Key Program Management Challenges Print E-mail
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Written by Susan Mucha   
Thursday, 31 May 2012 14:30

Although never easy, PMs who think ahead can develop a manageable process.

I often say program management is the hardest job in the electronics manufacturing services industry. Here, in the context of the five issues I see most consistently, are some of the challenges behind that label and strategies for addressing them.

Negotiation. Most program management models give program managers the dual role of maintaining customer satisfaction and meeting account profitability goals. While excelling at both roles may seem impossible, it is doable if properly approached. As with any manufacturing process, the work done on the front end has a lot to do with the results over time. The first step is contract negotiation. Properly positioned, the contract helps define the working relationship. The lead negotiator varies by EMS provider. In some cases, it is the program manager, and in other cases, it may be senior management, sales or a contracts department. Regardless of who negotiates the contract, the program manager (PM) and key decision-maker on the customer side should build a working relationship around the agreed-upon terms.

Once that relationship is established, the PM has a basis for negotiating price changes driven by changes in project scope, scheduling or material pricing. They also have a basis for asking for customer compliance to agreed-upon forecasting models, inventory reconciliation or payment terms. At the same time, the program manager can “grant favors” when the customer needs support for short notice schedule changes or other issues that can be accommodated without significant increases in cost. When a contract isn’t in place, negotiations in these areas tend to consume much more program management time or simply don’t take place because the PM moves to a mode of accommodating or disappointing the customer on out-of-project-scope activity.

In addition to getting a contract, two other negotiation tactics can help make a program manager’s job easier. First, understanding industry practices helps get recalcitrant customers to reach agreement. It isn’t unusual for customers to ask for the moon to see how much the program manager will compromise. Pushing back with a statement related to industry practice goes a long way to stopping that type of behavior. IPC’s EMSI-TC-2 Sample Master Ordering Agreement is one example of a reference document with standard industry terms. IPC’s EMS Program Management Certification Program also has training and tools in this area. Second, when it is impossible to give a customer what they want, provide a range of options that include what has been requested. This puts the customer back in charge, because they then pick the tradeoff that best fits the requirement.

Growing business over time. Many EMS business models put the PM in charge of growing business. Part of the rationale is that this frees sales to pursue new business rather than staying with an account that will grow with minimal additional sales effort. The challenge is that PM is often tied up with day-to-day workload and doesn’t have the time to chase additional business within the account.

Strategic account plans are a good way to address this issue. Developing a good plan does take time. Key elements should include a decision team map, identification of likely business opportunities, and short- and long-term account goals. The strategic account plan helps define a framework for periodic sales actions to grow the business over time. Formal quarterly or semiannual account review meetings between project teams are another way to support the relationship building necessary for good account growth.

Role confusion. While some EMS business models do position the program manager as strategic leader with authority to direct significant organizational resources, many put the PM in a tactical role with little or no authority over support personnel or project resources. In those cases, strong PMs tend to do well, and weaker ones tend to be resource-challenged. This can contribute to a feeling of powerlessness and eventual burnout. The reality is that most program managers have the power to change this if they act like leaders, in spite of lack of authority.

The key to overcoming resource challenges is twofold. First, it is important to be proactive in identifying likely project requirements and requesting the resources necessary to support them. Production and materials managers like PMs who identify potential issues early. Second, the program manager should be able to make the business case for the resources that are needed. What is the account potential? How will requested resources track to account growth or profitability improvement over time? 

Time management. Part of the reason that program management is such a difficult job is because of the amount of communication required and the number of people who must be in that loop. Another reason is that there are always surprises that must be managed. In short, there isn’t a lot of time to sit around thinking about how to do things more efficiently.

That said, technology continues to offer ways to improve and automate communications. Information “pull systems” for meetings and project status updates help minimize the flow of email. Periodically, evaluating whether “standing” meetings are necessary can help as well. Automating the way account metrics are collected and compiled can be another time saver. In short, automate the standard tasks and that will free up time to deal with the tactical issues.
Workload. Program management is not alone in being overworked. Companies are cutting resources and expecting those who are left to carry the load. The fact that OEM teams are equally challenged contributes to some of the surprises that program managers must address. The strategies mentioned to create well-understood working relationships, automate repetitive tasks and build respect in the organization can go a long way to keeping workload manageable.

Susan Mucha is president of Powell-Mucha Consulting Inc. (, and author of Find It. Book It. Grow It. A Robust Process for Account Acquisition in Electronics Manufacturing Services; This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Last Updated on Friday, 01 June 2012 14:50


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