Optical Fiber Division Carves Out Competitive Advantage

Project Management Becomes Key Differentiator

As anyone who’s watched the markets or read the business page knows, the optical fiber market is volatile, with new entrants, tough competition, and technology hurdles at every turn. No one knows this better than the optical fiber division of one of the world’s leading communications solutions firms. The division was one of the early entrants into the game and a fierce competitor and innovator. According to the division’s president, “Technology innovation is our bread and butter. If we don’t come up with the next big thing ahead of the rest of the market, we’ll be pushed back to the rear of the pack.”

But as the communications firm knew, research and development aren’t the only keys to success. There are thousands of logistical problems that must be expertly navigated to make sure that the new product makes it from thought to reality as quickly as possible. For optical fiber, this often means building new production facilities to accommodate ever smaller and more durable fiber products, bringing together the business of concrete and steel on one hand and light and fiber on the other.

It was with that in mind that the firm decided to buy a fiber technologies company based in the Northeast one recent summer. The communications firm was trying to add on capacity quickly and increase its technical capabilities at the same time. The acquired company offered a highly skilled technical workforce and a plant capable of manufacturing a special type of fiber, a product for which the communications firm had a strong demand, especially from a strategic customer.

The goal was to move production of this fiber to the new northeastern location, freeing up production capabilities at newer plants in an important Southern capital for higher margin, cutting-edge products. This would require going from nothing to substantial production in a matter of about four months—using new technologies, new materials, and new processes.

Faced with this challenge, the team manager for equipment engineering knew that it would require a new approach. He recommended completely projectizing the effort and built a complex work breakdown structure (WBS) to map out everything that would have to get done. The team manager won support for the idea and the results were impressive. The team hit the communications firm’s goal in terms of both time and capacity and by the end of the year, it had exceeded capacity requirements.

The success of this initiative made the optical fiber division’s president look at other ways to expand capacity. The firm’s stated goal of being a premier fiber manufacturer in multi-mode with total vertical integration requires significant capacity across the product line. A few months later, the division president announced that capacity for the special fiber would be further increased in its northeastern plant. As the project lead, the team manager for equipment engineering geared up for another major initiative—this time, including construction for the new capacity.

Not long after the initiative began, however, there was a major change in scope. The firm’s management determined that it would be even more beneficial if the northeastern plant could manufacture a new state-of-the-art fiber, representing a technological breakthrough for the firm. This change in scope forced the team to loop back to the beginning of the project and redefine requirements and needs.

The team manager and his team began with a fairly straightforward project planning approach, but they were displeased with the results. Each process area had a project manager (six in total) and each of them had staff and consultants working with them. The effort included a number of subcontractors, including construction and architecture/engineering firms. The team manager became concerned that the PMs lacked the experience and skills to get things done and that communications and planning were starting to break down.

At this point, he turned to a project management training firm that offered consulting to try to fill in the gaps in knowledge and experience on the project management team. After a few weeks, however, the team manager determined that it simply wasn’t working, since the training firm took the approach that the PMs should simply schedule the project the way they wanted to do it, instead of following a defined methodology.

So, after dismissing the project management training and consulting firm, the manager was faced with a dilemma. He had tight deadlines and tough requirements, a vision for how to get the work done, and a serious need for project management mentoring and process. Plus, problems in up-front planning left him with a two-month delay. He knew he needed help but he wasn’t sure where to find it.

With this in mind, the team manager went to the Project Management Institute’s annual symposium and trade show in the early fall with a mission. He was seeking help from a company who was fast, could operate outside of company politics, and could simply get things done. One of the companies he met was Alexandria-based Robbins Gioia LLC (RG), the most established and largest project/program management firm in the United States.

The team manager offered RG a challenge. He gave the company nine days to come in and demonstrate its ability to provide value in the fast-paced, high-pressure environment. The RG team, headed by Bob Hamsik, went in, quickly assessed the issues, and began to build an integrated project plan.

The team’s enthusiastic, no-nonsense approach was just what the team manager knew he needed to accomplish his very aggressive goals. “What I saw in RG,” he noted, “ was a company willing to work the way I wanted to work and willing to play a more high-stakes game. I saw that RG could quickly grasp how to complete the project and then expand that vision.”

What this unconventional project management approach looked like was something totally different than most project managers had ever seen. The initiative was on a fast track and everything came down to speed. The team manager’s guiding principle was to manage a minimum number of processes to get things done fast, and the keys to accomplishing this were using information dependencies, replicated processes, and integrated information.

The team manager placed information very centrally in his methodology, because he found that information dependencies and integration became more critical as the project got faster. One of his central tools was an information and process map where he modeled the interconnections between organizations and processes and put them into a flow diagram so that it was very clear where the project was at all times. When something didn’t work, the information had to flow back so that a process could be repeated. Depending on where you were in the cycle, that might be a very small step back or it could be large. Using information instead of major processes to define these areas allowed the team manager and his team to be much more granular about what they had to communicate and repeat than a traditional PM methodology allowed.

The final part of the model—replicated processes—took a cue from fractal geometry. The team manager posed the question to himself and to his team, “If you can do something small, how many times can you replicate it?” By using this approach, he was able to model and render the project’s processes in very digestible pieces that could be accomplished at amazing speeds.

The team manager knew that his methods were unconventional and he recognized in RG a company, who was steeped enough in project management that they could grasp these new concepts, pull them together and help him accomplish his goals while training and mentoring his staff on the fly. “We were doing the project incredibly fast,” noted the team manager. “The requirement was for people to get it and move on almost instantaneously—really within the timeframe of the meeting.”

According to Hamsik, Robbins Gioia has always had a focus on training and mentoring its clients, so that part of the job was second nature to the team. The challenge, however, was to maintain and build momentum on a very fast timeframe while building methodologies and a standard language at the same time.

When RG arrived, all of the project managers had their own unique perspectives and they weren’t following any kind of standard processes. The joint communications firm and RG project management team tackled that challenge first by quickly pulling together core meeting and information processes. The project managers and their teams clearly needed structure simply to keep everyone marching to the same beat. According to Hamsik, “It seemed simple just to run all of the meetings the same way and to make sure they happened on a regular basis, but that’s when we could tell that we were starting to make progress. Meetings started to happen like clockwork and things would get done. Now, there are people here who wouldn’t dream of letting their weekly meetings slip and that’s how they’re able to communicate so well.”

The next challenge the new project management office had to face was a lack of common terms. Again, here was a potentially simple issue that could have caused major problems if it hadn’t been addressed. For instance, the team members had different definitions of what issues and risks were. And Hamsik and the team manager agreed that they would never agree on how to solve them if they couldn’t get consensus on what they were. To get a handle on this issue, they adopted a standard glossary of terms and quickly disseminated it to the entire team.

Getting these standard processes and vocabularies in place was part of the team manager’s vision. He wanted the team working closely together so they could spend their time looking forward, not wasting it on quibbling about terms.

Once the basic processes and vocabulary were in place, the team manager and the RG team assessed everything that was being done on the project and figuring out what needed to change. They decided to focus on the tools they needed to get the job done and took those one at a time, striking a balance between training and project deadlines. For instance, according to Hamsik, “We taught them to identify the risk and assisted them in developing plans to mitigate risk.” The team manager’s guidance to the RG team was to “evolve the team performance in the context of the project”—and that’s exactly what happened.

The project was enormous and highly complex, involving 15 months, $80 million, 6 teams, multiple vendors and suppliers, and more than 6,000 documents in construction. By focusing on planning and processes, the combined RG and communications firm team brought the variance on the project down to plus or minus one week and less than $100,000. This was quite an accomplishment according to all involved. The team manager said, “People have accomplished things on this effort that they never thought they could have.” And a representative from one of the key contracting organizations on the project said that that this project was at least 30 percent faster than their typical projects of a similar scope.

Hamsik credited the team manager’s vision and support as the enabler for this accomplishment. “He embraced RG and brought us into the center of the project. He saw the value and vested power in RG and made us full-fledged members of the team.” Hamsik added, “He pushed hard, but he supported RG as equals on the project, and that made a major difference.”

Sometimes that support translated into a patience you wouldn’t expect on a project such as this. For instance, when the RG team arrived, the facility schedule was in one type of program management software, but other schedules were in a variety of different formats. It took a month to integrate and standardize the schedules, but the team manager didn’t skimp on this effort because he understood how important an integrated plan was going to be if he wanted to run the project as aggressively as he intended.

If the team manager hadn’t been able to bring in RG to help him accomplish his goals at that critical moment in the project’s development, he said there was a real chance he would have been fired—and certainly chaos would have remained high and confidence low. Also, the entire project would have been in survival mode instead of a get it done mode, and the team manager speculated that it would have hurt the northeastern plant location for future capital investment.

The team manager noted not only the tangible benefits of this project’s success, but also the intangible, cultural benefits of projectizing. “The success of the project is 100 percent perception—and my commitment is to have the perception be 100 percent successful. The question is: how do you act to instill confidence in your team and in senior management?”

“My company would not get the management team they’ve got at the end of this project if it weren’t for RG,” the team manager commented. “The mentoring here has been huge.” The team manager and Hamsik agree that they’ve seen amazing improvements in the project staff. Those who were not resistant to change have been especially successful—and the team manager and Hamsik have been sure to identify those team members and showcase their work. According to the team manager, “We knew there was a competitive environment, so we used that to bring it together in a delicate balance of cooperation and competition—like a knife edge.”

« back