In a construction environment where projects are few and far between and where profits and budgets have been squeezed (if there is any left at all), project execution is an essential element for an organization’s survival. While execution is a great buzzword, it can be difficult to make it a reality, especially at the levels needed in today’s market.
Organizations may need to think out of the box when it comes to reporting key project metrics, if they want to stay on top of the projects they have. It is true that quality reporting will enable a follow-through environment for strategies and goals communicated from the executives. However, knowing what metrics to use and how to find them is a different story.
While millions of dollars have been spent on software solutions over the last few years to provide these metrics, the most basic and reliable reporting can still be managed with a little planning up front, some simple spreadsheet formulas, and a consistent follow through in minutes per week. In fact, some of the most reliable and revealing solutions have been around for ages, and they still work: they just need a little dusting off. One of these tried and true strategies includes establishing and managing what is called in the project scheduling world, interim milestones.
Milestones will not only help execution teams (Project Management Teams) establish goals and work together as a team to accomplish them, but they will also help the executive know if a project is in trouble before it is too late. In short, milestones provide a project executive with one valuable part of a very practical project navigation system.
For some executives, it seems there are only two management approaches: the micromanage approach at the 100 foot level, or the hands off (mismanagement) approach at the 100,000 foot level. Even though it is well understood that neither of these extremes are very effective, it is difficult to know what range between 100 feet and 100,000 feet is appropriate.
The successful project executive must actually learn to navigate at all levels between these extremes. Knowing when to pull back as an executive and identifying the necessity to nosedive into a situation requires some pristine instruments. If getting into the day to day operation of a project management team is the 100 foot level approach, then knowing a project has to be complete in 500 days and not properly reviewing status on a regular basis is managing at the 100,000 foot level. Establishing and managing milestones are a good 10,000 foot approach that can be managed in just a few minutes a week and the process is amazingly simple. Here is how it works.
Once a project management team has established the project schedule, key transition activities can be identified that are critical to the project completion. An executive may need a little help from the project team up front to ensure that the selected milestones are truly on the project’s critical path. Some effective guidelines for milestone setting are:
Make the interim milestones easy to identify. Select activities that will transition to a new phase of work. It could be a document delivery date, a traffic switch, a concrete pour, or a product delivery. The following chart is an example of how milestones can break a long duration of project time into smaller blocks of time that, when combined, represent the total project duration.
The executive should include some early project milestones. Unlike a sporting event with a real-time scoreboard most projects/programs are moving forward in the dark when it comes to measuring their score on time and budget. So, an executive will need to set up a milestone scoreboard to include early project milestones if he wants to know how his team is doing from the start.
Once the milestones are established, the executive must learn to manage the milestone data as the project evolves. The difficulty with interim milestones is often not in identifying them, but knowing how to manage the milestones once they are identified. Here is a valuable milestone management tip:
The following tip for managing the milestones is part of “Schedule Accounting 101”. As the following chart illustrates, this contract duration with blocks of time established by critical milestones provides the executives project balance sheet in regards to time.
(These blocks of time can be broken into additional levels of detail and reviewed more often depending on the elevation that the executive needs to manage from during different periods.)
If after one month, it appears the first milestone will not be met, it can only mean one of two things, or possibly a combination of both. Either the remaining blocks of project time will be late also, including the project completion, or valuable time must be extracted from the remaining blocks of work in order to complete on time. Identifying the responsible party for individual delay events will determine which combination of these two options should be applied. Either way, the project executive can identify, with relative accuracy, the status of a project by current progress instead of relying solely on future projections.
The key issue for the executive is that this procedural review of interim milestones can be executed in minutes per week and can be as simple as maintaining a spreadsheet. As an example, the following spreadsheet data, reveals the delays in early progress and the potential problems trending at the end of the project.
Keeping a historical record of these milestone status reviews will reveal problems with trends of a project long before the trends become disaster.
Interim milestone management is a low cost, high value navigation process for the project executive. Ultimately, it is one of the best tools an executive can monitor for information needed to navigate the turbulent project management atmosphere. When it comes to the value of a good management processes, Mr. Cho, Vice Chairman of Toyota said it best:
“Brilliant process management is our strategy. We get brilliant results from average people managing brilliant processes. We observe that our competitors often get average (or worse) results from brilliant people managing broken processes.”
This article is part of the “Scheduling Programs that Work” seminar series. John Jackson is a professional scheduler, expert claims consultant, and enterprise software implementation and corporate standards specialist. Mr. Jackson is the Scheduling and Claims director at Encore Group and founder of MySylo, a free web-based project networking application for construction professionals.
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