Mission control





At MD Robotics, innovation means big business. In 1997, the Brampton, Ontario, Canada-based firm was commissioned by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to deliver a $160 million special-purpose dexterous manipulator (SPDM), a critical component of the International Space Station program and the third robotic system contributed to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)-led effort.

The SPDM performs delicate maintenance and servicing jobs on the International Space Station, such as installing and removing batteries, operating specialized wrenches and socket extensions, and providing power and data connectivity to pay-loads—tasks that otherwise would require an astronaut to perform dangerous space walks. What's more, the latest technology allows the robot to “touch” and “feel” movement.

CSA needed a product that met technical specifications, within budget and schedule, while minimizing the impact and changes to the International Space Station architecture or control software. But for MD Robotics, the challenge was more meaningful. “Canada has been very successful with a small budget, very smartly applied to specific high-tech niches like space robotics,” says Mag Iskander, vice president and general manager, MD Robotics. “As for our future, we need to look for new niches and excel in them.”


MD Robotics’ special-purpose dexterous manipulator (SPDM), a component for the International Space Station, was a finalist in PMI's 2002 Project of the Year contest.

In past efforts, the aerospace company produced the Canadarm robot (on the U.S. Space Shuttle) and the Canadarm 2 (launched April 2001 on the International Space Station), but the SPDM is a radically new one-off design. Management decided the unique effort would allow MD Robotics to create a new approach to project management and engineering development. Best practices would enable the company to move with confidence into bidding new “faster, better, cheaper” projects with a firm, fixed price—a first for any company developing “never-before” technology.

“We attempted to reinvent ourselves as a company,” says Adrian Abramovici, director of programs, MD Robotics. “We used this project to implement change management in our organization—and improve the way we traditionally approached processes and tools.”

Before “official” work even began, the MD Robotics and CSA negotiating teams performed a significant part of the scope definition and planning. Cost account agreements included work description, budget to accomplish the work, necessary inputs (internal- or customer-furnished equipment) and outputs (deliverables). All of the descriptions corresponded to the work effort defined in the contractual statement of work (SOW) and its budget, excluding the management reserve and risk allowance.

In addition to the SPDM itself, MD Robotics had to provide spare hardware, as well as overall engineering support work, operational and in-orbit maintenance planning, combined robotics operations and flight support equipment. Aside from the contract in hand, the effort was strategically important.

“In our view, the only way to run a project is to use project management processes,” says Chris Woodland, MD Robotics vice president, government projects. “From a strategic point of view, credibility is important. In order to be credible, you have to deliver. Project management is the heart of how we deliver on our commitments.”

MD Robotics already was a highly “projectized” organization—its established program management control system covered the required “hard” project management skills. “We already performed earned value management, and the project management office was a given—it was all already built in,” Abramovici says. “A lot of the things we had to change were related mostly to the soft skills: team building, interaction with suppliers and management, empowering our people and making sure the message is consistently applied.”

Abramovici says once the team felt ownership and accountability, process innovation was sure to follow.

Full Responsibility

To encourage free communication and problem-solving, the executive team hit upon the idea of co-location: All project staff, including management, were transferred to one floor of MD Robotics facility. Due to an open, communal setup, project managers were free to interact with engineers who could approach leaders for sign-off.

Due to the daily interaction and numerous ad-hoc meetings of the co-located team, Abramovici says weekly subteam and monthly primary team meetings weren't as necessary. “Instead, we instituted a policy of 'no surprises,' meaning that all team members immediately communicated any and all information to all parties interested, both in management and in the other potentially affected teams,” Abramovici says.

img Canada has been very successful with a small budget, very smartly applied to specific high-tech niches like space robotics. As for our future, we need to look for new niches and excel in them.
img From a strategic point of view, credibility is important. In order to be credible, you have to deliver. Project management is the heart of how we deliver on our commitments.”

The teams were given considerable autonomy under the “no surprises” rule. Management was informed of developments, but sign-off was not required. Database technicians, additional secretaries and numerous engineering students relieved engineers of mundane tasks, allowing them more time to concentrate on their primary responsibilities.

Peer reviews helped resolve issues. For example, the systems engineering technical review (SETR) allowed engineers to debate technical problems and solutions. “By acting as an early review forum, the SETR helped ensure that individual engineers did not spend time investigating or developing ideas for changes or solutions to problems that ultimately would not make it into the design,” Abramovici says.

The SETR also facilitated quick management buy-in for engineering activities. Abramovici says management representatives attended the SETRs without attempting to steer decisions toward “programmatically palatable” solutions, and in most cases granted management approval for the SETR decisions on the spot. “In 18 months, not a single SETR decision was reversed by the management team,” he says.

Timing is Everything

NASA planned to launch the robot in 2004, and it was clear MD Robotics could not miss its promised delivery. The schedule (see Figure 1), defined in the SPDM SOW, detailed the major milestones and deliverables.

Based on past projects, MD Robotics used bottom-up estimates to arrive at costs. Two external groups reviewed and validated the numbers. Considering the risk associated with the project, $23.6 million was set aside.

Earned value milestones had scheduled dates and associated budgets. As the program progressed, project managers reviewed the milestones monthly, comparing them to their planned dates and the actual costs of achieving them.

“If you hold the schedule, you will invariably hold the cost,” says Doug Gowans, manager of program planning and control, MD Robotics. “Having an integrated schedule that pulls together all the elements of the program—deliverables and milestones— was absolutely key.”

The overall plan tied customer payment to milestones, as firm, fixed-price contracts require. “I don't think we had a choice,” Gowans says. “That's the only way the customer is assured that, when the dollars are paid, progress is made. But you must pick increments that are achievable.”

The setup provides management challenges, especially when managing the critical path proactively, Abramovici says. “On one hand, payment milestones are good because they allow a continuous focus on those deliverables and permit the customer to see progress being made,” Abramovici says. “But if there are too many milestones too closely spaced, it takes away flexibility as the program progresses. You can't use a rolling-wave approach because the milestones are locked down based on payment.”

The original (baseline) cost and schedule was amended through the life of the project by incorporating customer-mandated and approved changes of scope proposals, which consequently modified the project cost and acceptance review date.


Soft skills-driven management choices enabled the project to stay on track:

img The SPDM team was grouped into smaller subproject teams, and these smaller teams were co-located in an open, wall-less office environment. Staff got the message that the team was equal, management was accessible and that project success relied on open and immediate communications. Storage cabinets grouped and capped with tabletop surfaces acted as impromptu drawing review areas. Meeting rooms were built surrounding the team area.

img Employees were involved from the project baseline brain-storming, engineering problem resolution and change management through initiation, review and risk resolution. Because management avoided “interfering,” second-guessing or top-down decisions, the team responded with increased ownership and responsibility.

img Project and team performance appraisals—and the resulting bonuses and rais\es—were linked to the overall program goals as well as performance. Management promoted achievements through awards and recognition and by allowing employees, rather than managers, to lead customer presentations, VIP visits or television interviews.


Figure 1. The program summary master schedule defined the major programmatic milestones, customer-furnished equipment and deliverables. It allowed the project team to establish the higher-level baseline and detailed, working-level schedules.


A firm, fixed-price budget focused the project team. The following project management practices made this teamwork possible:

Project Plan and Project Baseline. No arbitrary cuts were made in any of the bottom-up estimates during the establishment of the baseline or at any other time during the project. Modifications were made only after consulting with the originators.

Program Management Control System. The critical path was “worked” continuously, not just when problems emerged. The management team used “think” sessions to explore “what-if” scenarios. The group tried new approaches to see how they would affect cost and schedule.

Human Relations Emphasis. The team, including managers, the customer and the project employees, was extremely cohesive. While many people in the organization were doing things “the old way,” the team felt it had something to prove, leading it to pull together and focus even more.

Risk Management Techniques. The team's continuing awareness of risk drove staff to innovate in all aspects of the work, including concurrent engineering. Major suppliers were brought into the design teams as equal partners.

Progress Report

Engineering work paralleled the SPDM product design effort. The engineering team and management scrutinized any changes requested by the customer to ensure the existing design would meet the new demands and to define whether or not the new requirements were within the original scope. The team immediately discussed out-of-scope changes with the customer and, if the customer approved implementation, the team analyzed these requests to identify technical, cost, schedule, human resources, facilities and risk impacts.

Because space robotic systems must endure at least 10 years in space, quality, reliability and safety demands are imperative. As part of the initial project plan definition, the MD Robotics team established a complete product assurance plan that covered materials and processes selection (critical for space applications), configuration management, electrical and mechanical parts selection, safety and reliability, and software product assurance.

Product assurance personnel were co-located with the project team and became an integral part of the design, manufacturing and test teams. “They brought extensive space-related experience to the table,” Abramovici says.

The Glass is Half Full

The MD Robotics team also began thinking differently about risk management. By continuously re-examining the critical path, the project team brainstormed innovative ways to mitigate threats to cost and schedule.

“Our risk management on this project was synchronized with the critical path,” Abramovici says. “Because it affects your cost and schedule, this makes sense. We also looked at opportunities, which no one ever looked at before as part of risk management. While people intellectually understand that there's a positive connotation, in many cases, they don't explore those possibilities. We followed this approach religiously.”


There were plenty of opportunities for innovation. “The International Space Station program, managed by NASA, was going through painful changes due to its inherent complexity as well as significant budget problems that forced almost continuous design changes and interface realignments,” Abramovici says. “The changes affected everything, from SPDM interfaces to the way the robot was to be used in space.”

The systems engineering team focused on finding ways to integrate the evolving SPDM into the changing International Space Station architecture while minimizing the impact on the product. The results speak for themselves: Very few out-of-scope changes appeared through the life of the project.

“The requirements were extremely well thought out at the beginning,” Gowans says. “There were no soft requirements, and that made it easier to put a plan in place that was achievable both cost- and schedule-wise. Nailing down those requirements is key in a fixed-price job.”

Major internal risks arose from the introduction of new, untested technologies into the design, by the sheer geometrical complexity of the mechanical and electrical packaging. MD Robotics design engineers and quality-assurance personnel were onsite for extended critical time periods.

Add Subcontracts, Stir

Because subcontracted items accounted for 50 percent of the total contract value, suppliers were brought early into the design process and cooperated with engineers to mutual benefit, Abramovici says.

During the SPDM proposal stage, budgets were allocated to each subcontract. The information was validated through previous program experience, quotations and past procurement history. “At this time, potential vendors were identified, and sole-source components were flagged as program risks,” Abramovici says.

Whenever possible, MD Robotics entered into fixed-price agreements with suppliers. However, in one case of ingenuity at work, SPDM engineers suggested MD Robotics develop its own space-qualified camera design in parallel with a struggling supplier. MD Robotics management agreed, and a new project was launched. The cameras turned into a good business opportunity on their own, as the firm won major contracts for more than $13 million.

To ensure the highest engineering and quality standards were maintained throughout the contract, a dedicated subcontracts management team was assigned to each vendor. With smaller vendors, a team was responsible for more than one subcontract.


The Upshot

The project team completed its acceptance review with CSA on 14 and 15 November 2001, with only a minimal number of remaining actions to close, such as minor software fixes. However, a $50 plastic part deep in the arm joint failed, forcing MD Robotics to replace the part in all 21 joints and perform a partial re-test. “No project manager goes by without meeting 'Mr. Murphy,' and we did too,” Abramovici says.

All in all, MD Robotics met the schedule and budget, and the customer was satisfied. Currently, the robot is undergoing end-to-end testing to ensure that it will interface with software and integrate with International Space Station systems. “I think delivery of this project has given us an edge over other companies—we're able to bid contracts in a different light,” Woodland says. “It was very important to do this project and do it well. It had given us confidence in being able to bid on similar projects more aggressively and knowing that we can accomplish what we set out to do.”

Today, the firm continues to reap rewards from its introspection. “In most of our new projects, the associate program managers have been promoted to director positions with our company,” Abramovici says. “We're now leading new programs, and we're applying our soft skills lessons learned. It has made a big difference. We moved into small, fast and quick programs. Our portfolio has dramatically increased and, mostly, that's because we've shown we can do it.” PM

This article is copyrighted material and has been reproduced with the permission of PMI. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM NETWORK | JULY 2003 | www.pmi.org



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