Among the arcane debates we have in the legal industry, we must include the debate over what is meant by process, project, project management, and process improvement. Despite that exciting lead, I beg you to read on. I am devoting this post to the topic, because I’m often asked how to separate the four and how they relate to one another. This is my answer.
What is a process?
Since there is no governing body for processes (there is for project management, see below), we don’t have an official definition of “process.” According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary (10th edition), a process is, among other things “a series of actions or operations conducing to an end; esp. : a continuous operation or treatment esp. in manufacture … the whole course of proceedings in a legal action…” MacMillan Dictionary’s definition includes: “a series of actions that have a particular result.” As I dug through many more definitions of process, they all coalesced around the following:
- there is a starting point,
- there is a series of steps, actions, tasks, or some other similar thing (for convenience and to stay consistent with common use in process improvement circles, I’m going to use the term “operation” to mean the step, action, task or other thing), and
- there is an end point.
We can repeat processes. The frequency of repetition can vary significantly. We could do a process once a minute, an hour, a day, a month, a year, or any other period. The point isn’t how long it takes to complete the process, but that the process can be repeated when it ends.
I typically eat oatmeal for breakfast. I take out all the pans and utensils I need to cook the oatmeal, and I take out all the ingredients (stone ground oats, raisins, milk, walnuts). I heat the water (an operation), add and cook the oatmeal (an operation), and then assemble the oatmeal with the other ingredients in a bowl. As soon as I’m done, I could start the process over again.
What is a project?
There is a governing body for project management called the “Project Management Institute.” The PMI defines a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.” From this definition, we see that projects differ from processes. A project is temporary, whereas processes can be continuous. That is, once a project ends it doesn’t start again. We use projects to create something unique, but we use processes to create things over and over again (this one is a bit tricky, so I’ll go into it in more detail later in the post).
I really like oatmeal. So, I decide to have a competition to choose the best oatmeal. Each of the competitors will make his or her oatmeal, a panel of experts will taste the creations, and the panel will select the winner. For this project, I need to use processes to select and notify the competitors, arrange a place for the competition, notify spectators, collect tickets, run the cookoff, purchase prizes, etc. The competition is temporary and it creates a unique result: the winner of my first oatmeal-cooking contest. We may have a second contest (also unique) and in fact, perhaps we have a contest every year. If everything is the same from year-to-year, our oatmeal contest project might become a process (but a process can’t become a project). Unless and until that happens, we would have a series of similar projects.
How do projects relate to processes?
We execute projects through processes. Thus, while the project is unique, the processes we use to complete the project are not unique. I could use the same process each year to select and notify the competitors. I could use that process to select and notify competitors for any competition I run. Call centers drumming up customers know this. They use a set process to make cold calls to get customers. The script changes from client-to-client, but the cold-calling process remains the same.
I’ll say it another way. The energy company could hire my call center to get more customers. This is a project. My call center has a process for doing this. The energy company provides the script for the operation in the process where callers talk to potential customers. The next week, a phone company hires my call center to get more customers. This is another project. My call center uses the same process it used for the energy company, but with a different script.
What is project management?
According to PMI, project management is “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.” When I described my oatmeal competition, I just listed the processes included in the project. I didn’t talk about sequencing them, who needed to be involved in which process, what tools would help me stay on track, or any other aspects of making sure my oatmeal competition happened when it was supposed to and the way it was supposed to. Without project management, I may end up with a contest, but no judges.
What is process improvement?
Process improvement is a generic term for making processes better. There are different ways we can do process improvement, though in lean thinking we typically talk about three ways. First, we could do a kaizen event (sometimes called a kaizen project). This is a project with the requirement of incrementally improving a process. Second, we could do a kaikaku event or project. This is a project with the requirement of radically changing a process. Third, we could do continuous improvement. This is a philosophy, not a project. Understanding the principles of lean, we challenge each thing we do with the idea of making it more “lean.” We don’t wait for the next project; we incrementally change as we roll along through processes.
Kaizen and kaikaku events qualify as projects. They are temporary endeavors and seek unique results. To do these projects, we assemble teams, use processes (e.g., data collection and recording), and manage the projects towards the unique requirements: specific incremental improvements or radical change.
Providing Legal Services
The oatmeal story was nice, but you really want examples from delivering legal services. Imagine a law department that handles mergers and acquisitions. The law department is part of an acquisitive company, so M&A work is a regular part of the law department’s diet.
Each M&A deal is a project. The endeavor is temporary and aimed at a unique result—acquisition of the target business. This M&A team is at the top of its game, so it uses project management for each project. The project manager follows certain steps at the beginning of each project. She identifies key stakeholders, puts together a basic timetable with key milestones, assembles (with help from others) a draft project charter, and so on.
Each M&A deal involves certain core processes. One process is named “negotiating the NDA,” another “due diligence,” and a third “acquisition agreement drafting.” There are many other processes included within M&A projects.
For each process, the project manager has a process map. The map lays out the steps in the process, in sequential order, the operations, and includes attachments checklists, templates, guides, and other tools for each step. An owner is assigned to each step. The project manager solicits feedback from the step owner once a process is started and uses the feedback to measure percent completion.
The project manager ensures that essential processes are not omitted, that processes occur in the necessary sequence, that the team stays focused on interim goals and the end goal, and that issues are raised and resolved promptly. The project manager has many other responsibilities, but overall her job is to use her knowledge, skills, experience, and project tools to get the project from start to requirements within the time allotted.
Because the department handles many M&A deals, there may be several projects running at the same time, all at different points. The projects may share resources, so the project manager also coordinates with her counterparts to ensure that individuals are not overbooked or left idle.
Each M&A project requires the execution of the “negotiating the NDA” process. The process owner—the attorney who does the negotiations—may see room for improvement in the process. The process owner may implement continuous improvements on the fly (with appropriate supporting data and documentation), or he may ask to run a kaizen event (a project) to incrementally improve the process. During downtime, the team may decide to do a kaikaku project and radically change how the department negotiates deal NDAs.
Focus on Doing, Not Describing
Don’t let the terminology create barriers to improving legal services delivery. Like all management disciplines, project management and process improvement have their defined terms. We aren’t to the point where everyone in the legal industry consistently uses terms to mean the same thing, so dwelling on what someone means when they say “project” probably won’t get you too far. What will help you is to understand what they think project means and how they are using the term. Sync that with your understanding, and then move on to substance. Getting incremental improvement today and again each following day, is better than waiting to get the terminology right before you start.