Project Management Institute

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so what is a project?

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Concerns of Project Managers

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A lot of people will be using PM software for the first time in the next few years. Some of them may not be able to identify a project. A lot of people don't even know they do projects.

HELP WANTED: Person needed to manage projects. No experience necessary. PM software on hand with instruction manual for its use. You will be responsible for planning, scheduling and controlling all projects done by this organization. Salary negotiable.

O.C.: Congratulations, Sam*, you got the job. You learned in high school that the disk goes in that little slot on the front of the computer box slide end first and circular metal plate down. You found the switch on the back of the box and ZAP . . . the computer is working, the software is loaded, and you are ready to look for your first project.

O.C.: What's that you say? No one told you what to look for? That's easy ! Just ask one of the old-timers, right? Right !

Sam: Hey, Joe, where's my first project?

O.C.: Just a word of advice, Sam. Be careful what Old Joe says next. He's a real sport. He's been known to send unsuspecting green-horns looking for an oven wrench, a sky hook, or even a left-handed monkey wrench. One morning he even bothered to bring a gunnysack to work just so he could take this young kid snipe hunting after work. It must have been a great night for hunting ‘cause that youngster came draggin’ in the next morning lookin’ like he'd been up all night. Old Joe came in fit as a fiddle saying something like, “Gee, these young kids sure don't have much stamina nowadays, do they?”

Well, maybe Old Joe's age is softening him up a bit. All he said was:

Joe: “Gee, Sam, I don't know. Hey, Clyde, didn't we have one of them there projects around here a few years ago?

And so goes the first day on the job.

Is this a joke? Well, maybe not as much as it seems. It appears that there will be a lot of Sams out therein the next few years. Consider these facts and predictions. Unit sales of project management software are forecast to increase by 40 percent per year for the next three years as shown in Figure 1. A lot of people will be using PM software for the first time in the next few years. Some of them may not be able to identify a project. A lot of people don't even know they do projects.

In the June Project Management Journal (PMJ), PMI Director of Standards Bill Duncan, in discussing the rationale behind current efforts to revise the PMBOK, presents a definition.

Project: a temporary process undertaken to create one or a few units of a unique product or service whose specifications are progressively elaborated.

Actual and Forecasted Unit Sales of Project Management Software (Source: International Data Corp., as in <i>Computer Reseller News)</i>

Figure 1. Actual and Forecasted Unit Sales of Project Management Software (Source: International Data Corp., as in Computer Reseller News)

The notion of temporary process implies uniqueness of the effort even though it maybe composed of operations that are done frequently within the larger organization. The specific arrangement of the operations is not likely to be the same on every project.

One of the most difficult concepts to grasp, it seems, is the difference between the “project” and the “product of the project.” For example, a house is built via a project. The house is the product of the project. It is intended to have an extended life. The project is the process by which the house is built and that process has a finite life that ends when the house is completed. The start of this project may be defined differently depending on the scope of the project: i.e., it could range from the recognition of a need for a house to signing a contract with a builder.

The concept of progressive elaboration needs clarification. A project, in the broadest context, is initiated by a person recognizing a problem or opportunity about which some action is to be taken. That person, alone or in concert, develops an initial concept of a product for sale, a new facility, an advertising campaign, or the like. Much work needs to be accomplished to take this meager concept to the reality of the product of the project. The general concept is expanded into a more detailed statement of requirements. This is examined for feasibility . . . market, technical, legal, organizational, political, etc. . . . resulting in further refinement of the specifications. These become the basis for general design, the products of which are the specifications for detail design. The detail designs are followed by production designs, tooling, production instructions, etc., each stage producing an elaboration on the specifications of the prior stage. Eventually, the product of the project takes shape, is tested, and ready for operation. At this stage, give or take a few details, the project is completed.

Having stripped away the unnecessary, it is clear that a project is a process. The essential concept of this process is that it is the progressive elaboration of requirements/specifications. From this it is easy to integrate the essential concepts of modern quality management, including “conformance to requirements/specifications,” “the customer is the next person/operation in the process,”“do the right thing right the first time,” and ultimately “statistical process control.”

A Taxonomy of Work Efforts

It can be argued that a project is a project because I choose to define it as a project and manage it as a project. This sounds like heresy but the more complex projects are done in a lot of different ways. Understanding the alternative modes will aid in gaining a clear concept of a project.

There are five basic modes in which work is accomplished: craft, project, job shop, progressive line, and continuous flow. While most organizations perform some work in several of these modes, generally one mode is dominant in the core technology of the organization. For example, some organizations are inherently project-oriented, such as construction companies, research labs, movie production, theater, and, yes, even political campaigns.

All of these modes can be characterized as processes composed of one or more technologies/operations. Technologies in this sense do not imply just engineering or manufacturing technologies, but include all sorts of office technologies, the copier as well as the computer, and the “technologies” involved in producing an advertising or political campaign, designing a training program or curriculum, or producing a movie. Consider the following definitions and discussions of the five modes.

Craft: a process composed of a collection of one or more technologies/operations involving homogeneous human resources, generally a single person, producing a narrow range of products/services.

This mode is best characterized by the single artist/craftsman producing one unit of product at a time. Examples are of a single cook preparing a meal to order, or a doctor examining a patient in the doctor's office. In a project there are often tasks that are performed in the craft mode … one person doing the entire task. Excavating a site for a small building such as a house may well be done by one backhoe/front loader operator. Notching and trimming the roof joists for a house might be done by one carpenter. Computer programs are often written by one person and certainly software maintenance and modification is frequently done by one person. All of these are examples from what might be a project in its entirety but the specific task is done in craft mode.

Project: a temporary process [composed of a loosely coordinated collection of heterogeneous technologies/operations] undertaken to create one or a few units of a unique product or service whose specifications are progressively elaborated.

A popular myth is that only defense, space, construction, and other large endeavors are projects. Projects come in all sizes, industries, functions and degrees of complexity. Purchasing and installing a home entertainment center may well be a project. Major surgery is generally done in project mode. Most change efforts in a society are performed in project mode. Some endeavors are composed of several to many interrelated projects in which case they may be referred to as a program.

Job Shop: a process composed of a loosely coordinated collection of heterogeneous technologies/operations to create a wide range of products/services, where the technologies are located in groups by function and the time required at each work station is varied.

This mode is best characterized by the manufacturing plant in which equipment is located or grouped into departments by type or function and the operations are performed by moving the unit being worked upon from one department to another. This is the mode of operation of most commercial kitchens and typically used for physical examinations performed in hospitals.

The job shop mode is frequently used on projects to reduce the cost of components. For example, for a development composed of a large number of houses, a job shop might be setup to precut much of the lumber and to assemble sections of partitions using jigs to hold the studs and plates in place while nailing them together. A major building maybe designed using a repetitive precast concrete panel for exterior facing. Permitting the panels to be manufactured in job shop mode could result in cost savings.

The prototype parts for a new helicopter project are produced in a job shop producing one or a few units of each part. Looking at only one part going through this job shop, it can appear deceivingly like a project. But when the shop is viewed as a whole, it becomes readily apparent that the parts are only a few of the many going through that same shop. On even closer examination it is easy to see that the dependency relationship between parts in the system is very loose if it exists at all. On the other hand, it is quite conceivable that the same shop could get a very large contract for a prototype assembly and would choose to manage it in the project mode.

Thus, to an extent, a project is a project because we choose to manage it as a project.

Progressive Line: a process composed of a serially located collection of heterogeneous technologies operations to produce a large quatity of a limited range of products/services in which the operator is directly involved in the work on the product, and the time allotted at each work station is the same.

The automotive assembly line is the stereotypical example, with the product moving from station to station in a cycle time of approximately 60 seconds. Since this mode is used for both assembly and disassembly, the general term, “progressive line” is more appropriate. Progressive line is also the typical mode of serving for cafeterias and the mode in which physical examinations are given to large groups of people, such as for the military.

Progressive line mode may be used within a project. One example is a project to construct 740 houses in a development. The houses were in fact erected in the progressive line mode with multiple crews, each crew performing a very specific task on each house. On this line the crews moved from house to house with a cycle time of approximately one day. Close examination reveals that this is the dominant mode for erection of a large office or manufacturing building. One team sets the structural steel in place. Other teams come along sequentially to secure the bolts or rivets, construct the forms, install reinforcing, pour the concrete, and yet another removes the forms. When well planned, each team takes the same amount of time to perform its task and they just keep moving from floor to floor or bay to bay.

It is very likely that a many-page report will be assembled in progressive line mode with piles of each sheet stacked around a table and the people walking around the table picking a sheet from each stack, except when those sheets come off of a modern-day copier with collator. Then the process is essentially in the continuous flow mode.

Continuous Flow: a process composed of a serially located collection of technologies/operations which is applied uniformly over time to all the many units of a very narrow range of products/services, and in which the role of the operator is primarily to monitor and adjust the processes.

Petroleum refineries are the most popular example of this mode. In addition, based on an examination of the characteristics of this mode, electric generating stations, water as well as sewage treatment facilities, and automatic transfer lines such as used in producing engine blocks and transmission housings are examples of this mode.

It is often used in projects to get the cost as low as possible but sometimes due to a technological requirement. For example, not only is concrete pouring by a pumper truck more economical, but on large pours it may be nearly a necessity to achieve a continuous bonding of the poured concrete. Examples of this are highways and the massive cooling towers often found at electrical generating stations.

Understanding the economics of these modes, as shown in Figure 2, reveals a fundamental driving force for attempting to move from craft mode as far as possible toward continuous flow mode. For a given type of work, the craft mode generally requires the least capital investment or fixed costs but the highest variable cost per unit while continuous mode requires large capital investments or fixed costs and very low variable costs per unit. The other modes tend to be arrayed between these two extremes. Thus, regardless of the major mode for a given undertaking, there should always be a search for subsets of the work to be moved to the more economical mode.

This was done, for example, for the 80,000 seats in the Pontiac (Michigan) Silverdome stadium, which were installed in the progressive line mode. It was done in the English Channel Tunnel project, where the digging, moving of tailings, and pumping of slurry to the tailings pit were all done in the continuous flow mode. In fact, all modes can be observed on that project. This same phenomena can be seen in many much simpler and smaller projects.

Cost-Volume Break-Even Curves for Alternative Modes of Work

Figure 2. Cost-Volume Break-Even Curves for Alternative Modes of Work

Thus, projects are an essential method of accomplishing the work of society. They are the means by which change is accomplished, including, but not limited to, the development of new products, creation of new facilities, designing a new curriculum, and many other such endeavors. Indeed, it can be argued that more executive and top management time is spent conceiving, planning, and executing projects than any other mode of work effort. Thus, the development of Modern Project Management (MPM) offers society major benefits in providing the goods and services required by that society. MPM will be the subject of the next article in this series.

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*Sam (Samuel or Samantha) was introduced in the first article in this series. For this article, we have jumped forward in time by several centuries to the greatgrandchild of the original Sam. Today's Sam is much smarter but probably no wiser.

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.

JUNE 1993

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