Nobody likes dealing with a sick project, but we have all been there and done that. Some projects start out sick and stay that way for the duration; others look like they are healthy but then collapse near the end. Most of the time we guess at the reasons for our projects schedule’s ills, hoping we are somewhat right, but still find ourselves at a loss of how to heal the project and hit the mark.

Diagnosing a sick project is not as mysterious as you may think. But it does take attention and discipline. Every project plan is built on a set of assumptions. Some are out of the ordinary and are documented in the project plan. These are the assumptions most of us call attention to and manage. Then there are the ever present assumptions that we don’t give much attention to or announce. These are the ones that are a part of every project, so highlighting them would not enhance the usefulness of the project plan. Even though these assumptions are a part of every project does not diminish the importance of paying attention to them.

There are four assumptions that must be managed to ensure your project schedule stays healthy. These assumptions are that the project scope is well known by all team members, people’s estimates are good, work is sequenced properly, and the percentage of time each team member commits to the project is being fulfilled. You can see that these assumptions are present on every project and are not worth putting in the project plan every time; although, to manage them you need to track a set of metrics continuously on every project. Tracking these metrics means setting a baseline when planning the project, collecting data points weekly, and comparing the collected data to the baseline data to get variances.

The metrics are:

  • Project’s Completion: the date the project is to be completed.
  • Performance to Estimate: the amount of effort (hours) to complete individual tasks.
  • Estimates at Completion: the amount of effort (hours) to complete the total project.
  • Effort Spend Plan: the amount of effort (hours) expended to-date on the project.

All four metrics are needed to give you an indication of your projects health. You may think that all you need to know is if your project is scheduled to finish when you said it would. This is not true though because your project may be scheduled to finish as planned but still be sick based on other metrics that will not reveal themselves until later. Plus, to find out the root cause for a late project requires all four metrics.

Let’s take a look at situations related to the four assumptions.

You know your project scope is not well known when your Performance to Estimate and Effort   Spend Plan is right on but your Estimate at Completion has grown and your Project Completion is late. This shows that more work is being performed to complete newly discovered scope adding to your Estimate at Completion and making your project late.

You know the percentage of work you expected from your team members is not being realized when your Estimate at Completion is right on but your Effort Spend Plan is low and your Project Completion is late. The total amount of estimated work is solid because your scope is known and your estimating is just as you planned but you are not getting the resources as planned.

You know your estimates are poor when the Effort Spend Plan is right on but your Estimates at Completion is up and your Project Completion is late. Bad estimating is driving up the amount of effort required to complete the project and with the same amount of resources the end date has to be slipping out.

You know your sequencing is not right when your Project Completion, Estimate at Completion, and Performance to Estimate are right on but your Effort Spend Plan is low. The only way you could not be slipping your project’s end date when you are not getting the resource you expected is that you are planning to complete work in parallel. Usually this is a fantasy view that will not become a reality.

With all of these situations the more detailed you are in planning and recording your metrics the more resolution you will have related to the true root cause to your projects schedule’s ills. You have to balance this with the size of the project and your need for certainty on the project’s completion data. It may not be worth the effort to be more detailed.

Don’t get distressed if you do not fully understand the principals at work with the metrics and their associated assumptions. These are typically taught in advanced project management training courses. Knowing they exist can motivate you to learn more now or be of use to you later should the situation warrant.