Improving project management standards at Airbus

Kevin Baker
Kevin Baker, Head of Project & Programme Management Operations at Airbus

Change is hard, and project managers aren’t particularly good at doing it to themselves – in my experience we prefer to implement change for others. Kevin Baker, Head of Project & Programme Management Operations at Airbus, took on the challenge of changing the way they manage projects. I spoke to him about how he implemented cultural change at the company.

Kevin, why did you decide to enhance the project management culture at Airbus?

We simply knew that we needed to improve. There are many studies on project and programmes in the aerospace and defence sectors, and they all tell a similar story – it is an unfortunate fact that many A&D projects have a history of being late and over budget. This may have been acceptable many years ago when the industry was based on large government funded ’prestige’ projects. The Concord programme is old, but is a good example of this. And there are many other more recent examples. But we know that we have to improve. Our customers expect more, and our shareholders expect more.

So how did you go about it?

We set up an organisation with a specific mission to improve the project management culture – it is called the Centre of Competence for Project & Programme Management, CoC P&PM. Over the last 3 years, this organisation has developed the various improvement levers – we have developed a specific career path for project managers, we have introduced an internal certification process for our project managers so that the junior project managers can see how to progress, we have introduced a larger suite of project management training with emphasis of soft skills, and we have introduced a standardised set of project management methods and tools covering all the project management activities – cost management, schedule management, earned value management, risk management, and so on.

Wow, that sounds comprehensive. I especially like the idea of career paths. Tell me more about the certification process and the training.

Each project management actor can apply for and be certified at a certain level. We have 5 levels ranging from an entry level called ‘Iron’ thorough to the most senior at ‘platinum’ level. To reach each level the person needs to have a mix of experience across a spectrum of areas – we believe that breadth of experience is essential for good project managers – and to have undertaken a mix of different trainings. This is now in regular use in Airbus and is a major tool for the development of the skilled project managers we need at all levels in our company. It acts as a powerful roadmap for each person’s personal development as a project manager.

That sounds very thorough – project managers will get a good grounding in a lot of skills through your scheme. But the whole thing has involved implementing a lot of standardised process. I’m interested to know how you will know when you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve. How did you define what good looks like?

We have thought long and hard about this, as it is not easy to precisely define it, and even harder to measure it. But in general terms ‘good’ is when all the key players in Airbus think and act in a project management way, so that it is just a normal part of how we work.

That’s a great definition, but it must have been a difficult journey. What was the hardest part of creating a culture change?

I think the most difficult part is to keep up the momentum. You can introduce new methods, processes, tools and so on, but to change the culture you need to change the people. I do not mean to replace them, but rather to change the way they think and act. We need to get a project management way-of-working accepted as part of the daily life, so that it is used almost without thinking about it. This is the only way to change the culture, but this takes a high and sustained energy. If you relax the pressure, then the change can slow down and even go into reverse.

We have made some good progress in the last years, but we know that we need to continue to improve. Projects become more challenging, timescales become shorter, budgets become tighter, our customers expect more, and the competition does not stand still. Our journey will continue.

Thanks, Kevin!

About my interviewee: Kevin Baker is Head of Project & Programme Management Operations at Airbus. He is speaking at Project Zone Congress in Frankfurt about this programme of work to enhance project management culture at the company.

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