Our Way of Developing a Self-Learning Project Organisation with Strong Team Spirit

A Case Study at Tetra Pak


Tetra Pak


Good and relevant training of project managers is a must and so is a good process for the project manager to follow. But that is not enough for a project manager's organisation that strives to achieve top results. After a huge effort was made on training and a massive process development project was done, we were still facing uneven performance from the project management organisation and did not live up to expectations. Conclusions made suggested that processes weren't fully implemented and understood and we were not able to get the full benefit from training performed.

Our solution to the problem became “Knowledge Area Building.” Starting with a self-assessment of the (at the time) nine Knowledge Areas in project management made the foundation for our capability development. We agreed on our maturity score and our ambition together. As a part of the work, we started to implement training and processes and developed generic management plans fitting our needs and circumstances based on the nine Knowledge Areas. This made the foundation for continuous improvement of the project management capability in our organisation. The result was a strong team spirit, clear ownership of personal development, strong commitment, and an impressive capability to deliver projects.

Keywords: continuous improvement, maturity assessment, capability development, building knowledge


Who is Tetra Pak?

At Tetra Pak®, we are specialists in complete solutions for processing, packaging, and distribution of food products. Our solutions are specifically designed to be as economical with resources as possible. Dairy products, juices and nectars, ice cream, cheese, dry foods, fruits, vegetables, and pet food are examples of products that can be processed and packaged in Tetra Pak processing and packaging lines. We focus on keeping the consumption of all raw materials and energy to a minimum during the manufacturing process as well as the distribution of the packaged products. Our products are divided into several different categories such as:

  • Packages
  • Processing equipment
  • Filling machines
  • Distribution equipment
  • Service products

The company was founded in 1951 based on an idea that a package should save more than it costs.

Today, we have approximately 22,000 employees and sell more than 180 billion packages per year.

At Tetra Pak, we run approx 3,400 projects/year of which 3,100 are customer projects, 200 are development projects, and 100 are internal change projects.

In our packaging division, we mainly run development projects for the ten package families we develop and sell. In our platform, we have the responsibility for development and product life cycle projects for three of the packages. For this, we have an organisation of approximately 200 engineers running 30 projects per year, and taking 45–50 tollgates per year.


During the 1990s, we had too many large projects gone to waste within product development. Something had to change and project management was identified as one key area, not only to focus on, but as a strategically important competence to support profitable growth. A shorter time to market for new product development was needed and an improved product quality on newly developed products was strategically important for the market leader, as well as better projections and project estimates in terms of tollgates on time.

Project Management Maturity by the Book

After top management has realised that something needed to improve, a major development programme was introduced for the project environment. The main focus was put on improving the project managers, as organisations tend to believe that low skill is the main problem.

A career path for project managers was built with three levels requiring extensive education packages for each level. The crown jewel was the APMP (Advanced Project Management Professional) education with four weeks of education in methods, strategy, leadership, and test cases. After this, was a Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification paid for and offered to the project managers. Membership in PMI was also seen as beneficial and was paid for by the company. This resulted in the company gaining more than 200 PMPs after a while.

More and more focus was put on the things around the project manager and a development processes with a number of project types was built in a couple of waves. Global process owners were assigned the responsibility for the development. This project type was built into the intranet with extensive guidelines and templates.

A common organisation structure between the different organisations was also built with a project management director as a part of the management board assigned in each unit. This also helped elevate the authority of the project management community. Most of the project managers were organized under this project management director, giving the possibility to build a strong community in each organisation. A steering team was set up with regular monthly meetings on all units. Best practices for governance were also put in place. A project service organisation was built with the responsibility to build, maintain, and support the usage of the process.

All of these steps helped to build the organisation's capability in project management maturity. And of course, a lot of positive results were achieved. But, especially in one of the organisations, we were not satisfied with the still uneven performance. We had not yet reached the world-class performance we had aimed for.

The project manager knew what to do; the framework was in place, the governance was in place. Why didn't we have even and world-class performance? Why did the project managers work so differently and refuse to follow the well-built process?

Closing the Gap

A project manager with a special interest in process and methodology was assigned to do something about it on part-time basis during the year—a pretty blunt and unspecified change project to help fix the problem. But there already were key success factors in place. One person was given the responsibility and was allowed to spend time on solving the problem. In most organisations, this is decided as some kind of common effort that doesn't survive when urgent and important things rise to the top of the agenda.

Looking into the subject, a couple of things were seen:

The first is that there is a major gap between the busy process and the busy project manager. There is a too-small, common base. The process is built by process specialists without full involvement of the project managers. And the project managers are too busy delivering and are feeling alienated from a too-busy process that they haven't created.

The next thing is that the project management role that is typical in this organisation is—like in so many other organisations—a lone ranger role. The cooperation between the project managers is limited if they are not on the same project. The project managers focus on their individual projects and their team, and are not especially interested in building a common base for project managers.

The third thing is that a change project like this will not be finalised in one year. It is better to do it less extensively, but over a longer period of time to make it stick. After some negotiation, a three-year project was approved by the project sponsor. A typical experience is that three years is needed to make a change fully stick into a culture.

How did we go about it? The first step was to form a common steering team of all the project managers. This is not a management effort. It needed to come from within the group. The gap to the practitioners had to be closed. The first activity when the team was gathered was to do a self assessment. What maturity do we have as a group in each of the Knowledge Areas as explained in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition (PMI, 2013a)? The second step was to discuss what is needed to do good work in each areas of the Tetra Pak environment. To be world class is not necessary to have a top grade in all areas; it could be too costly. This analysis was done pretty quickly—and without any of the known analysis tools like The Organizational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3®) (PMI, 2013b) or Axelos’ P3M3. A possible improvement could be to use those methods, but the main purpose was to create a common truth that a group effort to improve was necessary.

After the assessment, a couple of major gaps were prioritised as those that needed improvement the most in order to not damage the delivery. Important here, is that the individual performance was never discussed. Some did better and some did worse in these areas, but the focus was on the community level.

To solve the problem, the group assigned volunteer working teams that could do something about the gap. The change project manager was the only one that was allowed to put official time on the current project. For the rest, they have to take it as continuous improvement in their skills as project managers that benefit their projects. It was, however, clearly expected of all project managers to do this. This was also a key success factor. The unit should not move away from its main mission to deliver a product development project to the organisation. The project has to be driven as a continuous improvement in a phase that doesn't challenge the day-to-day deliveries. It still has to keep a steady phase without losing direction. The latter is achieved with the phase keeper being allowed to put time on the project.

When the working teams were on the subject, they realized that they missed a definition of good meaning—what a five, four, and so on, means in maturity. In our case, we decided to define our own scale in each team. An alternative here is to use OPM3® or P3M3—not so good for the team development, but a lot quicker. To create the scales was not a big effort for the basic Knowledge Areas like Risk, Scope, Cost, and so forth, but for the more distant ones, such as Quality, we missed a definition of good so we needed to do quite a bit of research.

Quality Management: A Cornerstone

Out of the (at the time) nine Knowledge Areas, Quality Management became, perhaps, the most important one. It was also the hardest one to master and implement in our organisation and our way of working.

When starting this Knowledge Area, we did not have a definition of what quality was in our organisation. We had a definition on corporate level, but not one broken down at our level and for our part of the organisation.

It was also clear, after a while, that it is also a difficult area for others and, in fact, we found very few examples of quality management plans at all when searching.

The best interpretation of a quality management plan that we could identify for projects was the stage gate model and product development process. It is probably stating the obvious, but clearly, very few understood that the stage gate model is a quality assurance plan when applied correctly.

With this conclusion, we started building our generic Quality Management plan.

We simply took the product development process based on the stage gate mode, reviewed it phase by phase and tollgate by tollgate using our most-experienced project managers, and highlighted the deliverables that would secure quality of the project and/or product the most. Being critical in this was a key, guiding principle. We wanted to keep it simple and only pick the deliverables that really make the difference—the critical success factors in the product development process from a project management perspective.

The focus was set on time, cost, scope, business case, risk, and other things we had judged we needed to improve on.

We then identified a number of quality events which were described in the generic Quality Management plan.

  • Expert review – A subject matter expert (e.g., finance controller reviewing the business case)
  • Peer review – A colleague reviewing (e.g., your WBS)
  • Design review – The technical community reviewing the product under development
  • Project office review – All project managers in the department reviewing (e.g., project charter)
  • PMO Director review – Project manager's manager reviewing (e.g., the Quality plan)
  • Steering group review – Steering group reviews are tollgate reviews and possibly follow ups. Purpose is decisions, guidance, and approval of plans to the project

For the purpose of capability development and increasing the performance of the entire PMO, the project office review became the most important Quality Event. Let's take an example to describe it.

When a new project is about to start, the project manager typically gets the project described to him or her. In the best case scenario, there is already a written charter; otherwise, it will have to written by the project manager. With the charter in hand, it is now time to get resources for the first stage and assemble a minimum core team.

In the generic quality management plan, we have both project charter review and the minimum core team review as a project office review, a combined quality event. Here, the project manager presents his or her project charter and the team that is supposed to deliver on the charter.

All project managers give feedback on the charter and team. Here, we have an important interaction taking place. The more senior project managers learn from each other and share their experiences on the charter and team; the more junior project managers get a very good learning experience and the project manager presenting gets arguments and support for potential changes that might be needed in front of the steering group.

The community performance increases with “low” performance dramatically reduced, high performance getting challenged and even further improved, significant knowledge sharing taking place, engagement at a high level, and a team spirit with accountability and responsibility for the projects within the PMO.

The generic quality management plan is very easy to use and to work with—you pull out the plan and customize it for your project simply by taking out the events that are not relevant for your project and, possibly, adding an event that might be missing if your project is requiring it.

The plan is then reviewed together with the PMO director and a unique, project-specific quality management plan is created. A job that takes less than two hours in total to complete will increase success rates dramatically.

Why Did it Work?

Why did it work? A couple of key success factors were discussed above, but there are some more. One important thing is that you don't directly push the individual. You work on the group. This means that no one needs to feel singled out. The quality reviews we did, we always did as a counselling events. It was clearly stated that it was up to the individual project manager if he or she should take the advice from the group or not. That meant that no one felt pressed. It was also clear that it was up to the group as to how far and how fast they wanted to go. It was installed as a continuous improvement initiative over several years with a clear goal that has to be achieved, but the pace has to be adjusted to the delivery reality.

Looking on the psychological theory, you could do a lot of connection to Daniel Pink. In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2009), he has shown that the human being is motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. If you look at this project, we used all of this psychological mechanism. The group's and the individual's inner drivel to achieve mastery was used. The project's way of working was just to facilitate that and let it happen.

The other important factor was carefully using the group to make it happen. What separates us from the primates and makes us really successful on this planet is our ability to cooperate. So, if correctly facilitated, this can create a strong capability. Then people will drive themselves—even if it is not their primary purpose or what they get paid for.

You can also use the old truth—if you want people to be active in an area, you must allow them to be part of the creation. A problem with a lot of PMO-made methodologies is that the creation doesn't involve the project managers. At the very least, there has to be an implementation project where it is made their own. Otherwise, it is not their process and they will not put forth enough effort to make it work

One key success factor is that we created forums for review where both senior and junior project managers joined. This made the senior managers share their important learnings with the junior managers. This meant also sharing of a lot of tacit knowledge—things that you don't learn in an education. It also opened up for counselling between the events. The senior managers like to share their experiences, and it is easier for the junior managers to take the advice on specific, hands-on areas.

Another key success factor was to synchronize with steering group events, meaning that the project managers could minimize the extra work to prepare for the review. We also did it before the steering group event. That meant that the project manager could come to the steering group meeting stronger. Having discussed his/her problem with the full community gave strength to push for clarity in scope and resources to be secured.

The Result

If we split results into soft and hard results—meaning that the people-perspectives are the soft results, and that KPIs are more hard results—we could see very high scores in soft skills on employee engagement, far above company average. No one left the team except for promotion. It was the place to be and people wanted to get on the team. A team spirit was developed and it was clear that the PMO was a team, something considered to be rather difficult to accomplish with project managers who typically don't have the same objectives. The lowest performance level in the team was increased dramatically in a very short period of time.

Taking a look at the KPIs and measurements also reveals an impressive result. An Axelos P3M3 maturity assessment that was made showed Project Management to be “best in class.” In an environment where complexity multiplied over a couple of years, we managed to go from a tollgate on-time result of 13% to a tollgate on-time result of 98.6%. All three business areas that the PMO serves grew with double digits.

As always, when it comes to business results, there are several other factors contributing to the result, but it is clear and beyond questioning that having an organisation with strong project management skills and the capability to execute and deliver projects fundamentally supports growth and positive business results.



Håkan Olsson has a passion for excellence in project operations. He built his knowledge in the area with over 20 years of experience in most of the roles in a professional project organisation. This goes, for example, from executing billion-Euro projects to portfolio management, and from roadmap and process building to competence development. He complements this experience with theoretical knowledge and certifications in project, programme, portfolio, and agile management. He has a special interest in psychology with practical experience and certifications as a coach and therapist. Today, he is a consultant helping organisations to do the right thing in the right way.


Stefan Bokander has worked in the profession for more than 15 years, mainly as a project manager and programme manager for projects ranging from small and quick projects to greater than €50 million programmes. His experience also spans new product development to capability development. Apart from his practical experience, he is also certified in project management and programme management. Today, he is working as a programme manager at Tetra Pak in new product development.

Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Project Management Institute. (2013a). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (2013b). Organizational project management maturity model (OPM3®) – Third edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

© 2016, Stefan Bokander, Håkan Olsson
Originally published as part of the 2016 PMI® Global Congress Proceedings – Barcelona, Spain



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