Project Reality Check #7: Cage Wrestling – Project vs. Operations Management

by Gary Monti on February 1, 2011

Inherent conflict between projects and operations might be called white-collar cage wrestling. Participants are focused, strong, and may carry the belief – winning means dominance of their approach. Who’s right? They both are. What is at stake is delivery of a product that performs well and is sustainable. This is especially true when the deliverable goes into production as an ongoing process or tangible deliverable produced in quantity. There is a solution to this tension, but first examination of the underlying causes will help in crafting that solution.

What Is Success?

Projects bring about change – that is why they exist. So, success is defined by bringing about some transformation.

Operations go in the other direction. Success is defined by stability. Specifically, stable reproduction of the desired process or product.

From a somewhat oversimplified perspective the situation can be restated as: Six sigma can be highly relevant in production while having little or no application in executing the project.

Is There a Middle Ground?

Can a compromise be reached? A better question might be, “Is compromise needed?” The answer is, ”No.” Taking a page from the Software Engineering Institute’s Taxonomy of Operational Risks a solution can be found. A very robust list of categories provides a framework for guiding projects in a way that leads to sound operational performance. Terms such as “usability” and “maintenance processes” are included. The definition of project success includes operational success!

So What’s the Problem?

This all seems well and good, and it is until other realities step in – the introduction of constraints. An example from the auto industry shows this well. In the 1970s the reality of “world cars” was exploding onto the scene. The desire to lower production costs plus move into international markets caused a frenzy of effort that continues to this day. This was compounded by issues commonplace today, e.g., time zone, cultures, metrics, languages, etc. The driving force at the time was the US market.  In the rush to globalize some cars in the US ended up having a mix of metric and standard parts.

Another constraint is the huge appetite for variety in the American market. Designers were pushed to develop new, fresh designs on an almost annual basis. Production and maintainability took a back seat. This led to craziness when it came to maintenance, e.g., having to loosen motor mounts and jack up the engine in order to change the oil. Some companies, such as Jaguar, almost went out of business over these issues. Boeing and Airbus could probably weigh in on this topic, too.

A Broader Solution

What shows when stepping back and looking at the situation is poor governance. The tension and animosity that can exist between project managers and operations managers may simply be a reflection of failure at the top.

Balancing the constraints is the responsibilities of senior management. It’s why there are the extra zeroes in senior management’s paycheck. This has been well stated in the career guidance book, “What Color Is Your Parachute?

To let the tension simply roll downhill to the operations and project managers can reflect poor risk and quality management if not an abrogation of responsibility.

If experiencing high tension and severe challenges then the pathway out includes looking up for direction rather than preparing for the next peer-to-peer fight.

Gary Monti PMI presentation croppedThrough his firm, Center for Managing Change, Gary Monti has over 30 years experience providing change- and project management services internationally. He works at the nexus between strategy, business case, project-, process-, and people management. Service modalities include consulting, teaching, mentoring, and speaking. Credentials include PMP number 14 (Project Management Institute®), Myers-Briggs Type Indicator certification, and accreditation in the Cynefin methodology. Gary can be reached at gwmonti@mac.com or through Twitter at @garymonti
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