Project Management for Builders

Sometimes you need tools you wont find in your toolbox.

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You know you could work more efficiently, don’t you? Sometimes you start your building session and realize you don’t have what you need. Maybe you get out of sync with someone else on the project. These oopsies are frustrating, momentum-stopping, and often preventable.

When I was a program manager at Boeing Space, errors like this could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, might delay our deliveries by months, and could compromise quality. Big companies like Boeing use project management tools to make production go smoothly. By using a few simplified project management tools, you too can improve your project’s cost, schedule, and quality.

Let’s start with a definition: project management tools show important aspects of a project to help it run efficiently. Originally created by NASA, these tools are now standard practice in almost every field. Examples of project management tools include schedules, cost estimates, descriptions of who’s doing what, and lists—lots of lists.

The figure below is one of those early NASA project management tools. It shows how events depend on each other and is also a schedule estimate. If NASA found value in drawings like this, maybe you can too. But first, let’s deal with some challenges you may encounter developing them.

NASA’s George M. Low’s July 29, 1960 depiction of the manned spaceflight program.

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Is Project Management Worth the Hassle?

Let’s start out by recognizing that it can feel like a waste of time to develop a schedule, compute your cost, make a list, etc. In fact, there may be “cultural” barriers to overcome. When three of us built the Facetmobile Experimental airplane, I was an engineer-turned-manager, and my other two teammates were both exceptionally skilled engineers and builders. While I would get frustrated by our project’s inefficiency, my colleagues were not bothered by it and, in fact, accepted it as part of the process. When I proposed that we create a schedule of what needed to get done, my teammates had a very valid reason to smirk: It’s laughable to create a schedule of an Experimental aircraft building project—especially an original design—because there’s no way to predict how long it will take.

Staying organized can help save time. All of these components have been labeled and taped together into sub-assemblies that are ready to be installed later in the project.

What about a schedule that just showed what needed to be done, and in what order, without the dates? The resistance this time was the Dilbert-esque engineer vs. management difference: Manager Lynne makes us do all this silly bureaucratic stuff, and we just want to get on with our work. Fair enough.

My frustrate-o-meter pegged when we would arrive at the hangar without enough supplies such as rivets. Other times I found myself waiting for someone to make me a sketch of what I needed to fabricate. My teammate, not knowing that he would be holding me up, would be finishing another task. I had my own version of “wait and balance”—waiting for something while balancing on the foot I wasn’t tapping. Eventually my busy teammates succumbed to my “suggestions” that we use some basic project management tools. Those smoothed out the project along with our ruffled feathers.

Project management of some sort—even if it’s just coordinating with each other—is essential for multi-builder projects, but it can also be helpful for things you create on your own. Let’s look at three tools that might help your project.

It looks like total chaos, but by the end of the work session, every tool and part on the bench had been used. The to-do list for the day’s activities was stored on the iPhone.

Plan for the Next Building Session with a To-Do List

My rivet-shortage disgruntlement could easily have been overcome with a simple to-do checklist. For example, a list might include things to buy, borrow or make, items from home, or things from other sources. In addition to helping things run smoother, a checklist might save you from a painful embarrassment—”making do” with a tool that wasn’t intended for the task at hand is a common cause of injury.

In addition to the list of things to bring, your to-do checklist can include “what’s next.” Before you leave your project for the day, it is helpful to determine your first task in the next building session. This is useful for a few reasons:

  • Having a clear path will help you look forward to the next building session.
  • It might prevent you from working on tasks out of order.
  • It can help with quality if you need to remember to do something critical.
  • If someone is waiting for you to finish your next task so they can start work, a “next” list can remind you to finish it so the other person can proceed.

One exceptionally common problem in airplane building projects is what Robert Pirsig, author of the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, calls a gumption trap:

“Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. If you haven’t got it, there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it, there’s absolutely no way in the whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed. It’s bound to happen. Therefore, the thing that must be monitored at all times and preserved before anything else is the gumption.”

We ran into gumption traps all the time while building the Facetmobile. Whether it was something we couldn’t figure out, a procedure that had to be undone, or some part that kept fighting us, it would have been easy to lose our gumption. For instance, we got stuck figuring out how to attach the Lexan windows to the tube airframe. Fortunately, our team had the commitment and resilience to bounce back Wile E. Coyote style from gumption traps like these. One thing that helped was to stop for the day and write down one potential solution to the problem to try next. Then we could think about better solutions in our downtime and hit the ground (a bad choice of expressions for homebuilders) running when we started the next building session.

Planning a budget for your project is very important. Van’s sprays a subtle hint on every crate they ship.

A Cost Estimate Can Save You Money

How much will your project cost by the time it’s finished? Some people don’t want to know! It might be daunting to think about the total cost up front, costs could be hard to figure out, or you might have to give an actual answer when your spouse asks. There’s the old advice, “Don’t add up the receipts in your shoebox until the airplane is flying.” But you’re a savvy builder, a stand-up guy, and as a pilot, you face the truth with fortitude, don’t you?

A cost estimate is useful because it informs your decisions. For example, it can prevent you from financially getting in over your head (where all airplanes should be). On the other hand, your costs will be spread out over time, so it may not be as bad as it looks. A cost estimate also lets you “trade” the value of those fancy avionics vs. the custom upholstery you had in mind.

A cost estimate doesn’t have to be that complicated. The simplest cost estimate comes from the following rule of thumb: The cost of the project is three times the kit cost.

Of course, this general cost estimate does not include many items such as hangar rent and tools, but it does show that the cost of the kit is not the cost of the finished airplane. A more complete list of expenses is shown in the calendarized cost estimate table. This table is meant to illustrate some points about the value of project management tools, and is not intended to be an accurate depiction of the cost or timeline for airplane construction.

A calendarized cost estimate provides important information to make many decisions such as, Do I really need a propeller?

As you can see, the items in the left-most column include the major cost elements. However, no list is complete, so the item called “Other” is included to account for those things you can’t account for now. Notice also, the items for which cost estimates are not readily available: They are marked with a “rough est.” notation. You don’t need exact information for this tool to be useful.

Of course the grand total cost of $79,650 is a useful thing to know. It can affect decisions such as “How could we cut costs?” or “Should we buy a different kit?” or “How often will I have to sell blood to pay for my engine?”

Perhaps the handiest thing about the figure is the monthly costs, shown in the bottom row. This plan shows that your costs will vary greatly from month to month. In the first month, you spend $22,200. After that, you can stop eating ramen until May when you plan to spend $38,700, mostly on the engine and avionics. By informing decisions, this calendarized cost estimate can help you come up with creative solutions to make your project work. Perhaps you work overtime before a high-cost month, sell that junker in the garage, or file your taxes early and get that refund check by May.

When learning a new skill, like how to fabricate fuel lines, it makes sense to allow a little extra time. It might take several attempts to get things right.

Managing Dependencies on Others

One of the tricky things about building an airplane is figuring out when you’ll get things from others. In the NASA plan mentioned earlier, the lines in the figure depict dependencies or events that have to occur before downstream ones.

Of course there are many dependencies in aircraft construction: Motor mounts are needed before the engine can be hung. Wheels and brakes must be installed before taxi test. You have to install the stick before you can sit in the cockpit and make engine sounds with your lips. If you had a fine enough pen, you could construct a whole drawing on a napkin that shows all tasks that had to be completed before others. That might be useful, but mostly to wipe the spit off the panel.

To get more bang for the buck (management is filled with lousy expressions for homebuilders, isn’t it?), you could map out events that depend on others, or those that others depend on from you.

Understanding these “outside dependencies” can be handy for many reasons.

  • You want to know when you’re getting something from someone so you can plan your work and budget. Maybe your brother can’t loan you the prop balance tool until July, so you might work on the upholstery instead of waiting for him. Also, you can put off buying a prop until after you pay for your pet turtle’s surgery.
  • It’s helpful to communicate when you are going to be done with something that affects someone else. For instance, when do you need the paint booth? To figure that out, you have to go backwards on dependencies: when will you be done covering the airplane? Backing up further, do you have to order the fabric now?
  • The final benefit of understanding dependencies is subtle. When you have to wait on someone, there is a natural tendency to proceed with some other task that you’d planned to do later. It seems efficient to push ahead, but sometimes this causes problems with quality. Say you want to do an engine run-up but you’re waiting on the engine mount. You make up a temporary set and fire up the engine. The mounts, being too flexible, cause the exhaust system to crack. If you had known to order your mounts earlier, you might not have had this problem.

So now that you see some of the benefits of understanding and communicating dependencies, how exactly can you do that? Simple dependencies that don’t affect much can be communicated in person, over the phone, or by email. More complex or consequential dependencies are generally communicated best by a figure, either hand-drawn or computer-generated.

Consider the example dependency chart below. This refers to the Facetmobile window issue, mentioned earlier.

Task dependency drawings let you show an impressive diagram to the guy holding you up.

Team members Barnaby, Rick, and Lynne wish to get the Facetmobile windows installed. In order to install the windows, the window structure must be completed by Barnaby. Similarly, Rick has to borrow the sewing machine, but there’s no sense doing that until Barnaby and Lynne have bought all the necessary materials. But the shopping list, of course, depends on figuring out the attachment method.

By identifying these dependencies, the team could tell the sewing machine owner when they might need the machine and update the info as necessary.

The figure shows both the dependencies related to the world outside the team and within the team. It shows that if Barnaby doesn’t finish the window structure right away, no big deal: he wouldn’t be holding the team up until the other tasks were done.

A word about communication: important. It is easy to miscommunicate about dependencies, either what specifically will be done, who will do it, or when it will happen. Even if you mind meld about the “who,” the “what” and “when” can get distorted or forgotten. A picture, as we engineers say, is worth a kiloword.

The team that inspired this article. Left to Right: designer Barnaby Wainfan, Lynne Wainfan, Rick Dean, and the Facetmobile Experimental aircraft.

Conclusion

If you’re like most builders, you like building better than you like planning. But flying soon is better than flying later, and project management tools can help you build efficiently and affordably, improve quality, and reduce frustration. Whether it’s a to-do list, a calendarized cost estimate, or a drawing to communicate what you need and when you need it, working efficiently and minimizing gumption traps will increase the chances of a successful project.


Dr. Lynne Wainfan is a lifetime EAA member and has been a private pilot for over 30 years. Lynne was part of the team that built Barnaby Wainfan’s Facetmobile Experimental plane. Originally an aerospace engineer, then a program manager at Boeing Space, Lynne now consults and teaches at California State University, Long Beach

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