dwayne was doing that”.  Everyone’s favorite thing to avoid is assuming, as in “don’t assume because it’ll make an…” and you know the rest.  There are too may moving pieces on complex material handling projects to assume they are all progressing at the required pace.  This is not micromanaging, rather it is understanding and staying informed.  After all, you are the place people are coming with questions, so make sure you have the answers – preferably the correct answers.

From a more positive angle, here are three things that will help your project management efforts go more smoothly.

  1. Embrace problems. I think it was Eisenhower who said, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”.  As project manager your job is to make everyone else’s dreams and visions a reality.  Up until the point the project gets to you everyone has done their best job to make sure the implementation will go well.  But things happen on every job because no one can perfectly predict the future.  If you work through problems when they arrive you will build the reputation of someone that gets things done.  People may still complain to you, but you’ll become someone that gets paid to stick around.
  2. Trust the team. Every team has a few star players, a lot of average players, and a few players with one foot on the bus back to the minors.  In all cases, they likely know more about their area of expertise than you do.  Allow them to do their job and hold them accountable.
  3. Over-communicate. In real estate the three most important things are location, location, location.  In project management (and at work in general) I would posit that the three most important factors to success are communication, communication, communication.  Make sure to touch base with all involved at least once per week.  A weekly meeting, followed by action notes are great first steps.  Oh, and when in doubt, dial.  Unless you need a record of the exchange, a phone call is likely more effective than an email exchange.  Especially, when you need quick answers.

Closing Thoughts

This may not have been what you were expecting from the title.  There are already plenty of resources available for effective project management.  In over twenty years I can’t remember a more exciting time to be in the business of material handling automation.  That means that most people have more work than they can handle.  Elaborate plans and multiple lengthy strategic planning meetings are likely not practical.  When you’re overworked, sometimes the best thing to do is go back to the basics, and I hope that some of the reminders here have been helpful.

Supply chain and logistics now garners much more notice in the corporate hierarchy.  No longer just a dark dusty warehouse afterthought; metrics like delivery times, customer experience, and perfect orders have rocketed past competitive advantage to, in many cases, a requirement for business viability.  Whichever path you choose, I wish you the best of luck and success – the latter usually requires a little of the former!
—Matt Kulp, St. Onge Company

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