Schedule Statusing is the first step in updating a project schedule to understand how a project has progressed to date. It is also the step most prone to mistakes and neglect.
If schedule statusing is too time consuming, team members will not support the process. If status updates produce insufficient or inaccurate detail, project managers will not have satisfactory information to identify driving tasks that are impacting deadlines. How does a Schedule Manager strike the balance between effectiveness and efficiency? What constitutes a reliable schedule status? This article will describe the characteristics of an effective and efficient statusing strategy, how to recognize false progress, and the results a status update provides.
Effective Characteristics of Status Updates
Obtaining accurate status updates is fundamental to maintaining a healthy and reliable schedule. Whether progress is reported in terms of hours worked, or percent complete, an effective status update has the following characteristics.
1. Updates are Clear and Straightforward to Complete
The reporting requirements should be conveyed to all team members. Reporting requirements that are simple are less prone to errors. Examples of straightforward reporting instructions include the following:
- Only update tasks that have been worked on.
- Report percent complete OR actual hours worked.
- If reporting percent complete, report in 25%, 50%, 75% or 100% increments.
Schedule Managers should seek clarification on returned reports that are vague or inconsistent. The Schedule Manager should also seek to correct chronic mistakes in reporting that impede statusing efficiency or accuracy. If a team member is not available to provide clarification, it is recommended to update the project schedule with conservative progress estimates. The Schedule Manager should never assume a task is complete – unless they have been explicitly told it is complete.
2. Updates Reflect the Project Schedule Tasks
A useful status update includes a direct, well-defined correlation between what each team member has been tasked to do, and the work represented on the project schedule. The most straightforward means of representing work accomplished on the project schedule is by reporting against the project schedule itself, or a status sheet extracted directly from the project schedule.
3. Progress Reported Reflects Material Change
To guide a project’s successful completion, a Schedule Manager must know when remaining work can be accomplished. Team members and team leads aid the Schedule Manager by reporting work accomplished to date. When tracking progress by percent complete, reporting large percentage increments has two advantages. First, it insures that progress reported is substantial. Second, team members will not spend time deciding whether a task less than half finished is 30% or 40% done. The lost granularity rarely impacts subsequent analysis and reporting. Though it may seem counterintuitive, Schedule Managers can simplify progress estimations by tracking actual and remaining hours instead of percent complete. The tradeoff requires a very detailed project schedule to effectively gauge progress.
4. Status Updates are Consistent
Schedule Managers should use the same statusing strategy for each reporting period. This establishes an environment for consistent expectations and consistent results. Whether the reporting strategy of choice is status sheets, regularly scheduled meetings or another technique, a repeatable process will establish a regular routine that can improve efficiency through time and practice.
Recognizing Immaterial Progress
One of the most challenging facets of successful schedule statusing is accurately identifying when progress has not been made. It is a shared experience amongst Project Managers that team members do not want to report failed or disappointing progress. Schedule Managers and team leads should consider closer inspection of ongoing activities if any of the following situations are encountered.
1. Meaningless Percent Completes
A forty hour task that progresses from 50% to 75% complete has accomplished material work. Does a change from 75% to 80% represent meaningful progress? As explained in Percent Complete’s Limitations, status updates can intentionally or unintentionally mask lack of progress. 5% of a forty hour task represents only two hours of actual work. Such “progress” is often inconsequential.
2. Remaining Work Unchanged
If a team member reports completing 20 hours of work on a 60 our task, Schedule Managers (and Microsoft Project) can assume that 40 hours remain. However if the team member reports accomplishing 20 hours of work and indicates that 55 hours of work remain, it suggests two possible issues. First, the task may have been more difficult than originally expected. Underestimating task size is a common occurrence on projects.[mfn]Song, H., & Schwarz, N.. (2008). If It’s Hard to Read, It’s Hard to Do: Processing Fluency Affects Effort Prediction and Motivation. Psychological Science, 19(10), 986–988. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40064834[/mfn] This trend should be anticipated and corrected for over the long term life of a large program. Second, the additional work could suggest hidden scope creep.
A similar situation arises when a task remains active for weeks with only a few hours work remaining. Team members may keep a development task open to revisit for bug fixing, or simply to keep a charge number active. Lingering tasks should not be permitted to become driving tasks.
3. Extensive Notes and Vague Timelines
Explanations for lack of progress can provide managers with needed context or identify options for schedule recovery. However explanations cannot be permitted to hide or excuse a delay. Identifying material delays and their impacts during weekly schedule analysis depends on Schedule Mangers obtaining quantifiable progress. Status updates that invoke phrases such as “day-to-day slip” or “to be determined” suggest that a delay’s root cause is not understood. Work hinging on an unplanned external factor (such as a response to a tech support call) also harms the schedule’s accuracy. In these scenarios, the Schedule Manager cannot quantify the downstream impact to dependent tasks and major milestones. If progress cannot be clearly identified the best assumption to make is that no progress has been made. This assumption will paint the worst case picture of the project during schedule analysis and reporting phases, and is most likely to prompt correction by team leads.
Status Update Results
Once the Schedule Manager has received and processed all schedule updates, the last step in statusing the schedule is to perform basic health checks and update the project file to the next reporting period.
If the schedule management strategy is tracking progress variance (Example A depicted in Figure 1), tasks that are behind their progress targets will be identified during schedule analysis and review. When tracking schedule variance, incomplete work will be swept forward into the next reporting period.
Accurate forecasting of future work will not be achievable until schedule analysis and team lead reviews have been conducted. However the statused project schedule can identify performance trends in Schedule Performance Index (SPI), Earned Value and Earned Schedule.
Understanding Schedule Statusing overviewed the basic statusing components and methods. This article has covered what to maximize the value of schedule statuses with a minimum cost in effort, how to identify hidden lack of progress and what information a statused project schedule provides. While these principles provide guidelines for acquiring project schedule accurate updates, in practice the Schedule Manager will regularly receive incomplete and inaccurate data. Schedule Statusing Techniques will detail how Microsoft Project records status updates, tools for efficiently processing status updates and how to accurately status the project schedule when information is missing.