Outputs and Outcomes

Defining, distinguishing and differentiating deliverables

by Russ Westcott

This article was featured in January 2016’s Best Of Back to Basics edition.

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When project objectives are set, the term "deliverables" is often used to specify those tangible things produced by the project. Two key factors, however, are often overlooked.

Projects will produce two kinds of outputs. One kind are the tangible things the project intends to produce. Some examples are a design for an improved process, a training program to develop or refresh job skills, or specifications for a new product or service.

The other kinds of outputs are tangible plans, measurements, tracking processes and status reports that pertain to planning, managing and closing the project itself.

All projects should address two kinds of anticipated outcomes: those planned payoffs measured in real dollars, which the project intends to produce from the outputs, and those important but often difficult-to-precisely-measure long-term results.

Examples of planned payoffs include:

  • Market share increase from improved segmentation actions.
  • Benefits from implementing or enhancing supply chain management.
  • Benefits from achieving ISO 9001 certification.
  • Benefits from quality or benchmarking initiatives.

Examples of the important but sometimes difficult-to-measure outcomes include:

  • Improved public image of the organization.
  • Increased customer satisfaction.
  • Improved acceptance of the organization by the communities in which the organization operates.
  • Positive change in the organization’s contribution to the health, safety and welfare of its employees.

The primary factors that distinguish outputs and outcomes are time and measurability. Regarding time, project outputs are considered complete on delivery and in accordance with agreed-on specifications. Outcomes are documented through evaluative actions taken after some interval following project completion.

Concerning measurability, outputs are typically tangible and more easily measured objectively. Outcomes are often more difficult, but not impossible, to measure, and are typically measured subjectively by approximation.

At times, project team members might confuse the two types of outputs. It is important to differentiate the tools and documents of project planning and management from the products or services derived from the work of the project team.

It is also vital that both types of outputs have defined metrics and tracking mechanisms to ensure progress toward achieving the deliverables proceeds according to plan. If the progress deviates from the plan, corrective actions need to be taken to bring the project back to its planned path. Additionally, attempts should be made to measure a project’s outcomes in terms of real dollar payoffs.

An organizational perspective

Taking the discussion to the macro level, strategic goals and objectives are achieved through processes—inputs and transformation—and outputs.

These processes are affected by internal and external situational demands, such as customer demands, capacity and regulations. Aligned with the processes are the human behaviors of employees, which in an organizational setting are influenced by work climate, the predominant style of managing and, above all, organizational culture.

Effective measurement and communication combined represent the channels that enable the organization to ultimately achieve measurable outcomes. The transformation processes, coupled with human performance—including expertise and experience—constitute the core competencies of the organization. These concepts are deployed throughout the organization to enable achievement of the strategic goals and objectives.

In moving from a functional orientation to a process orientation, the organization focuses on achieving the strategic goals and objectives, as demonstrated through measurable outcomes.

Worthwhile outputs are still important when placed within the context of the previous statement, assuming they ultimately will result in a positive outcome. After all, an organization can produce a high-quality product or service output but still fail to produce a positive outcome—high quality buggy whips and no customer demand.

Outputs and outcomes from the organizational level / Online Figure 1

Online Figure 1

Russ Westcott is president of R.T. Westcott & Associates in Old Saybrook, CT. He is an ASQ fellow, a certified manager of quality/organizational excellence and a quality auditor. Westcott is editor of the third edition of the CMQ/OE Handbook, co-editor of the Quality Improvement Handbook and author of Simplified Project Management for Quality Professionals and Stepping Up to ISO 9004:2000. Westcott is also a co-instructor of the ASQ CMQ/OE refresher course.

--S. K.Singh, 09-26-2019

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