Simple Project Tracking Approach Puts You in Control of Your Project

Simple Project Tracking Approach Puts You in Control of Your Project

Doug Putnam, QSM Co-CEO

Doug Putnam
QSM Vice President

The Measurement Challenge

One of the keys to successful project execution is a practical measurement, tracking, and forecasting framework. The framework needs to provide early warning so that leaders can better understand what’s happening on their project and take appropriate actions

Everyone on the project must be committed to and participate in the collection of an adequate set of measurement data; however, there’s a delicate balance between having enough information and drowning the developers with overwhelming data requirements. The challenge is to find the right balance where everyone benefits.

A Monitoring Method

Rate charting is a technique that has been around for some time. The concept, implementation and interpretation of rate charting is straight forward.

So what do you need to construct a rate chart? You need to be able to measure the product or the process as a function of time. You need to identify a start date and a completion date and the rate of completion. Figure one is an example of typical rate chart.

Product Construction in Objects vs. Time graph

Figure 1. Typical Rate Chart - Objects completed vs Time.

This example shows the construction of objects over time. The blue bars represent the objects that should be complete on a particular date. The black squares represent the actual number of objects that are complete. If the actuals are above the line your ahead of schedule. If they are below the line (as the example shows) you are behind.

Control Bounds - An Effective Method to Monitor Variation

You shouldn’t expect to be on the plan exactly as you proceed but when should you get concerned when you drift away from the plan? Statistical control bounds, which identify acceptable and unacceptable limits of variation, might be a good way to proceed.

Figure 2 builds on Figure 1 by adding green and yellow control bounds. The green zone would be viewed as acceptable variation. The variation might be caused by any number of reasons but as long as it maintains a green position then there is an excellent chance that the overall schedule will not be affected.

The yellow zone on the other hand is unacceptable variation from plan. Investigation is desirable when the data drifts into this zone. It might turn out that no action is required, but if some action is required it is better to discover problems early and take action. By taking action early you increase the probability that your action will have a positive influence on the outcome.

Product Construction in Objects vs. Time Statistical Control Bounds

Figure 2. Statistical Control Bounds show when actuals are beyond acceptable variation boundaries

Packaging Multiple Indicators to Add Information

No single indicator tells the entire story. Wall street analysts typically use many different financial ratios (Price/Earnings, Debt/ Equity, etc.) to help analyze a company’s health. Taken together, the metrics provide a more complete picture of an organization and help portfolio managers make more informed investment decisions.

Why not apply the same thinking to our software management indicators. As a minimum, software development leaders need to assess the following areas:

  • Project Cost
  • Project Schedule
  • Product Construction
  • Product Quality and Reliability

Edward Tufte (author and world renown authority on display of graphical information) points out that it is much more effective to display related information adjacent or "within eye span" rather than to stack it serially in time. So designing an effective display of information becomes as important as the information itself.

Sample Software Indicator Panel

Figure 3. Sample software indicator panel.

Figure 3 is a sample project indicator panel. It contains 9 graphical elements. The specific position of each graph is designed to assist in understanding the data and comparing it to other related information. For example, the left most column of vertical graphs are related to product construction. Design components are on top. Positioned below it and following design is software coding. On the bottom is code that has been through unit testing which follows the coding. All three product construction indicators are telling the same story - product construction is behind schedule. The staffing and effort graphs in the right most column show that the project has been under staffed from the beginning - a possible reason for the slippage. Additionally, you notice that there has been a increase in the discovery of defects during the last 6 months. During that time approximately half of the product was being integrated which is typically the point when a system is the most unstable. You also notice that as the problems were being fixed no new progress was being made in design or coding. As you can see it is much easier to correlate what’s going on when we analyze the data in parallel.

Forecasting Potential Outcomes

Given that a project is off target, it is possible to generate a curve fit forecast from the actual data and predict what is likely to happen. Figure 4 shows a typical forecast to complete based on the curve fit approach. This forecast assumes that the project maintains the current staffing however, it is possible to look at other tactical scenarios; e.g., what if we increase the staffing or what if we reduce the functional content. These forecasts can help us make informed decisions about how to proceed.

Forecast to Complete

Figure 4. Forecase to complete.


Don’t expect the indicator panel to solve all of your problems. It is a tool that, used in the proper context, can provide significant insight into your development process. We find that the indicator panel is an effective technique because it yields a maximum of useful information with a minimun of overhead. It's really a routine wellness check for your project.

Sometimes the indicator panel will highlight conflicting information which needs to be examined more carefully; however, it should put you in a position to spot trends quickly. You can then ask appropriate questions of your people and take effective actions to ensure that you can still honor your commitments. Try the rate chart concept along with the multiple indicator panel. I think you will find that it takes some of the risk out of a risky business.