The best of both worlds
SYSTEMS ENGINEERS AND PROGRAM MANAGERS MAKE USEFUL ALLIES WHEN THEY FOCUS ON VALUE DELIVERY.
BY MICHELLE BOWLES JACKSON
ROLE STEREOTYPES HOLD THAT systems engineers are the technical experts and program managers are the seasoned businesspeople. But can these two worlds connect their work to create positive business results?
When systems engineers and program managers work together as part of an organic whole, organizations can reap major benefits. In 2011, PMI and the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) joined forces to enhance overall program success through improved integration.
Recent research conducted in partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) shows that by working together, program managers and systems engineers can create efficiencies, increase accountability and boost program success rates.
Alas, disconnects between systems engineers and program managers sometimes do occur—with significant repercussions. The breakdown between these two groups can lead to schedule delays, cost overruns and rework.
As is so often the case, knowing something can work and actually doing it are two very different things. Here are four areas where the two functions can increase collaboration to better deliver value.
» THE DISCONNECT: Looking to minimize upfront costs and begin work as quickly as possible, the company fails to include the systems engineer in the earliest planning stages. “Based on the program manager's experience, he or she promises that the team can deliver a new widget to be added to an existing system for X cost and schedule. So the firm then commits to provide a certain level of operability as a result of the new widget addition for a specific cost and delivery date to the client,” says William J. Purpura, PMP, senior systems engineer and technical lead engineer at Boeing, based in Anaheim, California, USA.
When the systems engineer is brought in, he or she discovers there's no room for growth on the current platform, and the project will require additional resourcing, time and cost—assuming the widget can be integrated at all.
On the other side, if the program manager isn't included early in the process, potentially crippling risks—from the client's budget limitations to vendor stipulations—can go unaddressed.
» CONNECTED: Involving both functions from the start creates significant cost and time efficiencies down the line. “Front-loading funds to allow for early application of systems engineering tasks can save as much as 100 times the cost if errors aren't caught until production,” Mr. Purpura says. The program manager serves as the voice of the customer, while the systems engineer provides the technical expertise to mitigate risks across the board.
HELLO, MY NAME IS SYSTEMS ENGINEER
Just who are these technically minded pros and what exactly do they do?
Design and coordinate large, complex programs such as water and food distribution networks, experimental manned space flights, electrical power systems and military defense programs
Own technical requirements documents, as well as all aspects of development, design and integration
Coordinate technical specialists such as electronics specialists, structural engineers and software engineers
» THE DISCONNECT: Systems engineers and program managers may have their own strategic objectives in mind, says Didier Lebouc, PMP, program manager, power business unit, Schneider Electric, Grenoble, France.
Systems engineers may set high technical quality as a key performance indicator—yet that may not be the right benchmark for overall success. “A systems engineer's take on technical quality may not be the same as the customer's or stakeholder's,” Mr. Lebouc says. The systems engineer may prioritize product performance (for instance, the maximum speed of a car), while the customer is focused on product interaction (i.e., how well safety features work).
Program managers overly focused on an organizational strategy—say, profitability—can lose sight of the big picture. “The first condition to being profitable is to have customers,” Mr. Lebouc says. “If you compromise quality or customer satisfaction, then you risk dramatically decreasing volumes or prices.”
» CONNECTED: “To create efficiencies, you have to align all functions on two common goals: customer satisfaction and profitability,” Mr. Lebouc says. “The best way to do that is to make these two things as concrete and visible as possible.” He suggests bringing together systems engineers and program managers, and highlighting customer and profitability information on the dashboard. That way, the team can discuss how to keep the two in balance.
Direct interaction with end users helps systems engineers gain a clear understanding of what the customer wants in the final system. “Systems engineers, not just the program manager, need to spend time with the customer to explore options,” says Josef Oehmen, PhD, research scientist at MIT's Lean Advancement Initiative and lead researcher on the PMI/INCOSE/MIT study. “The customer then has the opportunity to speak directly with the people who have the responsibility and ability to make changes.”
He also suggests focusing on metrics that measure how each team member's work contributes to overall program benefits, rather than solely relying on metrics that narrowly address “productivity.”
» THE DISCONNECT: PMI and INCOSE have agreed that the program manager has overall accountability for the program, while the systems engineer has accountability for the technical and systems aspects of the program. However, some organizations may not explicitly define role accountability, which can create unnecessary tension.
Without a clear leader who has ultimate responsibility for the program, or even ultimate signoff on certain areas of the program, dangerous turf battles can be instigated, Mr. Purpura says. The systems engineer may recommend a certain product design because he or she sees it as more sophisticated. If the program manager knows the customer's budget won't allow for the upgrade, he or she needs the power to make that final call to ensure the end result aligns with the customer's strategy.
Role accountability is not the same thing as leadership, which is a responsibility that both the program manager and chief systems engineer share. Leadership involves negotiation, team building, strong communications and other capabilities that support cohesion, productivity, innovation and motivation.
» CONNECTED: To eliminate redundancies and uncertainties, Mr. Purpura suggests putting in place an agreement from day one that clearly pinpoints the roles, responsibilities and accountabilities of the program manager and those of the system engineer. Ownership of each area should be granted based on the program manager's and system engineer's specific knowledge areas.
The accountable person must understand the scope of the role and his or her part in ensuring top performance of team members, says Ashish Vijay Borikar, PMP, senior program and project management consultant for Capgemini, Pune, India.
CREATING A COLLABORATIVE CULTURE
Project sponsors can help integrate systems engineers and program managers by nurturing an environment that thrives on collaboration:
CO-LOCATE. Whenever possible, even if only temporarily, put systems engineers and program managers in the same location, says Bill Purpura, PMP, Boeing, Anaheim, California, USA. Face-to-face interaction allows both groups to pick up each other's unspoken nuances, as well as know immediately if one party understands what the other is saying. “Co-location can give you a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in efficiency,” he estimates.
BACK THE EFFORT 100 PERCENT. Sponsors must reinforce their support of the two disciplines working together. “They can do that by repeating on any occasion that both groups must be focused on common targets: customer satisfaction and profitability,” says Didier Lebouc, PMP, Schneider Electric, Grenoble, France.
FOSTER SECONDARY SKILL SETS. By encouraging systems engineers to become secondarily trained in program management, and vice versa, sponsors can produce better synergy between the groups. “It allows each person to have a better understanding of the challenges faced by the other person's role,” Mr. Purpura says.
ELIMINATE BARRIERS. Where possible, cut out processes, rules and procedures that impede the flow of information between the two functions, suggests Josef Oehmen, PhD, MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.
ENCOURAGE INTERACTION. Sponsors should push both functions to interact at multiple levels: informal as well as formal, and on-site as well as off-site settings, says Ashish Vijay Borikar, PMP, Capgemini, Pune, India.
» THE DISCONNECT: Because they don't fully understand how systems engineers work, program managers may expect highly accurate schedule estimates during the concept phase. “But the systems engineer is looking from a higher level and may provide only ballpark estimates at this point,” says Venkatraman L, PMI-ACP, PMP, head of the technology project management office at InMobi in Bengaluru, India.
Systems engineers, however, may fail to recognize that the program manager is being challenged to improve time to market, handle pressure from stakeholders and fit the project into the overall program schedule.
» CONNECTED: By learning how systems engineers work in each phase—concept, design and development—program managers can more accurately manage stakeholder expectations for scheduling, Mr. L says. Systems engineers can do their part by clearly articulating why certain activities require extra time. In their joint white paper, PMI and INCOSE promote cross-disciplinary education so that each discipline has a more in-depth understanding of the processes, knowledge and capabilities of the other. PM
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