Process management in a project environment---the relation between different roles


Both process management and project management literature and practice consist of an abundance of generalizations and simplifications, for instance about what a project or a process is and is not. These normative statements might at a first glance seem attractive to the practitioners. However, since they lack a contingency perspective they are often too general to guide action. The lack of nuance in the descriptions also tends to hide the relations that exist between these two fields, and also to over-simplify some of the relations that indeed can be identified.

Nevertheless many organizations use both Project Management and Process Management for managing the organization. The two movements do, however, have different backgrounds, theoretical as well as practical, and they are also often unrelated when used in practice, which of course causes confusion. The hypothesis of the authors is that the two fields can enrich each other. The purpose of this article is therefore to discuss process orientation and project management and relate them to each other. This will be accomplished by focusing on the relations between project and process, the tasks for the process owner and the project manager respectively and the relation between those two roles. The findings are illustrated with two case studies, i.e., success stories at Volvo Aero and Telia Validation, a unit of Telia, the major Swedish telecommunication provider, that together help to answer the questions presented above and pointing out discrepancies between theory and practice.

With this background in mind the article aims at bridging these two popular management practices. The concepts are compared via repetitiveness, time perspective, activity focus, customer involvement and goal orientation. Process orientation can enhance learning between projects and transfer of experience and enhance a cultural shift in the organization towards a more holistic thinking among the project team members. After a quick theoretical introduction the two cases are presented with their characteristics concerning process and project management.

Theoretical Background

Process Management

TQM as a concept is well established on the management agenda of many companies. The works of Deming (1994), Juran (1989), Akao (1991), and Ishikawa (1985) are common theoretical foundations for many quality departments. A central idea in the TQM philosophy is the stress on continuous improvement (Imai, 1986). In order to achieve superior customer satisfaction it is not only enough to apply the continuous improvement thinking to the final product or service, but also to the process of producing it, or in other words to shift the focus of attention from the result toward the causes of actions leading to the result (Rentzhog, 1996). This insight led to a widespread interest in process management with numerous publications (Davenport, 1994; Elzinga, 1995; Forsberg, 1998; Hammer, 1996; Harrington, 1991; Kane, 1986; Keen, 1997; Rummler & Brache, 1990).

The notion process comes in many definitions. A common one is to differentiate core processes and support processes. Core processes are understood as being interdisciplinary and aiming at satisfying external customer needs, whereas support processes are facilitating core processes. Support processes ensure that core processes deliver right results, are effective and improved; however, support processes are typically not creating direct value for the final customer. In the following process shall be understood as Rentzhog (1996) defines it: “A process is an activity or a set of orderly linked activities transforming input to output in a repetitive flow. Process Management consequently means continuous management and improvement of processes.” According to Harrington (1991) a process owner is “the individual appointed by management to be responsible for ensuring that the total process is both effective and efficient.”

Project Management

Modern Project Management has its origins in the 1930s (Morris, 1994) and has been closely related to the outbreak of the Second World War and its demand for complex military systems. The traditional functional organizations had problems to handle the technical and organizational complexity of the undertakings in combination with the time pressure that prevails in a (cold) war situation. Typically the notion project has been used in an engineering context but in the last 15–20 years a proliferation of projects could be observed in almost any area of business life, to mark all kinds of activities. Even fairly repetitive tasks are often named as projects to give them a more challenging “sellable” looks. The character of projects can be varying widely as there are, e.g., organizational change projects, product development projects, delivery projects or IT projects. In any case it is important for a project-oriented organization to provide a structure supporting the project manager and teamwork. This structure is often a project model, which can come in the form of project-processes complemented with support processes; see PROPS from Ericsson (1997), C2C from Whirlpool or PRINCE (Turner, 1999).

The typical common characteristics or projects are complexity of some aspects of the activity, the focus on a process in the sense of an organized course of action, the component of uniqueness and the planned end of existence. Project Management is the management of these temporary endeavors or organizations (Lundin & Söderholm, 1995) and a project manager is the person in charge of coordinating and driving forward all project activities. However, simple definitions do not align people and their actions; an intensive dialogue is needed (Senge, 1993).

Relation Between the Two Areas

Theoretically, the relation between project and process can be described via a metaphor from Rentzhog (1996), where the process can be seen as a channel and the projects are boats passing through that channel, i.e., the project manager is using processes when planning and executing the project. The project manager’s task is to report the best ways through the channel to the process owner, e.g., where the shallows and the narrow passages are. The task of the process owner is to make the journey as easy as possible for the projects passing through. The process owner may also dig the channel deeper, more straight and wider to facilitate the projects passage.

In two case studies we have investigated the relation between project and process management. A number of problems originating in unclear definitions between the different roles and tasks have been observed in the companies as well as their ways to solve them in different phases of process management maturity.

Volvo Aero

Volvo Aero Corporation is a wholly owned subsidiary of Volvo AB. Most of the business is situated in Trollhättan, Sweden. The total number of employees was about 3,700 in 1997 and the turnover 7.5 billion SEK. Volvo Aero has a good reputation within the quality field and in 1996 Volvo Aero in Trollhättan won the Swedish Quality Award. The company is divided into seven business areas. This study focuses on the Space Propulsion division in Trollhättan, the major part of the business unit Space Propulsion. The unit has about 200 employees and its operation is strongly linked to the European Joint Space Program.

The Formal Organization

The main part of the operations is conducted within three business units: Viking, Nozzles and Turbines. The employees describe their working places via three different structures: the business units with their projects and programs, the functional structure and finally the processes. The business units and the functions are to a great extent the same; the resources are within the business units. However in three years or so the situation might be different. Employees guess that the business units will be there; the functions could have different names, whereas the processes probably persist. Thus the employees think of the functional structure as the most transient of the three structures. The way people are grouped can for different reasons change, but the business units with their projects and the processes are probably more persistent over time.

Processes and Projects

In 1994 four key processes were identified at the division: Develop Concept, Define, Verify and Manufacture, i.e., the main focus being on processes related to product development. Together with Sell, Manage Projects and Change Configuration these processes are actively managed at the division. The plan is to start-up formal process management work also for Marketing and Support Innovation. At Volvo Aero a process is defined as “a repetitive sequence of logically connected activities aiming at producing value to the customer.”

The process maps are quite general and generic, i.e., the processes are used by different organizational units. Formal work methods or technical details are rarely prescribed. Often examples of methods that have proved to work well in different situations are given. The processes’ non-prescriptive character also makes conflicts with, for example, the project structure rare. For some processes the process documentation corresponds quite well to a defined part of the quality system, these parts being obligatory, and there is also an aspiration to strengthen the relation between the quality system and the process work.

There seems to be an agreement among the employees that the business units, and the projects conducted therein, form the main structure. Within the business units, a handful of projects are conducted, which are production programs, new products developments, and technology projects, i.e., “technology research” without reference to a specific product.

The projects are unique in the sense that the product, i.e., the task, is novel. However, many methods used in the project are both known in beforehand and standardized. It is interesting to note that processes are established only for procedures used in product development and production, and not for technology programs. The reason might be that the methods used for technology research projects are of a more unknown and unique nature.

The Process Owner

So far, the appointed process owners generally have been managers in one of the other two structures, the functions or the business units, which is important in terms of status for the process work and connection to executive management. The process owners together with business area manager and quality managers form a process management council, meeting one afternoon every second week with the role to follow-up process activities, prioritize among processes and enabling transfer of experiences between processes.

The process owner’s major tasks are, together with his team, to design and improve the process. The process team—composed of persons from different organizational units affected by the process—prioritizes and decides about improvement projects to work with. However, the process owner and the team have no formal authority to implement new work methods, except for those changes that affect the quality system, they can just recommend. They neither have a budget of their own and commitment to new work methods is mainly received the informal way. The processes have to actively collect experiences and knowledge from the projects and then try to “sell-in” their recommendations to other projects. A general opinion is that if the process teams design “good” processes and methods these will be used. Some process teams do also have “training modules” for their processes, which spreads information about new methods. The division is quite small wherefore the same persons are often members of different groups and committees. Hence, much of the information and coordination is handled through such channels. Since the projects are not obliged to use new work methods identified by the process team, i.e., the process owner has no real formal power, he has no real responsibility for the failure or success of a project either. At the same time this eliminates possible conflicts between process owner and project manager, as it can happen in the relation between project manager and functional manager, i.e., in the classic matrix problem.

As the process teams have no formal resources beyond the meetings, the respondents state that it is important to work with what is requested by the projects. Implementation or test of process changes requires commitment from a project and that implies that the project manager must be able to see “what is in it” for his or her project.

The Relation Project Manager—Process Owner in Volvo Aero

The project managers at Volvo Aero have a very strong position and the projects are run like small companies within the business units. The projects are managed with a strong focus on goal-fulfillment and projects are followed-up with “elaborate” scorecards. Moreover, the people in the project are co-located and assigned on full-time.

However, as discussed above the relation between process and project is intimate. The process team is dependent upon the projects for finding ideas and testing improvement proposals in pilot projects. The improvement process often starts when a team member identifies a good work method, very often in his own project. After analysis and refinement by the process team, the team decides to test the idea in another project. If this test turns out to be successful, the improvement becomes a part of the team’s training module or some process documentation and the practice is recommended to other projects. Sometimes the improvements become a part of the quality system. Moreover, it is not unusual that a project manager is process owner for a process, which his project goes through.

The dialog between the process owner and the project manager is both formal and informal. Formally the project manager is often member of the process team receives the protocols from the meetings and participates in the education modules of the process team. However, more important the employees value the informal aspects, like having a chat with each other or simply being process owner and project manager at the same time.

In the beginning it was not easy to make process team members understand that the goal of a project is operative and of a short term nature, whereas a process is here to stay, has a long-term focus and aims at improving the projects. Project managers are interested in managing their project the most efficient way and the processes’ task is to provide some possible and tested ways of achieving that goal. While searching for these ways the process team members automatically learn to raise their eyes from the daily work and look at what future projects might need—an activity that a project is not made for.

The results of good cooperation between process and project have been among other things a number of checklists, which have become obligatory for projects and considerably reduced lead times in a number of subprocesses. Other important effects of process management have been a greater amount of clearness in recurrent project activities, an increased understanding between employees who were able to develop a common picture of their organization and also more possibilities for proactive project management.

Telia Validation

This case study is based on the master thesis of Kammerlind and Löfbom (1998) where the operative processes of Telia Validation are described. The Telia Group is a large Swedish supplier of telecommunication services with ca. 30,000 employees. The company is still governmental owned but its structure has changed rapidly over the last years due to globalization and increasing competition. Telia has changed from a monopoly institution to a company with profit demands. In order to adapt to the fast changing environment a huge investment, initiated by the CEO and the board, was made to implement process management in the whole organization including over a large number of business units.

The Formal Organization

Telia Validation AB is a unit within the group that was established in 1996 when the organization of the Telia group was restructured. The number of employees has increased over the years from 100 at the beginning to 570 today. Most of the employees are located in the surroundings of Stockholm but there are employees on 25 places all over Sweden. The company is responsible for quality assurance of Telia products, e.g., monitoring internal processes, testing of products and infrastructure. This means that the customers are almost exclusively other Telia units, i.e., internal customers, with a few exceptions (5%). The company can be seen as the “competence center” within Telia for quality related issues.

The company has a traditional hierarchical functional organization where the functions are named divisions. There are today seven divisions; Product Management, Core systems, Network Services, Telecom Services, Data Quality, Configuration Management and IT in Telia. Most of the assignments are performed in project form and almost all employees are involved in at least one project. Important roles besides the functional organization are the project leader, supported by a customer manager and a sales manager in the project organization (see below) and the process owner and the process leader within the process organization.

Process and Projects

The company is separating between minor and larger projects, which are considered similar here. A project is an assignment where Telia Validation is responsible for a well-defined result and use work routines according to its own quality system. Important roles here are of course the project leader, but he is supported by a customer manager interacting with the customer in the early phase of an affair and a sales manager with resource responsibility. The sales manager is also responsible for the relation with the customer during the project.

The routines are documented in an internal project model, comprising the three phases establishment, implementation and finalization. The project model is generic; i.e. it can be used for small and large projects as well as internal or external ones.

The process structure of Telia is similar for the whole group. There was a need for a common structure within the group to ease cooperation and communication between units. The four core processes are: Business planning, Product Development, Marketing and Sales and Service Production complemented with a set of support processes. For each of these processes a process manager is assigned with the strategic responsibility and a process leader working with the day-to-day activities. The implementation was done in a “one fits all” way but the units were allowed to make changes within the structure, i.e. it is possible to change the order of activities within the processes but they may not change names of processes. Initially, process mapping in most processes was done by the process manager and process leaders. Today the process leader role has vanished and the process manager hires the former process leaders in improvement assignments on project basis. There are no teams related to the processes so improvements are not identified nor implemented at a regular basis. However in the process implementation phase a cross-functional project was created with the aim to educate all employees and to improve the process structure. Over the years the focus in interest of upper management has shifted from process management to scorecards, but in the scorecard used within the Telia Group a strong focus is on structural capital that includes processes.

The Process Owner

Every core process and support process has a process owner in charge of it. The process owner has the strategic responsibility for the process. In the core process, the process owners are supported by a process leader. The process leader is working with day-to-day activities within the process and is located close to the process owner. The process owners for the core processes are the leaders on upper level in the hierarchical organization, which minimizes the conflicts between the organizations but at the same time delimits the importance of the process organization. The process leader is working within the scope of the process, often interested in improvement activities and of a proactive attitude.

The Relation Project—Process in Telia Validation

In Kammerlind and Löfbom (1998) the process structure and the project organization was integrated in the form of a process map describing the operative processes of the company. Since most of the work was performed in projects the integration was natural. A problem was that the process infrastructure was not designed for the company specifically and modifications from the Group level description had to be made. The process map describes in a pedagogical way how the different core processes originate from the process description on Group level. The relationship with the project organization is shown via the project model mentioned above and the three phases are embedded in the process description. This supports project managers and is completed with the set of routines and technical methods used at Telia Validation. Another advantage with the process map was the description of Telia Validations role at the customer site, mostly other Telia units, and their processes. This was appreciated by the employees and helped them to understand their role in the Telia Group and the importance of processes in project-based organizations.

The project management existing at the company facilitated the implementation of process management at Telia Validation AB. There are discrepancies between projects and processes and this caused initial confusion among the employees but in the long run the synergies as well as the differences became well understood. This fact should not be overseen and it is the authors’ opinion that an already existent project organization is speeding up the implementation of process management compared to a traditional functional organization. The integration in the process map describing every day work was a driving factor in the implementation phase.

Process management supported learning between projects since the focus on feedback and repetitiveness in the processes affects the project follow-up. The improvement process within the process organization affects the project leader and the project management in a positive manner, like a more formal contact with the customer in the establishment phase in the project. Before the process introduction these contacts were dependent on individual initiative and interest.

Over time it became clear that the process structure affects the employees’ mental models and supports a more holistic culture in the organization. The methods and techniques used are described within the formal project leading model and the structure of the activities in a wider perspective are seen within the framework of the processes.

Conclusions for Management

To clarify the relations between project and process as well as the relation between the roles of the project manager and the process owner is a necessary first step when embarking on a journey to a project-oriented company that can learn from its experiences.

The project role is of an operative nature, to accomplish tasks and to generate income. The goal of a process is to capture the experiences from projects, analyze, evaluate and filter these in order to feed them actively back into the project organizations. Thus the role of a process is to give support to the project. Thus, a process has to have a more long-term focus than a project, it has to have a horizon, which extends over many projects and is of a more permanent and improvement focused nature.

The overlap of personnel between project and process functions is useful in the start-up phases of process orientation but in later phases these double roles can be a hinder, depending on the nature of the business. Often companies think that if they co-locate resources in a supreme effort to introduce process management in a project form they can relax afterwards and are process oriented for all future. Successful process management requires a long-term focus, beyond the scope of any project.

Another problem in practice is that the personnel appointed to the process management gets this task as an extra to the normal everyday tasks. To put functional managers in process owner positions should only be a start to establish process thinking, it is not advantageous in the long run. If a real change shall be accomplished the process owner and the functional manager should not be the same, otherwise employees will have difficulties to note a difference to the state before the introduction of a process orientation.

However, sometimes the difference between process and project is not as obvious as the difference between process and function or project and function. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that two different mindsets are required for process management and project management.

Future Research and Interest

The two management fields—project management and process management—have many relations and commonalties. Thus, it is a bit amazing that so little research have been conducted in the intersection between these two areas. Our discussion above gives examples of important areas, such as responsibilities of different management roles, processes role in different sort of projects, the learning and improvement aspect and different roles in this etc.

Another remark is that both process management and project management literature are often too general on the relation between them to guide action. That there are relations between process management and project management is also illustrated with the presented cases. Process management and project management are intertwined and the roles are dependent on each other. One strength in Volvo Aero’s approach is that the relations between the concepts and the belonging roles are identified and reflected over. We think that it is important to thoroughly discuss and define different roles so that all tasks are taken care of in an appropriate way and confusion regarding responsibilities, authority, etc., can be avoided.

Volvo Aero is an organization in which the projects are large and rather unique, whereas in Telia Validations the projects are smaller and of a more standardized character. In organizations with many and more standardized projects another and even more intimate relation between process and project manager might be expected. There are also many other factors affecting the relation between these two management practices, e.g., the nature of the business.

Especially process management is best understood as a relative clear set of philosophical ideas, but whose practical implications are much vaguer and multifaceted. In order to enhance the understanding of the discussed phenomena more qualitative empirically based research is recommended.


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Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA



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