The Role of Operational Definition in Project Management

Numbers help us quantify things, and when we can express our understanding in terms of numbers, we can safely say that our understanding is satisfactory and meaningful.

Let’s say that Grandpa has a project to know the exact number of ducks in his farm. He assigns the task to his grandkids and asks them to count every duck in the farm. However, along with the ducks, the farm also has chickens and geese. To help his grandkids identify the right birds, he gives them an operational definition: if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then they should probably count it as a duck.

Project quality management

Although numbers express quantity, they can also help us measure quality. Quality in this case means a certain degree of excellence or grade. Project quality management is one of the knowledge areas of project management, and includes all the processes and activities needed to determine and achieve project quality.

It is also important to note that project quality management is concerned with the quality of the product or result of the project as well as the quality of the management of the project.

Operational definition in project management

Operational definition is used in many disciplines such as philosophy, psychiatry, science, business, computing, data collection, processes, and quality management. Its definition varies depending on its application, but operational definition is a clear, concise, and detailed definition of a measure. It is used so that when measurements are taken, there will be no or less room for confusion. In Grandpa’s example, the duck test operational definition will keep the grandkids from counting chickens as ducks by mistake.

Operational definition is sometimes referred to as a metric set, but metrics can represent not only operational metrics that indicate performance, but also financial metrics that can indicate capacity or potential.

Typically, operational definition tries to answer three questions:

  • What is measured: a detailed description of the material, characteristic, or variable being measured
  • How is it measured: a detailed description of the procedure and tools of measurement
  • When is it measured: a detailed description of the time, period, interval, or present state before it is measured

Quality management concepts

Generally, there are three quality management concepts that help determine quality in the outcome of a project and in how it was managed.

Customer satisfaction

Projects are usually initiated based on customer needs. Customers are involved in all the project phases: initiation, planning, execution, monitoring, and closing. Customer satisfaction is the result of understanding, managing, and meeting the requirements and expectations of customers so that they are satisfied.

An operational definition of what customer satisfaction is can help project managers determine whether or not the project outcome and management satisfies the customers. Some of the ways customer satisfaction is measured are by organizing surveys and measuring the results based on answers, tracking customers issues through helpdesk software like Freshdesk, tracking repeat purchases, or tracking social media mentions and sentiment.

Cost of quality

Cost of quality refers to the cumulative monetary costs that enables a product or service to reach the quality standards defined by project management. There are two categories under it. Cost of conformance, which includes prevention costs—costs designed to prevent poor product quality from happening—and appraisal costs—costs required to evaluate at various intervals of the lifecycle including after completion.

Cost of non-conformance includes internal failure costs—costs of repair or rework before the product or service has been launched—and external failure costs—costs of repair or rework after the product or service has been launched, and may include warranty work, liabilities, or loss of business.

All these costs are accurately measured with the help of operational definitions of specified costs. Project portfolio management software like Teamwork can help monitor the costs.

Continuous improvement

Continuous improvement is an ongoing effort to improve processes, products, or services. Resistance to change exists in varying degrees in all organizations. From the viewpoint of continuous improvement, this resistance is an impediment.

For continuous improvement to work, stakeholders must be relentless in their focus and commitment to get things right. But in order to improve, you first need to measure.

Operational definition can clarify the approach and techniques to be used in measurements. Enterprise PM software like Wrike can be useful in monitoring key performance indicators of processes that can be further improved.


Project quality management has three processes performed in different project phases.

  1. A quality management plan is prepared at the planning stage where quality requirements for the project and the product are identified. It also documents how the project will show it has met the quality requirements.
  2. Quality assurance is performed at the execution phase to verify that processes are sufficient to produce deliverables of good quality. The project team can use process checklists and project audits.
  3. Quality control is performed at the monitoring phase to verify that the product meets the quality requirements. The project team can use peer reviews and testing. Corrective action can be taken based on the results.

Operational definitions help people to measure quality by containing the details and indicating the specifics about quality.

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Jose Maria Delos Santos

Jose is a subject matter expert and member of the writing team for and Bridge24. He has written hundreds of articles including project management software reviews, books reviews, training site reviews, and general articles related to the project management industry.