Work Package Delays - Is Engineering Lying?

Posted by Steven Gentles on Sep 19, 2017 10:14:25 AM

We’ve all been in those progress meetings where, for the fourth week running, engineering says they’ll be done next week. The PM and the customer rep exchange uneasy glances and others openly smirk and eyeball roll. These are the ones that think engineering can't be trusted because they are liars.

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I worked as a structures engineer in aerospace for 20 years before easing into the IT space. In the past few months, I’ve been talking to a lot of people in heavy industry (Oil & Gas). In all three sectors, the common thread I’m hearing about is a lack of trust in engineering’s ability to meet schedule.

I think there are four main reasons for this trust gap.

#1 - Engineering Deliverable Status Ignorance

Engineering management often doesn’t know exactly what they'll be delivering and worse, they don’t know the true status of the deliverables they do know about. I know – this sounds crazy. Let me explain.

An Engineering Work Package (EWP) is made up of discrete engineering deliverables being authored on by the engineering team. Nobody will argue that a concise list of the deliverables that feed into an EWP (and having day to day knowledge of their completion status) is Engineering Management 101. But the former can be a struggle in the early stages of a project where the number of the deliverables is fuzzy (are 2 or 3 isometrics required to describe this detail)? And in the mature stages of the project, dependencies on the timely delivery of vendor and other data become critical. And these dependencies are often overlooked.  

As a new Engineering Manager, I was guilty of missing these fundamentals: maintaining a concise list at all times of the engineering deliverables that fed into the EWP I was responsible for as well as understanding their dependencies on external information. I lacked the software tools to properly track this information and lacked an appreciation of the supreme importance of focusing on each discrete deliverable. As a result, my status updates to my Program Manager were often educated guesses – and often wrong. The devil is always in the details, and the details are all the engineering deliverables that the project team is working on which will be packaged up and delivered in each EWP.

Check out my blog How to Improve Engineering Project Control for more on this.

#2 - Engineers Are Optimists

Engineering is all about figuring out ways to design solutions to problems. Engineers are wired to think that every problem has a solution – we’re optimists by nature. This optimism gets us into trouble when we report elusive EWP status to the Program Manager.

In the past, when lacking clear insight into the hazy list of engineering deliverables I’ve committed to provide, I’ve ignored my gut feeling that I was on thin ice and relied on my own optimism (and my team’s) when delivering my status update.

I said: “You bet – everything’s tracking well and we should be able to deliver on time.” And finished with the unspoken thought: “My team seems to think we can do this. I hope they’re right…”

#3 - Engineers Are Perfectionists

Engineers typically hold design perfection in higher esteem than budget and schedule.

Here’s what I mean. Speaking as an aerospace structures engineer, the minimum threshold of ‘enough’ is a structural design that’s strong enough, stiff enough and durable enough to carry a load. If I was working on a prototype design, I would (and should) care more about getting the design done quickly and cheaply and less about weight, manufacturability and maintainability. The latter considerations require many design iterations and cost a lot more time and money.

In my experience, we engineers are typically perfectionist oriented and don’t give enough consideration to the cost and schedule implications of our design decisions. If the Engineering Manager isn’t paying attention to these team predilections, design cycles will inevitably take more time and cost more than necessary.

#4 - Engineers Are Too Accommodating

We all know that changing requirements may impact engineering deliverables that are currently being worked on and/or may result in the need to create additional engineering deliverables.  It’s not unusual for requirements to evolve, sometimes considerably, during a project. It’s also not unusual for changes to be routinely accommodated by engineering in the absence of a rigorous change process. The sum of all these changes can be significant. And engineering often gets the full blame when costs balloon and Engineering Work Packages are late.

Check out my blog Document Control Software - What Do You Want to Control (Part 3)? for more information on project change control essentials.

Is Engineering Lying?

Over the last 3 decades as a working engineer, I only ever met one engineer who I did not trust because he was a deceitful liar. They are rare.

The next time you’re in a meeting and the engineering manager says, for the fourth week running, that the Engineering Work Package will be done next week, eyeball rolls are certainly required. But don’t think of him or her as a liar – unless he is one (in which case get rid of him). Instead, chances are he or she just need to do some or all of the following:

  • Implement and follow a more rigorous change management processes
  • Upgrade their software toolset so they can better monitor and track engineering deliverables
  • Exert tighter control of the design team to make sure that optimum designs are being created

If these are addressed, delivery optimism will be soon be backed up by confidence – engineering's and everyone else's.

Software to Monitor and Track Work Packages

Are you having trust issues? Tina5s provides real time Engineering, Construction and Installation Work Package status insight as engineers work on their deliverables. See how:

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Topics: Project Control

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