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The Challenge of Planning - Part 2

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas

In part one, we discussed the need in the workplace for everyone involved to have the right information and planning in front of them at the right time to do their jobs effectively, accurately, and consistently. This requires planning and a system to distribute the knowledge efficiently. The system also needs to provide for ways to continuously update the information as mistakes are corrected and new and better ways of doing the work are developed.

People are Doers and Makers by Nature, not Planners

Growing up on a farm, I don’t remember ever having much of a plan for getting things made or repaired. Looking back, I guess I was exposed to assembly instructions, a type of plan, for the model cars and airplanes I liked to put together. For the most part, however, assembly and operating instructions were used only as a last resort if I could not figure out how something fit together or worked once assembled.

I was first exposed to formal planning in the late 1980’s when I took a job with a manufacturer of Boeing aircraft machine and sheet metal parts in Wichita. I worked first in accounting, then later in inventory control and scheduling. Aircraft manufacturing is heavily regulated. No one wants airliners crashing because certain parts were made in an inferior, inconsistent manner. The material and operational steps used to make each part are recorded in a plan, or work order, that calls out the material used and each step of the process from pulling the material to applying the finish coating. Any changes to the plan are approved and documented in the plan so that next time the parts are made, the plan reflects the latest information on making the parts in the best way.

The operational steps to make an order of parts take place at a variety of machines, or work centers, to cut, drill, mill, grind, and otherwise fabricate the parts. The planning includes an estimate of when and how long the order will be at each machine. The machine operators can see what work is coming their way and the work order tells them everything they need to know about each order to make the order to the customer’s specifications. The operational steps go away from the work list as the operator tells the system they are complete and new ones come on their list as they are added to the system. People like seeing steps go away as they check them off the list and they like seeing the new steps come on the list - it’s human nature.

This manufacturing system, one that provides necessary information for everyone involved in the processes, has been in the back of my mind ever since the late-1990’s when I moved out of manufacturing and into Internet E-Commerce. Meanwhile, back at the Fab Lab, as we have grown, we’ve involved more people in our work, employees, volunteers, and contractors. There is much work to do and there is a need for those involved in the work of the Lab to have the knowledge and tools at their fingertips to effectively accomplish the work they’ve agreed to do on behalf of the Fab Lab.

Web-Based Project Management Allow Users Easy Access

There are many project management systems on the market today. The web-based ones are best because of the ease of users being able to access the information they need to do their work. I’ve chosen to develop our own home-grown system based on the manufacturing systems I’ve used previously. While it is not a turn-key solution and requires development and tweaking, it does allow for easy customization to add features particularly useful for us. We are working to turn most of our work into projects and each project is made up of a series of steps to complete. Each step can be assigned to any number of people and each step includes an estimated date of start and date of completion.

Much of our work is repetitive in nature. Certain projects will reoccur over and over in the life of an organization. A planning system provides for saving “templates” of how projects are completed so that as new needs for similar work arise, a template can be retrieved and modified to provide a specific project for the current task. Taken in the whole, these templates constitute the “operations manual” for the bulk of our work. Having this information available and ready to implement is a huge advantage when it’s time to train new people to help with the work. The “operations manual” is essential not only in the continued operation of a business or organization but also when it’s time to transfer the busines to new owners, i.e., business succession. Every business should be working on a system such as this to help with current training and operations and future business succession.

We are all innately doers and makers, taking the time to plan is foreign to us and difficult. It’s more satisfying to make things happen than it is to plan to make things happen. Yet, as a business or organization transitions from start-up to ongoing operational phase, it is essential to the ongoing health of the organization to take time to plan. For many business owners, a project management system provides the potential not only for smoother operation and training, but also an “operations manual” that will provide for the consistency in products and services that our customers and constituents want from us.

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349 or by email at Archive columns and podcasts at

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