I often heard people say that that Chinese doctors are paid to keep their patients in good health rather than looking after them only when they become sick!
The project manager should also follow the vital signs of his project, anticipate potential issues and address them before the project gets seriously sick.
- Define and implement concrete measurements
- Identify and track the Critical path
- Respect the schedule (variance of + or – 10 %)
- Compare current efforts and results achieved to planned ones
- Estimate costs incurred to planned expenditures
- Verify the quality of the deliverables
- Follow up on open problems (how many, how old, how long to resolve)
- Run regular periodic reviews
- Manage and control the risks
- Boost the morale of the team and be sensitive of human aspects
- Ensure that your sponsor participates and that your customers are involved and informed
- Anticipate events via trend analysis of key indicators
Define and implement concrete measurements
Without objective measures, it is difficult to judge in a factual and effective way, even though I think that some subjective signs carry as much importance as facts. So, chooseyour metrics, set a baseline and then compare progress to this reference point. Measure such things as delays on planned milestones, number of requests of change, variations between projected costs and resources consumption (BCWP, ACWP, BCWS, ACWS for the PMI fellows). Count the number of open and unresolved problems, and record their processing time. In addition to risks’ prioritization, check the involvement of sponsors and customers, verify the regularity of the communications and the frequency of project meetings…
Identify and track the Critical path
A key element of schedule management is the critical path, the logical chain of tasks which, if they are not completed in due time, will inevitably delay the completion of the project. Thus, a vital sign to be watched carefully by the project manager.
Respect the schedule (any variance of + or – 10 %)
In fact, any significant variance must be analyzed to understand the reasons for the difference, envisage corrective or palliative actions and learn from these to prevent a recurrence of these problems during other parts or phases of the project.
Compare current efforts and results achieved to planned ones
I noticed that it is rather common to be under staffed at the start of the project. It often takes time to identify and recruit the best people as they are rarely unoccupied and just waiting for an assignment. The expenditures during this period may therefore be significantly lower than planned. However, it does not necessarily implies a delay in the progress of the project. As a matter of facts, I saw many under staffed team fully compensate the vacancies through better coordination and greater mobilization of team members. It is required to always put in perspective the work realized with the resources used. On the opposite side, any threat of delay in deliverables or reaching milestones of the project is usually a sign of strong fever and needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.
Estimate costs incurred to planned expenditures
Any significant overspend will obviously receive a good level of attention. But you should not forget to worry about situations of « under spending ». This weaker signal can prove to be critical later on in the project. It is often an indicator of delays to come: slow start, late deliveries of materials or software not critical today but necessary for the project on future tasks … It may also result from “simple” costs allocation errors that will catch up on you at a later time. And, it could also be played to your disadvantage by your financial colleagues during the biannual or quarterly budget reforecast exercise. Indeed, they often use as a basis of forecast the prior period spend and could propose a much lower estimate that what you know remains to be done and spent. Hence the importance for the project manager to master precisely the amount of the committed expenses versus invoices received.
Verify the quality of the deliverables
My experience is that quality is in most situations more important to customer satisfaction than time and cost, even if these are necessary. Without quality deliverables, there is no sustained customer satisfaction. So, any decline of the quality produced compared to specifications is to be reviewed in details to understand root causes and eradicate them. It is not sufficient to deliver in time and at cost a product that does not fully satisfy the customer, even if it apparently addresses the expressed needs. The prime focus of the entire team has to be customer satisfaction as this will bring success in the long run and lead to a stream of future fruitful projects. Satisfaction comes with the quality of the deliverables and the relationships built between the customer and the project team.
Follow up on open problems (how many, how old, how long to resolve)
No project comes free of problems, thus no reason to panic. It is particularly advisable to watch the backlog of unresolved and open problems and its evolution over time. If this backlog increases, it is a real concern. Additionally, the aging of known problems and their time to be resolved are also key indicators. Do not limit your analysis to averages (average age, average response time). As said by one of my directors, « a person not knowing how to swim can very well drown himself crossing a river which is on average 20 centimeters deep ! « . Therefore, let us try as hard as we can to understand the amplitude of variability of these indicators (possibly according to the criticality of the problems: « Show Stoppers », important, average, minor), with regard to acceptable min-max to be defined for your project. For example, any important problem should be addressed within 10 day; or, we shall have no more than 10 problems of average criticality outstanding during more than 3 weeks. Set up alarms for bells to ring when such targets are reached.
Run regular periodic reviews
Do not let the elapsed time between two project reviews stretch out to the point where you have to « jump » a scheduled session in the calendar. If the strategic checkpoints cannot take place, it could indicate an excessive workload, or delays which are starting to accumulate, or indifference of some stakeholders, or poor communications, or uninteresting agendas, or excessively long meetings… All are reasons to get on your feet and take actions.
Manage and control the risks
No excuse is acceptable to justify not revisiting the risk register very regularly to update it, to enrich it, and if necessary to activate mitigation plans. The conditions and the environment of the project do change and the risks evolve with them: new ones appear; existing ones should be retired or updated… Furthermore, the risks are often interconnected and evolve together. This is prone to create a snowball effect if we are not careful. For example, an increase of the probability of occurrence of several risks from low to medium is indicative of danger. Thus, never let the risk register take the dust on a shelf.
Boost the morale of the team and be sensitive of human aspects
Repeated late arrivals in the morning, early departures, absenteeism or on the contrary systematic overtime are some of the observable signs of problems. They often come along with a tense climate, with quarrels, with more escalations requiring your arbitration, nasty emails, the shrugs of shoulders … So many demonstrations of an illness to be taken into account to correct the situation as fast as possible.
Ensure that your sponsor participates and that your customers are involved and informed
If your sponsors seem to be less and less interested in your project: danger!
The causes may seem relatively minor: another current project in crisis, some operational emergencies, a big contract in preparation… But other causes exist that could strongly impact the project: a new project of greater priority, an upcoming reorganization, some shareholder’s change, weak or moving directions from management… You’ll be better off spending a little time investigating the situation.
If the customers appear to be more distant, less involved or dissatisfied, this is a red alert. Immediate actions are probably necessary to seek their opinion, listen to them, understand their issues and propose necessary changes.
Anticipate events via trend analysis of key indicators
The evolutions of indicators are often (always?) more important than their absolute values. Why is this indicator on a dangerous slope? Why is this other one erratic, unpredictable or weak? It is somewhat similar to monitoring the evolution of the vital signs of patients at hospitals, such as fever, pulse, red and blank corpuscles…
These are some of the thoughts around the vital signs of our projects which I wanted to share with you. Watch them with the greatest possible attention, as would do the Chinese doctor who has to keep his clients in good health if he ever wants to get paid!
I certainly missed some aspects which are important to you, so, do not hesitate to indicate these in your comments to this post and share your experiences.
« Dr » Michel.