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Packaging Thrives on Good Project Management

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Project Management

Packaging is a potent, versatile, multi-faceted tool that can be the source of a competitive advantage. That lofty potential most frequently is fulfilled through projects. In contrast to individualized day-to-day work, a project is a team undertaking. Its purpose is to achieve a desired outcome, within specified constraints of scope, cost, and time. By definition, projects are inherently complex; there is no such thing as a simple project. Project management entails all the efforts required to keep the train on the track. Efficient project management, therefore, is indispensable. Otherwise, prospects for a successful outcome are miniscule at most.

Packaging projects run the gamut in diversity, from package research, design, and development to the installation of packaging lines—and everything in between. The justifications for undertaking packaging projects are equally diverse. The demand for packaging derives from the demand for the contained product. Changes to the product can beget changes to the packaging, thereby triggering projects. Packaging, furthermore, is among the most regulated of disciplines. Consequently, regulatory changes can trigger projects. More recently, the sustainability era continues to generate its share of projects.

Packaging professionals, perhaps more so than other team members, are suited for project work. That’s because packaging is interdisciplinary, necessitating a systems approach to manage trade-offs among the competing and conflicting preferences of the various stakeholders, true even of day-to-day work. Such experience, carried over to project work, is valuable in operating within team dynamics.

Newly minted graduates of the various university curricula in packaging, nonetheless, don’t enter the workforce with a strong foundation in project management. Universities don’t fulfill the entire demand for packaging professionals. As such, some professionals are transfers from other disciplines, with modest backgrounds in project management. Whatever their route of arrival, it’s a near certainty that, at some point in time, if not repeatedly, the vast majority of packaging professionals will be involved in project work.

Despite the aforementioned diversity of packaging projects, each project should be conducted within the same structure—one designed for consistently acceptable results. Unfortunately, reality can be different. An example is an ad hoc approach, wherein freelancing reigns. Another example is when there is a supposed company approach to projects, but teams deviate from it under crush circumstances. It comes down to this: any structure for project work and the management of same should be built upon certain fundamentals. No fundamental is more fundamental than the concept that a project begins, proceeds, and ends. The resulting life cycle has five stages: initiation; planning; execution; monitoring & control, and close.

• Initiation. Even the start has to be preceded by certain matters. Chief among them is authorization. The person of authority needs to be provided convincing information. The information needs to be collected, organized, and presented, which can constitute a mini-project, in itself.

• Planning. This is the roadmap, or, by a different analogy, the play book. These things must be made clear: what is to be done, how is it to be done, who is to do it, and when is it to be done. The relationship between the plans and the desired outcomes (aka the deliverables) should be readily apparent, so as to rule out conjecture.

• Execution. Here, team members are carrying out their assigned tasks and responsibilities, but not in isolation. Coordinating and communicating are vital. Unavoidably, the going is not always continuous and smooth. Members who excel at this stage are those who are agile and find ways around temporary bumps, continuing while matters are being righted.

• Monitoring & Control. “So, how is the project progressing?” That’s a question that might be asked at any time by a non-member stakeholder. A reliable answer can be given if this stage of the project is being well-performed. The setting of milestones (established in the planning stage) is among the proven aids at this stage.

• Close. Projects are put to bed, but not to death. The company lives with the outcomes going forward. An honest and objective close-out assessment should specify what went right and what went less so. It gives useful perspectives that can be applied to other projects. 

Although the five stages are logically sequential, progress does not always proceed sequentially. It is not uncommon for some stages to be repeated. Something discovered during the monitoring & control stage, for example, can justify a return to the execution stage, or even a return to the planning stage. The back-and-forth might undergo more than one iteration, also. With each iteration, there is a consequence in time and in cost.

There are various methodologies, charts, templates, and software that purport to be tools for effective, efficient project management. They don’t, however, justify giving short shrift to the human interface element of project management.

Next month’s article will address why packaging projects fail, so stay tuned. 

Sterling Anthony, CPP, consults in packaging, marketing, logistics, and human-factors.  A former faculty member at the Michigan State University School of Packaging, his contact info is:100 Renaissance Center, Box-176, Detroit, MI 48243; 313/531-1875;

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