PM Foundations – Managing Schedule Performance

Project success is highly dependent on understanding actual progress compared to planned progress, and making the appropriate adjustments throughout project execution. Based upon my experience, the project schedule represents the single most important source of information to assess and manage project performance. The project schedule provides information related timing, work effort, and resource utilization – all important elements of identifying variances, performing root cause analysis, and implementing corrective actions.

Assessing Schedule Performance

Effectively managing schedule performance starts with performing regular analysis of the schedule to identify potential problems or opportunities in the schedule. Begin the analysis at a high level by looking at key summary tasks and milestones.

Look for areas that the planned dates are not tracking with the baseline dates:

  • Finish variances indicate tasks or milestones that will either complete early or late.
  • Start variance indicate tasks or milestones that will either start early or late.

In addition, examine the % Complete:

  • Do you have gaps between the duration that is completed and the work that has been completed? These gaps point to areas where progress is largely tied to non-resourced tasks, and “real work” may be “hidden” by this progress.
  • Do you think it is reasonable to complete the remaining work in the days remaining for the task (or series of tasks)? To answer this question, you may need to take a closer look at the detailed tasks below the summary task, or the tasks tied to the milestone.

Performing Root Cause Analysis

Once you have identified that a summary task or milestone is potentially slipping, you must identify the source of the potential problems. Look deeper into the schedule to identify the task or group of tasks that are driving the variance.

Examine the tasks to determine the specific cause of the variance:

  • The duration was adjusted, moving the end date out (likely because the task is late getting started).
  • The work effort and duration were adjusted, moving the end date out (likely because the effort is greater than planned).
  • The end date for a dependent task moved, impacting this task.
  • New tasks were inserted into the schedule that this task is now dependent upon.

Generally, the next step in the process is to talk to team members to find out the reason these changes were made. Many times you, as the project manager, were the one that made the change so you already know the answer to these questions. Look for the “rest of the story” associated with this variance:

  • Why is the task late getting started or finished? Is it related to resources? Resources have not been available to start/finish the task, or the resources are struggling with the tasks?
  • The work effort has turned out to be greater than originally planned. Is this because scope has been added, or potentially with more information (clarification) it has turned out to be something different than first planned?
  • Are there open issues associated with the task that are preventing progress (the task is “stuck” awaiting resolution of issues). The issue tracking log is a good source of information for this type of problem.
  • Are there assumptions that were made during the planning process that have turned out to be false (or not 100% true). During the schedule analysis process, it is extremely helpful if the assumptions were documented “in-line” within the schedule (in the notes field of the project schedule).

Note: This same thought process should be utilized for analyzing positive variances in the schedule. Analysis of positive variances helps you understand if you may have opportunities to improve the delivery date of key milestones, or at a minimum offset other negative variances.

Implementing Corrective Actions

Now that you have identified a potential problem in the schedule, and determined a reasonable explanation for the source of the variance, you need to decide on the appropriate next steps. The real decision you need to make is whether or not the variance should be formalized as a project impact (managed through the change control process). Considerations to help make this decision include:

  • Is this variance permanent (the time lost will not be recovered), or temporary (it is a timing issue that will be recovered at some point in the future)? Generally, timing issues are not formalized as project impacts.
  • Is the variance material? This is generally determined based upon whether or not it has an impact on a milestone that would be significant to the project sponsor or another stakeholder.
  • Are there other actions or adjustments to the schedule that could be implemented to recover the time associated with the variance on this task? If with other actions this variance could be recovered, it would be treated in the same manner as timing variance.
  • Will the variance have a direct impact on the milestone date, or is the milestone date “buffered” with a schedule reserve. If the milestone has a schedule reserve, you may decide to use all or part of the reserve to offset the variance (rather than formalizing it as a project impact). If you feel there is still significant risk associated with the milestone, it would probably be wise to formalize this project impact, and leave the schedule reserve “as is”.

If the decision has been made to formalize the variance as a project impact, you would initiate the change control as described in my blogs on Managing Change. After the project impact has been approved, you would likely re-baseline these tasks, establishing new dates, and eliminating the variance.

If the decision has been made not to formalize the variance as a project impact, you would document the explanation for the variance and the planned next steps associated with the variance. The best practice is to use the Notes field within the project schedule to document this type of analysis. During on-going schedule analysis you would continue to monitor the variance and explanation to ensure that the original decision not to formalize it as a project impact is still appropriate.

Schedule Performance Reporting

Schedule performance is a metric that is reported on a regular basis to the project sponsor and key stakeholders. In many cases it is incorporated into project status reports. In most cases it is a discussion topic during Project Steering Committee updates. For each of the summary tasks (project phases) or key milestones reported, the following information is provided on a regular basis:

  • Planned (Baseline) vs. Projected (Current) Finish Date – Both of these data points are obtained directly from the schedule for the summary task or milestone.
  • Variance – It is helpful to report the variance in terms of both days, and as a percentage of the total duration for the summary task or milestone. The variance is also obtained directly from the project schedule, and the variance percent is calculated based by dividing the variance by the total duration.
  • Trend – Comparison of the variance to previous reporting periods. Is the metric trending positively, negatively, or holding steady?
  • Comments – Explanation of the variance, and the next steps that are planned to monitor / manage the variance (including project impacts that have been initiated)

The information reported may be a summarization of several variance explanations documented during the schedule analysis process. Make sure the level of information is appropriate to the audience you are reporting it to. If a variance is formalized as a project impact, it would by default be reported to the project sponsors through the normal change control process.

Schedule Performance – Critical Success Factors

The accuracy and credibility of the schedule metrics and project performance management process are highly dependent on the following critical success factors:

  1. The first success factor is fairly obvious, but nonetheless the most important. The original baseline created, approved and saved in the project management tool, must be solid. If the baseline is not strong, comparisons to actual results will be difficult to explain and manage throughout the entire project life cycle.
  2. As project impacts are approved and implemented, the project schedule (or the portions impacted) must be re-baselined. If you do not re-baseline the schedule, the original variance will still be included in with any new variances that occur (confusing the on-going schedule analysis and reporting process).
  3. Another obvious success factor, and equally important, is that the schedule performance analysis is only as good as the schedule you are analyzing – the current schedule must reflect the current “reality” of the project. Therefore the schedule must be maintained and managed in a manner that keeps it in synch with the way that work is being performed by the team. This success factor includes:
  • Timely and accurate progress updates (updating based upon the 25, 50, 75, 100 rule will be give you a good picture of progress on the project).
  • Material changes to durations and work estimates should be adjusted within the schedule. These adjustments should be what moves task start and finish dates. Try to avoid manually adjusting dates (this will result in building unnecessary constraints into the project schedule).
  • Make other adjustments required to keep the schedule in synch with the work to be performed (e.g., new tasks, changes in task sequence, and resource assignments).

Using SharePoint to Measure Project Performance (KPI)

SharePoint 2010 is an enabling tool utilized to dramatically improve the project environment. One of the powerful aspects of using SharePoint to improve your project environment is focused on the idea of measuring performance. Many of my previous blogs about using SharePoint to improve project delivery have focused on performing project management best practices. These best practice areas include managing change requests, organizing project deliverables, and managing issues & risks. The information captured in SharePoint while the project team collaborates and maintains project information can be used to communicate up-to-date project performance metrics. The beauty of using SharePoint to communicate project performance is that it is largely created as a by-product of project work performed and maintained on the project site. The project site provides a platform for project stakeholders to get a “snapshot” of key project performance metrics at any point in time.

Creating the Project Status List

The first step to adding performance metrics to your project site is to add a list, using the Project Status list type. The Project Status list is a key performance indicator list that is new to SharePoint 2010. It enables the ability to access data maintain in lists and libraries (Excel spreadsheets and Access databases) to display project performance metrics. Below is an example of a Project Status list on a project site.

For each performance indicator you establish the method of calculating the metric (sum, average, count of values), as well as the definition of Green (goal), Yellow (warning), and Red. Defining what Green, Yellow, and Red means for each key performance metric one time within your Project Office enables deployment of a standard set of performance metrics (pre-configured) within your standard project template.

Adding Project Performance Indicators

The following describes some ideas around the best approach for adding different types of performance metrics to your project status list.

Overall Status: This indicator uses a column captured with the metadata (overall project status) attached to the last status report saved in the project status report document library. This approach is very straightforward to set-up and the easy for project managers to understand and maintain.

Budget Status: In most cases, I maintain an Excel spreadsheet for project budget tracking. If that is the case, then the budget performance metric is set up to access specific cells in the budget tracking spreadsheet. The Green/Yellow/Red status can be defined based upon $ variance, % variance, or an earned value metric (CPI). An alternative approach to the Excel spreadsheet is to add metadata to the Project Status document library to capture the budget status and/or budget variance. This alternate approach is simple to set-up, but a bit redundant in terms of the way budget information is maintained on your project site.

Schedule Status: I generally use the Green/Yellow/Red status maintained within the project milestones list to compute the schedule status (average status of the active milestones). Similar to the budget status, an alternative approach is to add metadata to the Project Status document library to capture the schedule status. Again, this approach is simple to set-up, but a bit redundant in terms of the way schedule information is maintained on your project site. A third approach is to capture an Earned Value metric (SPI) within the budget tracking spreadsheet and link it to the Schedule Status indicator. Note: The KPI feature does not support accessing information directly from MS Project to capture schedule performance metrics (MS Project Server is required to enable better integration of project schedule information with project dashboards).

High Impact Risk and Issues: The risk/issue performance indicator is based upon the number of (count) high probability/impact risks and issues. All you need to decide is based upon the size/complexity of your project what number of high risks/issues defines Green/Yellow/Red.

Change Requests – Schedule Impact: This indicator is based upon the sum of the schedule impact (days) within the Approved Change Request view of the Change Request list (this view includes all change requests that have been approved and implemented). This metric effectively communicates the cumulative impact of project changes on the project schedule. Again, the key to this metric is defining the schedule impact days relating to Green/Yellow/Red (likely defined within the schedule materiality discussion in the Project Management Plan).

Change Requests – Cost Impact: This indicator is based upon the sum of the cost impact ($) within the Approved Change Request view of the Change Request list (this view includes all change requests that have been approved and implemented). This metric effectively communicates the cumulative impact of project changes on the project budget. Cost variance parameters (that tie to Green/Yellow/Red) are generally defined within the Project Management Plan.

In future blog posts I will provide the specifics associated with setting up these different types of project metrics within your project site.

Creating a Summary View

For the purpose of communicating project status metrics to stakeholders it is a best practice to add the summary view of the Project Status Metrics to the main page of your project site. This is accomplished by adding a Project Status Summary web part to the main page. This web part behaves a little differently than other web parts because it is a KPI (Key Performance Indicator) type web part. This web part provides the options to display only the status indicator, or the status indicator and the actual performance values. It also provides the ability to change the design metaphor for the status symbols (default, checkmarks, and stoplight).

Below is an example of the Project Status Summary web part with the default status symbols.

Below is an example of the Project Status Summary web part with the checkmark status symbols.

The user clicks on one of the indicators to display the specifics associated with a metric. Below is an example of the metric details displayed.