Project Management Tracking

Dick Billows, PMP

Dick Billows, PMP

Why Use Project Management Tracking?

Project management tracking is the way successful project managers update executives and stakeholders on the status and what’s happening on the project. This is also where they report on how the actual results compare to the original plan. Project management tracking is not a mechanical data dump where you just recite data. The project management tracking process often determines your credibility as a project manager. You must prepare well formulated corrective action plans to fix the variances to the project’s plan and schedule.  Presenting those options will reassure the executives and stakeholders that you are in control of the project.  Project Tracking Reports Main Page

You can easily erode your credibility with poor project management tracking. This is especially true if one project after another has a bad surprise when it is too late to recover. Project sponsors soon think your projects are out of control and question everything you tell them. The solution is to present hard-edged data, not guesses, in your status reports. This allows you to spot problems early when they are small and easier to fix.

Project Management Tracking: Metrics

Project managers and executives too often use tracking data that hides big problems. They eventually surface when it’s too late to fix the delays and overruns they have caused. Bad surprises late in a project make executives crazy and ruin your credibility.  Why does this happen? It’s a combination of the following:

  • Inability to precisely measure progress
  • Mushy project checkpoints
  • Team members not reporting bad news when they first see it
  • Too much status report optimism.

The first step to correct the situation is to use metrics to quantify the scope and major deliverables for every task in the work breakdown structure. Those metrics provide unambiguous check points against which to measure progress and show any slippage. The next thing you need to do is work with your team to develop estimates of the required hours of work. Do not use only finish dates in your schedule. Tracking actual work versus the estimated hours of work gives you another measure of how far along each task is. In combination, those two metrics will let you spot problems early. Solving them early is a real credibility builder with executives, stakeholders and team members.

Project Management Tracking: Mushy Check Points

Project managers and executives should build a firm foundation for project management tracking in the planning process. Unfortunately, the planning often doesn’t force stakeholders to decide exactly what they want.  So the project’s foundation is built on vague wishes that can’t be measured. Those wishes don’t give you tracking metrics to measure progress. They only give you due dates.  And it’s impossible to decide what is in the project and what it not.
Those mushy definitions of scope and deliverables let people avoid hard decisions and conflict. Plans and work breakdown structures that are merely “To Do lists” let everyone think they are getting everything they want from the project.

The lack of clearly defined deliverables makes it difficult to decompose them into their parts.  It’s impossible to decide what is in the project and what is not.  It also makes project management tracking a highly subjective and judgmental process.  You’re left to track the progress of vague tasks that everyone defines in their own way. People often have to work with mission statement mush like “Deliver world-class customer service” and “Improve system response time.” What are the components of “Deliver world-class customer service?” No one knows. This vague high-level deliverable saves the project manager from committing to exactly what they expect from each team member.  The due date is the only measure of the task’s performance. So the team members start work based on a guess of what is expected. Very predictably, they spend lots of time doing the wrong things and trying to avoid blame.

You can’t be successful managing projects that have scopes like this. Projects must have measurable deliverables like, “Less than 5% of customers are on hold for more than 30 seconds.” Then you can break down the scope into component parts, the deliverables, and tell the team members exactly what you expect from them. These deliverables, must be objectively defined. You won’t give them just a due date as the only performance measure.

Project Management Tracking: Gathering Status Data From the Team 

Project Management Tracking

Each week project managers must gather status information to give project management tracking updates to the sponsor. Some PMs conduct status meetings with the aim to report that NOTHING bad happened during the week.  If a team member expresses confusion on their assignment or says that finishing by the due date is impossible, the PM becomes angry. They blame the team member for not asking the right questions, for slacking off or letting down the team. Isn’t is funny how the PM doesn’t hear any bad news after that? Well, at least not until the finish date draws near. How to Write a Weekly Status Report

In this environment, the team members have to guess about what is expected or run to the PM daily to ask what they should do.  Most people do both. But because the PM doesn’t know exactly what the project should produce, their answers are vague.  Soon no one admits any problems and everyone says they’re on schedule. That’s because they quickly learned that to report anything else brings down the wrath of the gods.

The PM’s experience when reporting to the sponsor is similar.  Everything besides good news triggers a snarl. The PM soon resorts to saying, “Everything is going according to plan,” or “Every task is in ‘green light’ status.” No one is solving problems early. As the due date draws closer, the team members make a wild guess at what they should produce and they frantically slap some junk together.

This is a bad, but common, example of project management tracking. Everyone on the project is wearing blindfolds. No one actually knows what the project is supposed to deliver.  The project team members are trying to guess what’s expected of them. When they ask questions, they just hear the project due date repeated at louder and louder volume. And the project manager doesn’t know how the project is doing.

Project Management Tracking: Doing It the Right Way

How should you and project executives build a plan that lets you do effective project management tracking and solve problems early? First, you and the executives must define the scope as a deliverable with acceptance criteria that are measurable. Then you must build a high-level framework of deliverables that lead to that end result. And you must define each of those deliverables with a metric.

Next you break  the high level deliverables down into smaller tasks. You stop at the level of deliverables that each team members will produce. These deliverables tell the team members what’s expected of them. So they know what a good job is before they even start work.

With these project management tracking metrics, you and executives can measure progress against unambiguous and measurable checkpoints. You can also spot problems early. That’s possible as long as your behavior when you receive bad news encourages team members to report problems as soon as they occur. They mustn’t hold back bad news out of fear of incurring your anger.

These steps allow the project management tracking to show things like this:

“Achievement #47 – “The customer history screen lets our service reps answer 85 percent of customer inquiries in less than 60 seconds without referring a question to another department.” 

Status: “As of last Friday, this task was 23% complete and not the planned 26% complete. That is due to a snowstorm which caused absenteeism among user personnel. Without corrective action, we will finish this task 5 days late. That will cause three successor tasks to start late and postpone the project completion by 4 days and exceed the budget by $10,000. I propose the following corrective action…”

This project management tracking status report has several good features. First, the PM is reporting status on an objectively measurable business achievement. They’re not going to need a meeting or long debate to decide whether they have reached the goal. Second, it quantitatively compares “where we are as of last Friday” to “where we should be as of last Friday.” Third, our progress assessment is based on the hours of work completed as of last Friday and it estimates the hours of work remaining. Fourth, the executive is receiving data on 3 quantified dimensions of status tracking (the level of achievement, the duration and the budget), not just the due date.

These project management tracking elements set up the second half of the status report. In it the PM presents data about alternatives for solving the problem. Having three quantified dimensions for each assignment lets the PM develop quantified options for executive decision-making. These alternatives might continue the status report as follows:

We have three options for recovery. First, we can hire an outside programmer to work on the coding. This option would allow us to recapture the lost days of duration but will increase the budget by $3,000.  Second,…”

The PM proposes alternatives that involve trade-offs between the level of achievement, duration and budget. The executive can make a decision from the options because the PM has seen this problem coming and has plotted corrective action. The most important feature is that all this is happening before the task is actually late. How to Organize a Status Meeting

Project Management Tracking Summary

The foundation for effective project management tracking and status reporting is laid during project planning. That’s where the project manager and executives define unambiguous deliverables and checkpoints for measuring progress. See also our Project Manager Skills Main Page

This process is the heart of the methodology we teach in our private, online instructor-led Project Management Basics course. We can also design a customized program for your organization and deliver it at your site or in online webinars.


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