An Outline that Can Be Used for Tracking Progress
It could be said that communication is the oil that keeps a project running smoothly. Project managers (PMs) can spend up to 90 percent of their time on internal and external communications. Communication management includes project status tracking and reporting processes. A schedule for such should be defined at the start of any project. That is, a description of the information needed for the sponsor, the stakeholders, and the project team. An overall plan should cover who needs what, when they need to know it, and in what form the information should be delivered. There are many ways of reporting the status of a project. For example, Microsoft’s Project, Excel, Visio, PowerPoint, SharePoint, and/or email.
Status reports describe where the project stands at a specific point in time, and in terms of the triple constraints (meeting scope, time, and cost goals). Status meetings, whether held weekly or monthly, provide a forum for stakeholders and the project team to discuss expected progress for future meetings, risks, and most importantly issues and their resolutions. Let’s look at some of the approaches that can be utilized for tracking a project’s status and communicating it. See Table 1.1 for an example of an Issue Log and Table 1.2 for an example of a Risk Register. Keep in mind if an organization spent more time on risk management upfront, they would have fewer issues to deal with and in the long run would save money and probably end-up with a better finished product.
Reporting Task Progress
Getting updates from project task resources, like percentage completed, is usually time consuming and often can be a minefield. For example, resources are often optimistic. They may think they can make up for lost time in the next reporting period, or may not want the PM to know if they have fallen behind. It could be that they are being over-loaded by multiple projects or part-time restraints. A PM needs to grasp project progress as accurately as possible, so people have confidence in the overall timeline of the project. The following are the only three task percent completions that I would recommend using in a project plan:
- 0% – Task not started.
- 50% – Task has started. Each organization should pick a range number to go with based on their past experiences. Hopefully it will be between 25% – 50%. Going with 25% is to choose conservative progress reporting. This is wise in situations where participants won’t be overly optimistic or a safe approach is needed. Going with 50% completion means taking the middle of the road. You’re assuming about half the tasks are less than 50% complete and the other half are near completion. Keep in mind just about every project has a few tasks that always seem to be at 90% complete. Whenever a planned start and/or finish date is reset, leave the “old” date visible (e.g., in another cell) which allows revision history to be shown.
- 100% – Task is completed.
One of the first things I do when I am reviewing the progress of a project plan is to sort the percentage complete fields (from low to high) and look at the status of the three task completion statuses (0%, 50%, and 100%). To begin with, I am mainly interested in finding tasks that should have started and didn’t and finding out the reasons why. I am also interested in tasks that are about to start. When I look at the status of tasks that have started, I am mainly interested in finding tasks that look strange (for example, missed completion dates, on the critical path, and/or the completion date is fast approaching, over-taxed resources, or those that are always 90% complete) and following up with some detective work. I usually don’t spend much time looking at tasks that are completed because, of course, they are history. Obviously the more tasks I see completed, the more confidence I have in the progress being made and in meeting our timelines. Microsoft Project has several graphical reports that pinpoint tasks that need help. Some of the reports include Critical Tasks, Critical Tasks Status, Upcoming Tasks, and Late Tasks. Project also has several graphical reports that help a PM manage resource over allocations. Those are Resource Overview, Over allocated Resources, and Resource Work Summary.
Project Statistics provides a 20,000 foot overview of the project status, which is very useful in quickly seeing the current big picture. In the Project tab’s properties section, click Project Information to see project information. Data for a new project that has not been baselined will show as in Figure 1.1 below.
As you can see, this project is scheduled to start 6/27/17 and finish on 10/4/17. You can click the “Statistics” button at the bottom to bring up project statistics for the project. See Figure 1.2.
Right after the project is approved and baselined (in the Project tabs schedule section, click Set Baseline for the entire project). The project statistics will now show the baseline fields, as in Figure 1.3.
It’s important for the PM, during the execution of a project, to periodically check the statistics to see if the project is behind schedule, on schedule, or ahead of schedule. Figure 1.4 shows that everything is on schedule (that is, duration and work percentages are equal and variances are zero). This is not typical because project performance statistics tend to drift away from baseline values during execution. For example, if the duration % is greater than the work % then you will have a finish variance greater than zero, meaning you are behind schedule and have to work on a recovery plan to get back on track. Variance is usually measured as time, such as days behind timetable, or as cost, such as dollars over budget. Baselining is a method for analyzing a project’s performance (original values vs. current values) and is a significant component of overall project management.
There are dozens of new graphical reports (thank God for the elimination of text reports) in the latest versions of Project that are easy to digest and customizable. Once a project is underway, you can use high-level and detailed-level reports to see if a project is on track. If it isn’t, you’ll be able to easily find the troubled spots. Graphical reports are covered in the Report tab’s “View Reports” section, and most of the selected report categories have the option of “More Reports.” See Figure 1.5, which shows the various highlighted Dashboard reports covering broad schedule and cost variance reporting.
Report categories are as follows:
- Dashboards – Repots such as Burndown (work done and what’s left to do), Cost Overview (includes historical and future cost trends), Project Overview, Upcoming Tasks, and Work Overview (presents work status from several perspectives). Project Overview focuses on overall progress of summary tasks and milestones. These are excellent reports to share with project stakeholders who need big-picture status.
- Resources – Over allocated Resources and Resource Overview reports.
- Costs – Cash Flow, Earned Value, Task Cost Overview, Cost Overruns, And Resource Cost Overview reports
- In Progress – Reports such as Critical Tasks, Late Tasks, Slipping Tasks, and Milestones.
- Getting Started – Includes Best Practice Analyzer, Get Started With Project, Share with Your Team, Create Reports, and Organize Tasks.
All the above graphical reports can be customized. Project’s Visual Reports (to the right of the above mentioned View Reports section) use Excel charts and Visio diagrams, so you can drill down into the data to find problems. Excel and Visio take advantage of the pivot table notion, which is a data utility tool found in data visualization programs such as spreadsheets or business intelligence software. This tool allows for Project’s selected exported data to be looked at from different angles/rotations or pivots. It sounds like a Rubik’s cube, and put quite simply, it allows the user to decide how data is presented. A list of available visual reports can be found in the Report tab’s visual reports (export) section. See Figures 1.6 and 1.7.
The Excel visual reports available allow you to customize the exported data the way you want to by using the PivotChart Tools heading that appears above the ribbon (you can then save the report as an Excel file). Likewise, the Visio visual reports allow you to customize the exported data by using the PivotDiagram task pane and save the report as a Visio file. The only common visual report between Excel and Visio is the Cash Flow report. Between the graphical and visual reports, your project is covered in areas of overall project status, financial performance, task management, and resource management.
“When you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” This is a quote from Dr. Robert Schuller, a pastor and motivational speaker. A similar sediment from John Wooden, who won ten national championships in college basketball (UCLA), is “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” Remember that communicating project status to stakeholders and the project team is perhaps the most important function of a PM. Done well, it helps to keep the project on track in meeting its deliverables. The main reason for having project status tracking meetings is to identify potential issues, problems, and risks before they occur and then put recovery plans in place to avoid any damage to the overall project. The PM must continually communicate the status of the recovery plans to the stakeholders and the project team until issues are resolved.
As part of a project’s communications plan, I highly recommended a PM hold periodic project status tracking meetings (usually weekly) with a set agenda. PMs will also find that Microsoft Project is a great tool for tracking project status because it has so many useful built-in reports, powerful data filtering features, and the ability to create your own templates/reports!