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The Importance of Project Kickoff Meetings

Before work on an automation project begins, a foundation of communication and understanding must be fostered.

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Requesting, or even requiring, a kickoff meeting between a manufacturer and the system integrator prior to any executed project deliverable is integral to starting projects off on the path to success. In this meeting, a common language is developed, goals are set and important discussions on expectations occur. Without these meetings, you leave your project open to ambiguity, miscommunication and, ultimately, more risk. A well-run kickoff meeting can make all the difference in the overall success of a project.

Plan your kickoff meeting
The main players at this meeting are the system integrators and the manufacturing company stakeholders and decision makers. Make sure you have all the appropriate individuals present, and have a clear agenda set beforehand so everyone can be prepared to contribute ideas and make decisions. Project managers, plant engineers, production managers and those who typically sign off on change orders are examples of the people you want in the room for this important meeting. Having the right people present and establishing how to communicate with your system integrator are vital. Do you prefer phone calls over email? Do you still use a fax machine? Every company has its own ideas regarding project communication, and you want to feel “in the loop” throughout the entire project.

The main topics discussed at a kickoff meeting will vary by project, but it is important that you validate that there are no gaps in perceived scope between your understanding and the system integrator’s understanding. Important issues to cover include:

  1. Communicating your business drivers for the project. If your system integrators are building a system based on what they think your business needs are, they aren’t likely to actually meet your needs. You should clearly communicate the scope and business goals, and they should ask questions to avoid missing key functionality.
  2. Establishing goals. Talk about what goals this project will fulfill for each party. Understand and discuss how the goals are interdependent.
  3. Identifying risks. Discussing any identified risks (including budget risk, schedule risk and technology risk) is one of the most important steps. Your proactive decision-making as the project proceeds can mitigate potential issues.
  4. Deciding on contract provisions. Details like invoicing, registering software, warranties and site-specific safety requirements shouldn’t be overlooked.
  5. Understanding project delivery methodology. Having an open forum, setting expectations and having the system integrator outline how the project will be delivered are essential to achieving a strong project result. This is the time to verify schedule milestones (such as user acceptance test plans, HMI screen reviews, equipment checkout and startup commissioning) and have a high-level review of project scope.

In addition to having a clear agenda, it is smart to address these specific questions during your kickoff meeting:

  • How will I be able to determine the true status of the project and whether or not it is on track?
  • If I have an issue I need to discuss, whom should I call?
  • What channels do I need to go through if I decide to make a change to the scope of the project?
  • Is there a point in time when changes in project scope will become more expensive to implement?
  • What testing will be performed, and who needs to be involved from my side of the project?

Build a common vision
The main point of goal identification and collaborative discussion is to make your vision compatible with that of the system integrator. When your visions are in direct alignment, you can avoid common problems and are more likely to ensure your business needs will be met. For example, if the system integrator meets only with your engineer or contractor, a skewed project end goal might be portrayed. Meet directly with your system integrator to smooth communication and form a solid, collaborative working relationship.

Start on the right foot (and end there, too)
Even though you may feel you are too busy to do a project kickoff meeting, do not skip it. Require it. This is the key meeting to get your project off on the right foot. Preparing thoroughly for this meeting, even for an integrator you’ve used for 15 years, is wise – you will always learn something. Be sure to include discussions about things that have gone poorly in the past, lessons learned and things you would like them to do better on this project. Knowing your system integrator listened to you and acted on it is invaluable.

Having a project kickoff meeting is just good business. By collaborating, setting goals, and having open discourse with your team and your system integrator, you ensure a good working relationship and a more successful project for everyone involved.

Jason Breidenbach is project manager and Jeff Miller is director of project management at Interstates Control Systems Inc., a Certified member of the Control System Integrators Association. See Interstates’ profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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