How do projects and processes differ? Both have a defined start and end and both consume valuable resources and deliver business benefits.
The key differentiator with projects is that they are unique, temporary endeavors. This uniqueness increases the level of uncertainty which in turn impacts our ability to mitigate most causes of variation.
But what if we complete the same type of project over and over again?
With a persisting team, lessons identified, shared and applied from the past will reduce the volume of special cause variation and such projects will begin to become more and more predictable.
There is still the need for some planning, but the likelihood of there being a scope or approach permutation which has not been considered is low enough that planning artifacts from previous projects are usable with minimal adaptation. Oversight is still required once plans have been finalized, but there is a low probability of experiencing a situation which has not been encountered previously, so project monitoring and control starts to look a lot more like process control.
So what are some indications that we are closer to a process than a project?
- When there is a consistent track record of progressively reducing variation from project to project, one can start to feel confident that what needed to be learned has been, and that whatever variation remains is a normal part of the process which can be effectively managed through cost reserves and scheduling buffers. Similarly, when actual cost and schedule performance is equivalent or very close to preliminary estimates, it should become possible to predict outcomes with minimal effort spent on upfront planning.
- There is a minimal volume of issues on each project, and almost no issues emerge which haven’t been experienced before. Firefighting has been replaced with the execution of well designed reaction plans. Risk management is still practiced, but the focus is heaving weighted towards identifying new unknown-unknowns which could destabilize delivery predictability.
- The team runs like a well-oiled machine – they are performing, self-managing and well equipped to resolve healthy conflict without the need for outside intervention. Escalations in general are few and far between.
- Multiple metrics are used to monitor and track performance. Instead of focusing solely on effectiveness metrics tied to scope, quality, cost and schedule variation, metrics are introduced to quantify cycle time and cost of quality so that delivery efficiency can increase.
So why should we care if we are meeting one or more of these criteria?
It is important to distinguish between project work and process execution, if nothing more, than to optimize the use of valuable project management skills. But of course, we must never forget – shift happens!
Excellence is a continuous process and not an accident – A. P. J. Abdul Kalam