The Project Level Perspective: Delivering Quality

Project/Program Portfolio Management (PPPM)
By PH Lohnes, PMP

The Project Level Perspective: Delivering Quality

The project level is likely the most misunderstood level, and is constantly staffed with the wrong personnel. While some of the organizations I served with assigned a few experienced, skilled project management resources at this level, it was mostly due to the hiring of outside contractors working at what they felt was beneath their station due to the current economic environment. When questioned why they were working at the project level, most related to me stories of temporary engagements, slumming, or just that they were getting a foot in the door waiting for a program management position to materialize. I discovered that both organizations and project management personnel considered the project level as trivial — something to be avoided and distanced. In this post, I will show that mindset to be contra supportive to increasing the project success rate.

The perspective of the project level for its characteristics are (from a previous post):

  • Focus on the executional level of organizational activities
  • Components are the project defined deliverables
  • Objective is to optimize the production of project deliverables
  • Goal is the production of quality (”fit-for-use”) deliverables

Let’s consider why this level is misunderstood at most organizations and by most professionals.

  • First, projects can range from very small to very large; however, given the normal distribution of project scope, funding, and application, there will be more smaller projects than the mega-sized projects that many professionals dream about after watching the Discovery or History channel episodes extolling their size, power, and management of huge working populations.
  • Secondly, project management personnel never really understand how to execute a project from start to finish since most bodies of knowledge give mere pages to the execution processes while spending chapters on the chartering, planning, and monitoring — skills that lend to “book learning.”
  • Finally, the only method conducive to gaining executional knowledge and skills is TO DO IT! This takes time, and it’s time that most newly minted project management personnel are unwilling to expend — wanting to climb the ladder to program management sooner rather than latter.

The stigma of being just a project manager is so acute that in most organizations I engaged during my research period, I found almost a caste system evolved where there were meetings for all project management personnel and then meetings for just the program managers where the “just” project managers were asked to vacate so power brokers could collaborate with senior management. This hierarchical classification along with the Western business practice of organizational chart-based compensation rather than contribution-based compensation serves to drive “not ready for prime time” project management personnel up to management positions before they learn the art, and it is an art rather than a true science, of project execution. As I stated in another post, no project management resource should be more highly prized than an experienced executional project manager.

With the focus of the project level on the execution of deliverable production, the project manager must be driven to optimize his/her management of the activities that will produce these deliverables without the distraction of how this project fits into the strategic nature of the organization, or how to efficiently utilize resources for the betterment of the organization’s bottom line. The project manager has but one driving directive: the production of quality (”fit-for-use”) deliverables within the constraints placed on his/her project. A good project manager while it seems rude, or unprofessional, is not worried about their associates, bosses, or resources. They must deliver — deliver quality, and do it within the time frame and budget imposed by the project charter. This motivation and drive takes time to learn from the inferno of actuality — not in the benign embrace of an air conditioned classroom.

A short definition of quality is in order so that those that think they have arrived can have their heads explode again when I state, somewhat emphatically, that quality in project management has but one, simple definition:

The production of “fit-for-use” deliverables as defined by the project’s customers.

I specifically mention project customers since their are the most important stakeholders, the key stakeholders  for whom the project is conceived, attempted in the primary. Without the definition of customers’ level of acceptable quality, a project has little ability to judge its progress or gauge its performance. The concept of “fit-for-use” as the simplistic proxy of project quality has been lost on most project management personnel as quality has become a discipline of its own with Six Sigma, Kanban, kaizen, TQM, and probably tens of others. In the end, a project is only successful if it produces what the customers consider “fit-for-use” deliverables within the time frame and budget constraints. “Fit-for-use” has been dislodged by overly complex, integrated, multi-faceted, and highly analyzed quality methodologies that have not appeared to improve the project success rates for projects over the past several decades.

“Fit-for-use” means that the deliverables are what the customers wants, needs, will use, and most importantly, will sign-off on at the completion of the project’s activities — nothing more, nothing less.

Thus, the project level aligns with its program by a division of labor between the project manager and the program level support personnel. This relationship is a bit more involved than can be unraveled in this post so look for a future post to deal directly with this topic, but in short, the program level is more coordination and supportive than management.  The division of labor means that the program perspective is towards efficiency while the project level is focused on optimization — a somewhat mutually exclusive alignment. However, using time-tested resource management methods, the program level should support the projects in its cache by adjudicating resource assignments, planning allocations, and capacity availability forecasting that takes the optimization perspective of the project level and smooths the spikes into utilization efficiencies for the organizational improvement.

The project level perspective therefore is focused on the optimized execution that produces “fit-for-use” deliverables. The project level is thus the simplistic of levels to describer, but the most difficult to implement correctly. Don’t underestimate the need for experienced, highly compensated, project managers that can achieve this goal.

Next blog will discuss the need to rethink how project management personnel are compensated and NOT promoted.

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