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Program Management: A Quick Look

Program management is a methodology to map out the steps need to get from a strategy to execution: to get something done like getting from point A to point B

“program management.”
It sounds a whole lot more daunting than it is. As Beth C. Phalen, vice president, Strategic Initiatives, Robbins-Gioia (Southfield, MI), explains, “Program management is a methodology to map out the steps need to get from a strategy to execution: to get something done like getting from point A to point B.” Of course, that simple explanation hides a whole lot of the granularity that is involved in getting from A to B. For example, one of the challenges is identifying exactly what “A” is. Then there is a matter of knowing what all of the steps are—in sequence, in time, in relation to one another—in order to get to B, as well as having in place plans that will allow you to adapt when the inevitable hiccough occurs: Suddenly there is a snag in step 3 such that it won’t permit reaching step 4 as intended. What then? Is there a way to get back on track, or is it just going to lead to the cost- and time-overruns that are increasingly characteristic of programs? As more supplier companies are taking on bigger tasks with thinner margins, such overruns can be ill afforded.

Although program management as a discipline had its start in fields other than automotive—such as in managing the development of huge software programs—it is being increasingly practiced in the auto field, particularly as companies begin to recognize that front-end planning is one of the key competitive advantages of Japanese-owned or influenced operations. Phalen, who has been with Robbins-Gioia since December, 1997, began her career at General Motors (both at Cadillac and then Truck Division), then went to Nissan’s R&D facility in Farmington Hills, MI. Her positions at the latter included senior vehicle design coordinator and principal product planner, so she became intimately familiar with how things are planned within the Nissan system.

One of the problems with program management as it is practiced at many companies is that the program manager is not equipped to handle the task. It may be that the person who is given that position is someone from Sales or Engineering. Suddenly, they are given the task of running a program (à la Parkinson’s Law). There are at least a couple of issues that Phelan identifies that can be problematic with this approach. One is that the person may be good with regard to a function or a single aspect of a project—say familiar with tooling. Beyond that—such as how to coordinate and interface with the system in place at other companies, both upstream and down—things become exceedingly mystifying, at best. Second, often, what happens is that what the program manager does is tracking timing. Tracking is not the same as analyzing. What’s often needed is a method to figure out just what to do in the event that something is fundamentally off track. As Phelan puts it, “They can tell you where they are, but they can’t tell you how to get back on schedule if they’re off of it.”

To be sure, not all people in program management positions are learning by the seat of their pants; there are academic degrees offered and program management certification. But there is still a not-insignificant number of companies that are using program managers who are learning how while they are on the job.

Of course, there are software tools that are available to help manage projects. Aren’t they sufficient? Phalen responds, “That’s like taking someone from Marketing, promoting her to chief financial officer, then giving her Excel and saying, ‘There you go.’” There’s nothing wrong with the tool, but there needs to be an understanding of how to use it. She also observes, “Tools aren’t going to fix your problem if you have a tool and no process to get the information into it or no way to deal with the information that you have.”

What she suggests (not surprisingly, as that’s the business she’s in) is the implementation of a structured program. It starts with an assessment of where the company is, then maps out a critical path methodology, one that links all of the elements and determines the effects of each on one another. The assessment takes weeks; the mapping requires months.

So what’s the benefit? According to Phelan, the biggest boost is in change management. As she points out, “Car companies are constantly making changes in programs, yet suppliers have no method to deal with them. That causes disruptions.” Another benefit she cites is one that is based on having a better understanding of the costs of actually doing programs. This leads to two possibilities: understanding how to work with a particular OEM or realizing that it may be better to work with other OEMs. “In this industry,” she says, “It’s about doing more with less. Everyone’s margins are being reduced and they’re already low. So where do you invest your engineering money to get the best ROI?” That answer, she maintains, can be determined through program management.