Planning ahead for unpredictable changes

Of all the mine-fields in the product specification-design-release cycle, the issue of mid-project specification changes has to be one of the worst.

Of all the mine-fields in the product specification-design-release cycle, the issue of mid-project specification changes has to be one of the worst according to Chris Biggadike – a mechanical Design Engineer with PFE International.

‘It’s a difficult time for all concerned’ says Biggadike, ‘and probably the biggest source of conflict between clients and the Design Engineers who are trying to manage the project. Much of this confusion and resentment could arguably be solved by good communication at the early stages.’

‘When a client sits down with an engineer to map out project deadlines, costs and specification they have a number of issues to be resolved. If they’ve been round this loop a few times before they are probably well aware that most projects come in a little late and a little over budget. Chances are, they’re determined that this time things will be different.

From the Engineer’s point of view, they probably know that what looks like a complete specification, realistic budget and time-scale at this stage of the game, can often seem inadequate as the project unfolds and the reality of what is being asked becomes known. On top of this, most clients will change some part of the specification at some point of the project.

This, the engineer knows, can be a disaster and it can put everyone in a difficult situation where the designer looks bad because three months of design to do one thing can’t magically be transformed into something else. So what to do about it?’

‘First of all, it helps if everyone admits up front that they don’t know everything about the project and that there are uncertainties which may arise. These can be put into two categories: Things which are minor enough that you can work around them and things which will force a complete rethink.

The Engineer should undertake to provide a solution within the bounds of the anticipated project. If the project stays within these bounds then the Engineer (or the team of Engineers) must deliver on time and on budget. They should set the budgets and time-scales with this in mind.’

‘If, during the design process, a new facet of the problem arises which throws a giant spanner in the works and which couldn’t be anticipated despite the best efforts of all concerned, then everyone should be sensible enough to get back around the table and restructure the project with this in mind.

The worst example of this is a specification change by the client themselves. It is totally unsupportable to have a client labour under the illusion that changes that they make to the specification can be seamlessly incorporated into the design process without a potential cost and time penalty. If you make this clear up front, life is likely to be better for everyone.’

PFE International manufactures mailing and forms handling equipment.