Project management methods and quality standards

Project managers and core team members have at their disposal a very large number of methods, standards, and tools to assist them in their daily jobs. The multiplicity of methods can easily be explained by the fact that project management has become a mature discipline. Created during the First World War and increasingly used after the Second World War, this discipline has been on the rise especially over the last couple of decades. Its consistent growth has resulted in project management principles and methods being applied in the most diverse industries, and ultimately, in the need to develop specific methodologies, standards, and tools for each of these particular industries or sub-sectors.

What are project management methods?

PMBOK, PRINCE, and PPS seem to be the most widely used project management methods. From time to time, the PMI (Project Management Institute), probably the most recognized international authority on project management, updates its ‘Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge’ or PMBOK. PMBOK is a collection of processes and knowledge areas generally accepted as best practice within the project management discipline. As an internationally recognized standard (IEEE Std 1490-1998), PMBOK provides the fundamentals of project management, regardless of the type of project. PRINCE, currently PRINCE2, is the project management method used by the UK government.

Despite the dissimilarities among them, all project management methods include these basic elements:

  • A PMO or its equivalent (that is, a general set of rules for project administration and reporting);
  • The break-down of projects into phases, the so-called ‘project life cycle’, and further down into smaller manageable parts (typically consolidated into programs when projects are very large, work-packages when they are large, and tasks when they are small)
  • A definition of a statement of work for the project and a set of deliverables for each task
  • Regular milestones, generally every 3 to 6 months, with a set of deliverables
  • A dedicated team (not necessarily full-time); and
  • A project quality plan (a set of pre-defined quality standards to be used during the life of the project) which should precede all other project activities, except safety.

Even when it is a fact that projects should be justified by a business case and that most projects are de-facto profit centers with a strong need for a business plan and a financial controller, the business dimension of projects is not always recognized to the point that some project management authors even think that the project team should only be concerned with the technical or operative information, leaving the financial aspects out of their knowledge.

The border between project management methods and tools

The border between project management methods and tools can be very fragile. The vast majority of project management methods available today are proprietary, subject to copyright, and often applicable to specific industries such as car manufacturers, military, government, and software development. The more sophisticated and perhaps the most detailed project management method created by a car manufacturer is the ‘Toyota Project Handbook’. MSProject, Agile, and Primavera are very popular project management tools, but cannot really be considered as methods. MSProject is by far the most widely used scheduling software while Agile has been developed for the development of ERP systems. Among the top vendors we can name Artemis, Microsoft, Pacific, Edge, PlanView, NIKU/ABT, PeopleSoft, Primavera, and ProSight.

Is there really a need for a unique project management standard?

The need for a unique, internationally recognized project management standard is an interesting idea, although no method has yet emerged as a de-facto standard. It is also questionable whether this standard is a real need given the enormous number of different situations in which projects are being used. Currently, there is only one recognized standard developed initially by the PMI and adopted by the Association of Electrical Engineers and published as IEEE Std 1490-1998. This standard is mostly used in the software development and electrical industries. The car manufacturers created a quality standard called the QS9000 series, long before the ISO9000 quality norms were broadly used. Most of the QS9000 series is included in the new standard called ISO9000:2000. This new standard is much more popular than the QS9000, although it is questionable whether the two norms will be able to cohabit or merge. Alone, the QS9000 cannot be considered as a project method even though it creates constraints for the project team that necessarily influence the way projects are handled and organized.

The main problem of standards is that they tend to interfere with the way companies are managed, often resulting in contradiction and confusion. At some point of our careers, probably most of us witnessed that the simple addition of in-house procedures to a project management method may result in heavy paper-work and a blocked system. By essence, projects imply some degree of innovation. Rather than rigid rules, some freedom should be given to people to support that innovation component. Also, as the application of project management principles grows in diverse countries around the world, cultural differences, local habits and norms, as well as different levels of risk acceptance make it difficult to have one sole standard that fits all needs. Given that it is simply not possible to run projects the same way in the UK, the US, France, Russia, the Scandinavian countries or Asian countries, it is unlikely that a common method gets recognized as a unique standard in the near future. For companies that want to become project-oriented organizations, it is often more reasonable to develop their own method, adapted from one of the main standards.

Some final thoughts

Our first recommendation for managers who want to put in place a new method is: keep it simple. Project management methods are frequently more complex than needed and end up leading to confusion.

Our second recommendation is: make it clear. A project management organization necessarily implies a matrix-type of organization based on shared responsibilities between line managers (generally, the direct supervisors of all resources) and project managers (who usually have no direct responsibility on the people but are responsible for goal achievement). Not addressing these key problems is the source of many sterile debates, in which the project objectives are forgotten and the organizational problems derived from this become the center of the debate.

Our final recommendation on this subject is: give to the quality standard a higher priority than the one you give to the project management method. This is important since the ISO9000:2000 standard has become so widely adopted that it would not be wise to put in place any method that does not fully comply with it. As with everything in life, however, there are a few exceptions. The pharmaceutical industry, as a case in point, has its own quality standard called ‘Good Manufacturing Practices’ that is mandatory by law in most countries of the world.

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