Project or Operation?

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    A few weeks ago we held a course on Project Management Fundamentals. Every student introduced themselves; they were all seasoned professionals with 7 years of experience or more in their field. Justine worked for a manufacturing company. Kumar was a software developer. Ann deployed projects for a Cable TV provider. Carlos was a construction manager.

    An interesting situation developed when we started discussing what constitutes a project. I asked the students for examples of the types of projects they deployed as part of their work, so I could tailor my stories. The examples were varied of course, as many initiatives can be considered a project. Kumar indicated that sometimes he needed to develop fixes for software bugs; Justine said that sometimes she had stations to install or replace in her manufacturing line. Ann mentioned she needed to plan Cable TV installations for her technicians.

    I tried to understand Ann’s project constraints a bit better. Were the installations for new construction? For a group of existing customers? She seemed confused by the attention. The difficulty finally dawned on me when I asked what constituted the beginning and the end for her projects. She answered: “The first and the last day of the month”.

    With a bit more discussion we realized that it was a misnomer to call her role a ‘project manager’, as her responsibility was an operation, not a project. Although she planned and assigned technicians and equipment for a whole month the effort never ended, it never ended. Similar to ‘payroll’ for example. She was astonished that neither she nor her management had realized this before. Her job planning, yes, but it never ended, which projects must.

    Why is the differentiation important? Because one would optimize efforts that have a distinct beginning and end (projects) in a totally different way from efforts which are continuous and sustain the organization (operations). Everything from staffing to funding would be done considering different priorities and goals. Although Ann stayed in the class, I saw her on the last day signing on to a ‘logistics’ course.