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Walt Maclay on Dealing with Unpleasant Surprises


I recently interviewed Walt Maclay, president of Voler Systems, on the topic of reporting project status to clients. He highlighted that the real benefit of the methodology appears when the team runs into issues. He shared with me the weekly status report and we discussed what happens when things go wrong. Below are my notes from our conversation.

What happens when teams run into development issues?

In engineering projects, problems do come up. The nature of engineering is that you don’t know all the answers at the outset of a project, and you can’t always predict the outcome. Issues may arise that have surprises. Even when risks have been identified early there can be unforeseen problems. Budgets can be hard to match and schedules can be difficult to keep. We identify risks early in the project, but it doesn’t mean that there are no challenges. Our problem-solving for our customers is handled in the way they’ve come to expect from Voler. We address problems with the customer early, even if we don’t have all the information. Customers have been very pleased with us because of our project management methods and problem resolution. We have received some of our best referrals from customers with whom we have dealt with issues.

How do you report the status?

Every week we send each customer a spreadsheet (see example weekly status spreadsheet) which shows the cost and schedule milestones, and compares the cost versus plan and schedule versus plan.  We have an internal review meeting weekly. With any significant sized project, we have a weekly meeting with the customer. The number one question that is asked in our internal review meeting is, “What risks are there that would keep us from meeting our plan?” It could be technical risk, schedule risk, or budget risk. Here is an example of our weekly reporting.

See an example Weekly Reporting

Risks are then conveyed to the customer. Some risks are identified at the outset of the project and are included in the proposal. We may have a period of feasibility work, to determine how to minimize risks before moving forward with the design. This is a short, inexpensive phase. At other times, risks only present themselves when you’re working on the project, such as a data sheet for a part we are using that has errors. In that case, we need to identify the problem as early as possible, as it may impact the schedule, and the budget.

What customers don’t want to hear is, “We had a problem, we spent a lot more money and it’s taking a lot longer and now I’m telling you about it. We took care of it a month ago.”  What they’d prefer to hear is, “Here’s the problem we see coming, or that’s happening, and let’s find the best solution for you.” The solution can be a change in direction, or to proceed as planned, but at least the customer has the option to choose. Sometimes that means a significant change in how the project is moving forward. The customer has information we don’t have, so they may make a decision that we didn’t expect.

Can you talk about where this report has led to a useful conversation and a useful change in plan or direction?

Here’s a really good example: we look at the budget each week and there are multiple tasks. All the tasks were on budget, except for one. We ran into an issue that in one week doubled the budget for that one task, and it continued to grow.  Circuit design revisions were taking much longer than planned. The customer directed us to make changes that were out of scope new work. Because we were aware of it, we had discussions early on. It was not the whole project; just one piece of the project. Overall, the project was fine, but the budget became a significant issue when the task continued to increase in scope.  The customer determined that the best path forward was to continue as planned. In the end, the customer was satisfied with the outcome because we were able to discuss the cost increases as they occurred.

Another example was a project that had a problem of getting repeatable results from the equipment. The first step was to determine if the problem was with the hardware, software or the load cells that were being purchased.  We needed to determine the best way to proceed, to find the solution. It took some careful measurements. The problem was hysteresis in the load cells that was out of spec, which is not easy to measure. In the end, we were able to determine that it was the load cells that were at fault. We sent the results of our findings off to the manufacturer, who was able to provide new load cells that met the required specification. By working very carefully with the customer and their vendor, we were able to identify and resolve the problem. It required involvement with the vendor and customer to resolve the problem. It was a very significant technical issue and a risk that we weren’t anticipating. During the whole process we kept the client informed and involved about the unplanned time and the delay in the schedule. In fact, at times they were here in our lab making measurements.

About Voler Systems

Voler Systems provides full-service R&D consulting from concept to moving new products into production with world class quality. Since 1979, clients have turned to us for reliable new products involving sensors and measurement electronics. Our multidisciplinary team delivers high-quality products on time and on budget. We have developed wearable devices, wireless testers, medical devices, automatic test equipment, instrumentation, data acquisition systems, and other specialized sensor-based electronics and prototype circuits.



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