Published February 2013.

Introduction | Our Response | Wikipedia Definitions of Project and Operations Management
Wikipedia Definition of Business Operations | What Did We Learn?
Wikipedia Examples of Projects and Operations | What Did We Learn?
Differences at the Work Level | Conclusion

Differences at the Work Level

The original question posed by Dr. Janice Thomas sought the differences between project work and operations work. If many, even most, activities appear to be similar in both projects and operations, is there any difference in how the respective team members go about their individual work, other than one group being temporary and the other permanent? For this we have to look a little closer at the impact of temporary versus permanent. Some examples:

  • Management of product scope: In a project there is only one, or a limited number, of opportunities to get it right through careful planning. That requires planning and forecasting skills applied in a very focused way. Operations involve continuous efforts to improve the efficiency of the process for product throughput, by learning by doing and this generally requires work study type skills.
  • Management of quality: Generally the same as for product scope, except that in projects, skills are required in establishing a quality grade and then tracking product design and evolution to that standard neither more nor less. In operations, skills such as observations of production and statistical analysis of the resulting data are required.
  • Management of time: For many projects the delivery deadline is absolute and achieved by means of a viable network analysis, and controlled by monitoring and suitable adjustment strategies applied to the constraints. For operations delivery dates are ideal but viewed as flexible. Since production is repetitive, improvements are achieved by taking advantage of "learning curve" phenomena.
  • Management of cost: While both areas work to budgets, project managers and their teams focus on the cost of the remaining work to be done and that emphasizes estimating skills. Operations people, and their accountants, on the other hand, focus on costs-to-date with a view to cost reduction by improving performance track records in the next batch. That requires traditional accounting skills.
  • Management of risk: In project work the risk is high because the particular case has not been experienced before. That requires project risk management skills. In operations the corresponding risks are much lower by virtue of previous experience in a relatively steady state environment. The operational environment requires skills in assessing business risks.

The effect on the worker

An obvious difference is in the skills that need to be brought to bear in each case. However, these tend to be more a reflection of the work involved in producing the particular product and this varies not only from project to project but also from industry to industry. Nevertheless, a humorist has once joked that the aim of the project team is to desperately work them selves out of a job, while the operations people are desperately trying to keep their jobs!

More seriously, not only are there differences in skill sets or even the focus of similar skill sets, but there are also distinct differences in stress levels between the two types of work. In projects, individual stress generally peaks towards the end of the product execution phase, easing off as the product is transferred to the "care, custody and control" of its new owners. Of course, looking for the next project can be stressful, too. For operations people, stress is more evenly distributed and generally a reflection of the culture created by the competence of the corporate senior management.

What Did We Learn?  What Did We Learn?

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