Everyone can't work on everything; a large, interdisciplinary project (such as building and racing a solar car) needs organization and good internal communication. Leadership and Management are crucial skills that members of your team are going to have to learn.
- Accomplishing goals that depend on the active cooperation of others
- Setting direction, organizing people, motivating and inspiring
- Dealing with complexity and constraints to enable accomplishment
- Planning, budgeting, staffing, problem solving
Overview of Skills RequiredEdit
- Know what is being done.
- Define tasks and write them down
- Know who is doing what
- Take responsibility
- Learn new technologies and skills
- Know when the tasks will be done
- Estimate task times
- Create a schedule
- Define milestones
- Communicate 1, 2, & 3 to all members
- Develop a schedule
- Maintain documentation
- Hold and participate in regular meetings
Chances are, these are all new skills members will have to learn for a design team activity!
Tasks are a brief description of things to do. The are usually expressed in a "noun-verb" format:
- Write specifications
- Order solar cells
- Search the web for tire suppliers
- Describe the operation of power trackers
- Clean the shop
- Create 4 alternate concepts
Most of us carry out our daily activities without naming the tasks that we do. In school, tasks are defined for us: "Read chapter 6. Do problems 3, 8, 12" etc. If there are sequences of related tasks, as in a cookbook or assembly instructions, we just follow them. In a design team, we must identify the tasks that need to be accomplished and write them down. We must look ahead and think sequentially: "When this is done, what should be done next?", and "What needs to happen before we can move onto the next step?". This is not hard to do if you are used to it, but may be unfamiliar at the start of a project.
We can define "high level" tasks that the whole team contributes to, like build the car, test, participate in a race, etc. We can also define tasks that are associated with each design team, like mill the body molds, attach the solar cells, build the front suspension, etc. But these high level tasks are are made up of many, many tasks done by individual or small groups of team members.
The Design Spiral is a guide to naming high level tasks and their sequence for vehicle systems and components: Defining specifications, generating alternatives, etc. Acquiring the various skills and producing the various outcomes are also sources of tasks.
There are points in time where certain major groups of tasks are accomplished, or some decision needs to be made or a document or test is completed. These are called "Milestones", and usually use the "noun-verb" format. To illustrate, the steps in the design process can be rephrased as a "noun-verb" high-level milestone that signals when a step is completed: Specifications Written, Concepts Evaluated and One Selected, Test Completed.
A smaller task is an action item. An action item is a documented task, activity, or action that needs to take place. Action items are discrete units that can be handled by a single person. Every action item assigned needs a name by it.
Who Will Do The Tasks?Edit
Team members will! In particular, you will take responsibility for carrying out tasks. By getting to this point in your education, you have demonstrated that you can learn things and take responsibility. You will accept responsibility for learning and applying know-how in a team setting. You will earn the respect and confidence of team members by saying what you will do in advance, and delivering results on time.
Estimate Task TimesEdit
This is an experienced-based skill. All of you have studied for tests written reports, written software, built models, operated tools, diagnosed and repaired things, learned to use software, games, etc. You have some idea of how long it takes you to do some things, though it is informal knowledge. You will build on that knowledge in a design team.
Once you have estimated a time, there are various rules of thumb to inflate it to accommodate unforeseen problems (computer crashes, materials did not arrive, we are at the edge of our knowledge/skills and need help, etc). If you talk to engineers in industry, inquiring about a reasonable inflation factor when embarking upon a task that is "like" something done previously, but employing an unfamiliar technology or material, or operating in a new environment, a common response will be "about three". That is, multiply your estimate of how long it will take by about three.
Communicate the What, Who, and When of TasksEdit
Build a master Gantt chart of high level task summaries for the entire project, as well as individual high-level charts for each design group. Eventually, you will end up with a high-level chart for each system that each group is responsible for.
Of course, there is software to assist with the charting (Microsoft Project, DotProject, etc), but the "compute-aided" part is the easy part. The software will need tasks, time estimates, and milestones, and defining these is the hard part, as is keeping an already-constructed chart updated with current progress.
Keeping records is a skill that can not be stressed more. Everyone needs a notebook to record all of their activities associated with the project. Record phone calls to vendors, emails, web searches (who, why, what was found out), sketches of concepts, wiring diagrams, and layouts. State action items and milestones you're working on, questions you have, brief summaries of meetings and informal discussions, and facts, procedures, and data that you are seeking and learning.
- It's the future, we have the internet. Use it to your advantage. Minnesota has been using MediaWiki and Subversion software on a project-run server since 2006 for online collaboration and documentation, and is very happy with the result. Trac combines a wiki and version control into one software package; which software package(s) your project uses is up to you. The important thing to keep in mind is that, if you DO choose to use a software package like this for project coordination, EVERYONE has to get in the habit of using it, not just a few members.
- Keep a notebook anyway, but copy everything to your wiki as well. The same goes for any CAD files that you may be working on. Laptops can get stolen, notebooks and flash drives can get lost, and hard drives can crash. However, if you have a good policy of storing things centrally (and good backups), data, documentation, and knowledge is secure.
- Divide the people involved in the engineering and construction of the car into logical sub-groups.
- UMN divides into "Mechanical", "Aerodynamics", "Electrical", and "Solar Array" groups.
- Each of these large "design teams" should have a leader who is tracking progress, assigns tasks, and providing support to members who may be struggling.
- Every large design team or group should meet at least once a week for a face-to-face update. Email is great and all, but conversations and decisions happen faster in person. Ideas flow faster as well. Without frequent updates on progress, it's easy for important tasks to slip by unnoticed until it is to late.
- Meetings should have an agenda, review tasks in progress, and document outcomes.
- Setting short, specific, achievable, measurable action items is the key to getting things done and keeping track of progress. Tasks like "work on front suspension" will see nothing get done, because it's difficult to hold the responsible parties accountable for their work (or lack thereof) until it's too late. Similarly, assigning action items for "everyone" is also a bad practice - everyone will expect that other people will do it, and nobody will get it done. Good action items hold people accountable for their work.
- Good action items sound like "John Smith: do force analysis of front suspension by next week's meeting", where it can immediately be checked whether the task was done or not. If a task like this goes unfinished for a few weeks, it is easy to see that work is not getting done.
- It is very difficult to directly motivate someone to do work: either they will, or they won't. If someone is not motivated, inform them that they are not doing their task well and need to get it in gear. After this, if there is no improvement, find someone else to do their work.
- Any effective solar car team needs an "operations team" that is concerned with all of the other things that need to happen to keep a large team operational: organizing events, managing the budget, fundraising, etc. The people who are designing and building the car are going to be too busy/burned out to worry about any of this stuff until it is too late.
- A solar car team also needs a Design Management Team, comprised of the leaders of the various engineering and construction groups on the project, as well as any other interested members.
- This group's responsibility is to monitor the project schedule as well as design and construction progress at a high level and promote crosstalk between various parts of the project. Actively seek out potential problems and make sure people know how they're going to be solved.