IPMA International Project Management Association
25 February 2019 / 9:00

The interrelations between process and project management

Project orientation has experienced a similar upswing in recent years as process orientation. Both concepts are so popular because they promise better fulfilment of customer wishes while simultaneously improving effectiveness and efficiency. Projects and processes complement each other. On the one hand, projects can be described by a multitude of processes with the help of which project results are achieved. On the other hand, higher-level processes can be implemented with the help of projects. This is perhaps also one of the reasons why the two concepts are often confused or sometimes even used synonymously. Therefore, in the following a distinction between the two terms “project” and “process” with the corresponding or complementing disciplines of “process management” and “project management” is made.

According to ISO 21500, a project “consists of a unique set of processes consisting of coordinated and controlled activities with start and end dates, performed to achieve project objectives… Although many projects may be similar, each project is unique”. The latter focuses on the uniqueness of the conditions and the given deadline. It limits the temporary execution of a set of (processes consisting of coordinated and controlled) activities necessary for project delivery. This definition already shows how closely processes and projects are interrelated.

According to ISO 9000, a process is “set of interrelated or interacting activities which transforms inputs into outputs”. Here, the focus is primarily on permanent activities that are necessary to achieve the outputs. It does not emphasise the uniqueness of the conditions as a whole, as processes are usually more standardised activities that are repeated on different occasions, taking advantage of learning effects and aimed at achieving efficiency.

In both, projects and processes, resources are used to meet client’s requirements and achieve desired results. Resources should be used as efficiently as possible, in processes due to the overarching objectives, in projects due to the tight timeframe and financial constraints. In both cases, activities have to be completed to achieve desired results. The activities interact in many ways, thus a coordination of the activities towards the goal is necessary.

ISO 21500 defines project management as “the application of methods, tools, techniques and competencies to a project. Project management includes the integration of the various phases of the project life cycle… and is performed through processes.” The definition highlights the integrative character of project management. The International Standard describes that project management is performed through processes and mentions three types of processes, which overlap and interact throughout a project:

  • project management processes, which are specific to project management and determine how the activities selected for the project are managed;
  • delivery processes, which are not unique to project management, which result in the specification and provision of a particular product, service or result, and which vary depending on the particular project deliverable;
  • support processes, which are not unique to project management and which provide relevant and valuable support to product and project management processes in such disciplines as logistics, finance, accounting and safety.

Process management aims at the development of an organisation. It may encompass the unique renewal of the entire organisation (“reengineering”) or the establishment of process thinking, a process organization and process management itself, including the continuous improvement processes.

Process management is therefore primarily understood as development task. The aim is to ensure the efficiency of the organisation and to enable organisational or individual learning. These tasks can be realized as (change) projects, but also include continuous tasks such as process controlling and continuous improvement activities. In contrast to project management, process management is therefore less oriented to the operative implementation of tasks than to the creation of the necessary prerequisites (for implementing projects).

Even if the two disciplines are different, they will often complement each other in practice. In this way, change projects can be triggered from process management, which serve to increase efficiency and have improved process flows as their goal. In addition, projects provide valuable information on the efficiency of processes, which can be taken up by process management and used for improvement. Project management, in turn, can integrate process management into the design of project-specific processes and thus achieve the most efficient project handling possible.

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Reinhard Wagner

Author of this post

Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 30 years in the field of project- related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Air Defense, Automotive Engineering, and Machinery, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As a Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A), he has proven experience in managing projects, programmes and project portfolios in complex and dynamic contexts. He is also an IPMA Certified Programme and Portfolio Management Consultant, and as such supports senior executives in developing and improving their organizational competence in managing projects. For more than 15 years, he has been actively involved in the development of project, programme and portfolio management standards, for example as Convenor of the ISO 21500 “Guidance on Project Management” and the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. Reinhard Wagner is Past President of IPMA and Chairman of the Council, Honorary Chairman of GPM (the German Project Management Association), as well as Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH.

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