As automation engineers in the life sciences industry, I feel most of us have very similar experiences on projects.

At the beginning of the project everything is exciting. So many choices, but this is where the problems start. I’d argue that having so many choices isn’t helping us as an industry, it is hurting us. Choice in coding standards, choice in bus technology, redundancy of controllers, It’s an overload.

Every project becomes a complex arrangement of preferences and standards that are rarely part of a holistic solution.

A ‘project’ can become another word for endless string of meetings with a lot of revisiting of old decisions.

Sounds like project managers are the problem right? I’m not so sure.

The Problem with Projects

I think in general projects suffer from a lack of honesty among participants and this stems from poor functioning, fear-based corporate cultures where people show up to work everyday, fearful that if they look bad in a meeting they may be cut from the project, or even the company. When a project gets tough, usually this devolves even further into a game of point and duck, meaning that you keep quiet, knowing the other guy is probably more late on his deliverables than you are on yours.

Engineering management could help drive some of this behavior out, but at its core, I believe this is a company culture issue. Companies in general need to make people feel safe while still giving them real responsibility in an environment that thinks before it acts. People should feel confident to openly have energetic debates about what’s working and what’s not. This can’t happen if people don’t feel safe to do so.

W Edwards Deming, an American who helped rebuild Japan after the war through manufacturing, had an approach of blame the process, not the people.

Why waste knowledge… No company can afford to waste knowledge. Failure of management to breakdown barriers between activities… is one way to waste knowledge. People that are not working together are not contributing their best to the company. People as they work together, feeling secure in the job reinforce their knowledge and efforts. Their combined output, when they are working together, is more than the sum of their separate

-W Edwards Deming

As engineers, I think real solutions happen when we are being honest.  Encourage the people who make sense at the water cooler to have the courage to speak in the meeting room.