10 Best Practices to Monitor and Control Projects

Monitoring and controlling project work is essential to keeping track of a project’s many moving partsEarly in my project management career, my Vice President asked me for a weekly status report for the small project I was managing. In fact, he had had to remind me each week for several weeks to complete the status reports.

Finally, in frustration I told him, “I don’t have time to give you a status report every week. I spend so much time reporting on the stuff that I’m supposed to be doing that I don’t have time to do the stuff I’m supposed to be doing.”

See the logic? Yeah, me neither.

But it made sense to me at the time. I hated project reporting. I hated collecting all the data required for the status reports. I just wanted to get the job done.

Fortunately, my boss was patient. He taught me the value of monitoring project progress in a way that I could quickly and efficiently report on the health of the project each week. Through the process of tracking, reviewing, and reporting on the overall progress of the project, I was able to keep the stakeholders apprised of how well their objectives were being met. More importantly, my boss was able to recognize where he might need to step in to assist with any performance issues that might have arisen.

Monitoring and controlling project work is a parallel process to the directing and managing of that work. In fact, monitoring and controlling activities begin with project initiation, continue through the planning and executing processes, and conclude with the project wrap-up. For a project to be successful, it is important to continuously check on whether there are any deviations from the project plan and overall objectives.

Consider the many responsibilities the Project Manager must juggle: executing to the project schedule, staying within budget, managing the scope, dealing with risks and issues, attending to project staff (including client staff loaned to the project), and many other such activities. Only the soundest methods of monitoring and controlling these various responsibilities will result in a successful project.

The following ten techniques are the best practices that I have found for monitoring and controlling projects. I have witnessed and/or employed these on large-scale, complex projects. Additionally, I noticed my most successful projects happened when I focused on the people aspects of applying these techniques.

  1. Plan to monitor and control the project. This step will have already taken place during the planning process at the start of the project. Not only are the project schedule and overall project management plan put into place, so too is the performance measurement baseline.

    Every project member should be given an opportunity to contribute to the planning process. Every project member must be made aware of how progress will be measured.

  2. Implement Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). As part of the planning process, KPIs must be established. During project execution they will be used to measure performance against plan.

    Some KPIs that I have personally used include the following:

    Time spent by individual by task – this helps determine performance at an individual level and, when aggregated, at an overall project level.

    Estimated time to complete tasks being worked – as individuals record their time spent on tasks, they also record their estimation of time required to complete the tasks. The time spent plus the estimated time to complete are compared to the initial estimate for the task. Variances (positive or negative) are noted, and adjustments made to keep on track.

    On time completion percentage – percentage of tasks completed on time based on the project schedule.

    Project expenditures to date – actual expenditures are compared to estimated expenditures to determine variances (positive or negative). Adjustments are made, as necessary.

    Estimate to complete and estimate at completion – the expenditures to date plus the funds needed to complete the remainder of the project provide value of the project at completion. This is then compared to the overall project budget to determine where adjustments should be made if necessary.

    Earned value – similar to the previous bullet, earned value is an indication of how much of the budget and time should have been spent in producing the amount of work completed to date.

    Schedule performance index (SPI) – the earned value divided by the planned value. An SPI of 1 or greater indicates the project is on track or ahead of schedule.

    Cost performance index (CPI) – like SPI, the CPI is the earned value divided by the actual cost of the work performed. A CPI of 1 or greater indicates that the project is performing well against budget.

    Number of defects – the number of software errors required to be fixed and retested. If the number of actual errors is significantly higher than the number of expected errors, this indicates that the testing will take longer than expected.

    Employee turnover rate – an indication of employee satisfaction on the project. An overly high turnover rate can indicate the need to improve management practices.

    Employee billable utilization – billable hours charged to project-related tasks compared to time available for project work. This provides an indication of how much time employees are spending on administrative tasks, thus diluting the overall project effort.

  3. Act on variances early. Significant negative variances require corrective measures. As one of my Project Managers once told me, “Projects never suddenly get behind schedule. They begin to slip one hour at a time.” It is best to catch schedule slippage early and make necessary course corrections, than to have to take major corrective action.

    Seasoned Project Managers understand the types of situations that cause project variances. They should therefore put preventative measures in place to avoid variances in the first place.

  4. Monitor scope. It is important to have a well-defined, well-documented requirements definition to guide the scope for the duration of the project. Especially with full-time client staff on the project, it is easy for the IT staff to make “minor tweaks” to the scope to make them happy. As noted earlier, projects slip one hour at a time. And often that slippage begins with these minor adjustments to scope.

    The Project Manager’s greatest tool is the word “no.” The Project Manager’s second greatest tool is the change request form.

    “For more on controlling scope, refer to my article, “5 Proven Techniques to Control Scope.”

  5. Maintain communication with stakeholders. Stakeholders have a vested interest in the successful completion of the project for their organization. Project Managers must maintain frequent and transparent communication with the stakeholders. If there is project slippage, stakeholders should be informed, especially if their organization is the cause. If the project is ahead of schedule, stakeholders should be informed. All approved change control and their effect on the project must be communicated. Above all, there should be no surprises.
  6. Manage to the contract. Explicit requirements and approval conditions are established in the Project Management Plan for every project deliverable, phase, and gate review. As the project progresses, it must be continuously monitored for adherence to the contract. Client acceptance must be obtained for every deliverable, gate review, and payment milestone.
  7. Manage to quality expectations. Project deliverables must be completed on time and to client expectations. Quality control (the subject of later articles) must be put in place at the outset to help ensure that quality expectations will be adhered to.

    On many of my projects we prepared a Deliverables Expectations Document for each formal work product. This document spelled out the purpose, content, format, and medium for each deliverable. This set client expectations as to what they would receive before the deliverable was produced.

  8. Produce project status reports. Many of the projects on which I worked required weekly, monthly, and even quarterly status reports. Often different stakeholders requested different items and levels of detail on their versions of the status reports.

    Project status reports are a summation and explanation of the data gathered to report progress. Much of the effort to produce status reports is in developing the processes whereby the required can be collected efficiently and easily analyzed for the reports.

  9. Monitor and manage risk. Every identified risk must be categorized, assigned to an owner, and worked. Every status meeting and every status report must devote time to managing higher priority risk so that some project issue does not cause major problems for the project. For more on monitoring risk, refer to these articles: These are the Basics of Monitoring Risk and Who is Responsible to Monitor Risk?
  10. Control project costs. Each of the preceding items influences project cost directly. Poor planning and execution, lack of focus on KPIs, scope creep, poor quality, and risk events left unattended all contribute to the potential for a project to miss deadlines and go over budget. Not attentively monitoring and controlling these items will almost always result in project failure.

As alluded earlier, a project has many moving parts. Project execution often requires a completely focused approach to directing and managing the project work. But focusing on the work alone without the monitoring and controlling processes to accompany it will ultimately result in failure. Contrary to my opening story, monitoring, controlling, and reporting on project execution is as important as the execution itself.

As the Renaissance astronomer Rhaticus stated, “If you can measure something, then you have some control over it.” Or, as we have often heard it stated, “That which gets measured, gets done.”

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