Project Management Institute

Checks & balances


Stop arguing over whether processes or leadership takes priority.

Mega projects can't survive without both.

by Marcia Jedd

Best of Congress Papers

Project managers do love their processes, but processes aren't enough to sustain large-scale projects. And while there's a never-ending buzz about great leadership, it alone doesn't ensure a positive project outcome, either.

“The tension over whether processes or leadership is more important is often misplaced. Any successful project requires a mixture of both,” says John Homer, director of continuous quality improvement at BMW Constructors Inc., an engineering and industrial construction firm based in Indianapolis, Ind., USA.

This article is based on material in the white paper “The Lens and the Mirror: Viewing Project Management as an Outcome or as a Set of Processes,” presented by John Homer at the PMI Global Congress 2006—North America in Seattle, Wash., USA.

Yet the typical project management personality skews toward an over-reliance on documenting procedures and processes. “Technically oriented people, which includes most project management personnel in my industry, are more comfortable depending on defining solid processes as a way to get to successful project outcomes,” he says.

But Mr. Homer encourages project managers to question processes. “There are no processes that are self-enforcing,” he says, noting it's easy for people to make false-positive reports of progress to mask the fact that things aren't going well. And when parties outside the enterprise are involved, the stakes are often raised.

That's where a strong leader comes in.

“Leadership needs to call project participants on it and make sure communication is open and accurate,” Mr. Homer says.

One way to ensure effective communication and counter false reporting is through verification. Particularly on multi-million dollar projects, Mr. Homer recommends using sampling to confirm project deliverables are on track. If there are still questions lingering, increase the sample.

No matter how great
the leader, there's always a need for processes.

On one large industrial project, Mr. Homer wasn't getting a straight answer from a key supplier of consigned process equipment. So he dispatched an expeditor to the supplier's plant to be shown each piece of BMW’s equipment on the floor and ensure it displayed evidence confirming it was part of his company's bill of materials.

In that case, Mr. Homer felt that receiving verification at face value wasn't enough. So he sent the expeditor back through the shipping bay of the plant to verify what he'd been shown. The expeditor discovered the supplier had simply slapped on the bill of materials to equipment that was actually designated for other consignees. “That's an example of a process that was well-defined and well-intended but incomplete,” he says. “It needed more than the process itself. It required leadership to question the company.”

It comes down to having processes in place that you can trust and sample. “You don't have to work 60 hours a week to back-check if people are doing their job,” Mr. Homer says. “If you have solid, but not perfect, processes then you'll find the areas you can trust and not have to check on all the time.”




Don't Expect Miracles

No matter how great the leader, there's always a need for processes. “There is a limit to the size of a project that can be successfully managed by force of personality,” Mr. Homer says. He points to a spate of business headlines in recent years that tout the appointment of a new CEO or executive as a panacea to heal all of a company's woes. Often, months later, the company admits failure or that it put too much stock in one person. “Any project or company that thinks they can get by on the strength of the coach is usually doomed from the start,” he says.

“In some environments, we probably overly depend on intangible leadership. For a complex project to be successful, it must incorporate a mixture of leadership and process,” Mr. Homer says. “It's bad economics and an invitation to problems to overly rely on one aspect alone.”

Mr. Homer defines project success by the alignment of three factors:

  • Achieves the results sought
  • Delivers the scope necessary to achieve results
  • Accomplishes results in accordance with performance expectations.


The ideal blend of leadership and process should provide an integrated culture across the entire enterprise, says Crispin “Kik” Piney, PMP, principal at, a project management consultancy based in Valbonne, France. Getting the right mix is required to:

one EXTEND THE LEADER’S SPAN OF CONTROL. The only way for a leader to remain visible and influential is to be in many places at once. Outside of cloning, Mr. Piney says, the only way to do this is by developing and applying processes that ensure people behave as if the leader were there.

two PROVIDE EFFECTIVE GOVERNANCE. It's obvious that compliance with proven processes and methodologies can protect weak management from serious mistakes. Less obvious is that process compliance is necessary for great leaders, too, Mr. Piney says. Processes provide a safeguard against the risks that can arise from a leader's hubris, enthusiasm or overconfidence.

“Too many projects have competing, conflicting, schedules—one for engineering, one for procurement, different ones for different parts of the project,” Mr. Homer says. “Where these schedules fail to be controlled by a single master schedule, the project is out of control. This is why setting and communicating one plan, one process and one team is a critical project leadership need.”

Follow the Leader

As the manager on a $128 million brownfield project for global energy giant BP, Dave Koester, project manager at the Munster, Ind., USA, office of BMW Constructors, says one of his most effective leadership strategies was following through with team members.

“This requires a more intentional process that guides us to consistently include the right people in planning, dissect work scope to a level deeper than is usually achieved, and together develop construction plans that benefit the project as a whole,” he says.

The project required construction of a new process unit to remove sulfur from diesel fuel at an existing BP refinery in Whiting, Ind., USA. Because of looming federal emissions regulations, the project was fast-tracked. Following the lean construction method, team members began work in March 2005, with engineering occurring simultaneously with construction.

The master production plan was developed during the first six weeks of the project. With that in place, meetings with the four site superintendents and seven general foremen were held every week to fine-tune the on-site work, Mr. Koester says.




The team would work out constraints, which were then assigned to a specific person to address and resolve in each meeting, he says. When team members got tired of planning, Mr. Koester says he would guide them back into the process or simply suggest the group reconvene the following week. “It also required drawing out and clarifying planning ideas so that the loudest or more forceful personalities didn't drive a sub-optimized plan by dominating the planning discussions,” he says. “Bringing the group to consensus given diverging options was critical.”

And he had to make sure he didn't dominate the discussions, either. “My way of leadership was to put in my ideas as an equal team member,” Mr. Koester says.

Once the decisions had been made, he says, it was “a matter of monitoring, guiding, supporting and encouraging the crews to follow the plans they made.”

By collaborating, the project team was able to leverage tight but flexible schedules. For example, the electrical foreman said the most efficient way to lay the cable was to wait until the structural steel was near its point of installation. So the team accelerated the delivery date of the steel. Conversely, many construction sites use a “keep busy” approach, Mr. Koester says, encouraging workers to jump from one work area to the next without regard for the most efficient way to complete a job segment.

The project was completed on time and within budget in June 2006—and all it took was the right combination of processes and leadership. PM


Marcia Jedd is a Minneapolis, Minn., USA-based supply chain and business writer.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




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