In spite of what any existing schedule may suggest, many project managers have not the slightest idea when a project will be finished. That is the dirty secret. They believe there are just too many variables to make a reasonable estimate on even smaller-sized projects. However, in a blog for Harvard Business Review, Joe Knight, Roger Thomas, and Brad Angus point out that very large businesses manage to oversee enormous construction projects while sticking to a timetable and keeping customers updated. They believe that even the largest projects can be maintained through simple means as long as the system achieves these basic functions:
- Track key variables.
- Keep your team informed.
- Update your stakeholders and customers.
Factors that impact profitability must be monitored, especially labor hours compared to budget, which give a good idea of project percent completion. Other profitability variables to watch include material costs, change orders, and subcontractor progress. Tracking milestones is not enough to guarantee a project will not derail.
Knight, Thomas, and Angus recommend regularly weekly meetings to keep team members informed, with key numbers posted in an easily accessed place for everyone to see. When all the numbers are juxtaposed, potential problems start to jump out, which subsequently become easier to address when everyone is already present. An example is offered of an occasion where a project manager decided in secret to build more time into the schedule, but thanks to the weekly meeting, the unauthorized change was found and handled swiftly.
Finally, keeping stakeholders informed of both good progress and setbacks is vital. Bad news is amplified in proportion to how long it is decided to wait to tell the news. Customers understand that some problems are unavoidable and are willing to adjust their expectations accordingly. To give an example of their practices being put into action to good effect, Knight, Thomas, and Angus offer up an instance where their organization was building a small coaster for a major amusement park company, and amidst coordination snags and spec changes, they found themselves six weeks behind schedule. They decided to inform the customer immediately, and in the end, the project did indeed complete six weeks behind schedule. However:
But because we had kept the customer in the loop every step of the way, we were on time as far as he was concerned. We even got an award at the end for on-time performance. The moral we took away from this? If your customer doesn't think you're late, then you're not late. If you need to change the schedule, do it as early as possible and give your customer an immediate heads-up so he can adjust his expectations.
Tracking variables and keeping the lines of communication open are how projects stay the course, regardless of the size and scope of the project. Whether it is a lemonade stand or a food conglomerate, there is no replacement for the basics in decreasing risk and keeping to the schedule.