Carl Chatfield: Top 10 Problems, #4: Track by percent complete

Carl here. ProjHugger is for Microsoft Office Project newbies, enthusiasts, and zealots. I publish new posts every Monday morning, but you can add comments any time. This week’s ProjHugger post continues the “Top 10 problems new (and not so new) Project users have, and what you can do to ease the pain” series, which started like this: #10, #9, #8, #7, #6, and #5.

Problem #4: Track by percent complete

Project managers who track progress by percent complete often mistake elapsed duration with progress, such that when they're 75% out of time they think they're 75% done. Sadly, this is often not the case.

Planning is dandy but...

This isn't an exclusive list, but in general I see two types of Project users, which I'll call "planners" and "trackers." Planners use Project to create their initial project plan, most typically resulting in a Gantt Chart that they then print or share online. Once work starts, however, planners' use of Project ends. They don't track progress in Project in any fashion.

Trackers, as the name suggests, are planners initially who, once work starts, record progress in Project. These Project users are really getting their money's worth from Project, for tracking progress engages the scheduling engine at the heart of Project, and distinguishes it from simpler drawing tools. Microsoft Visio, for example, has some nice Gantt Chart drawing capabilities and is in my opinion a simpler way for most people to produce a basic Gantt Chart. But zealots like us want to do more, of course, like track progress.

Precision is not accuracy

The activity of tracking progress boils down to this: is work in the plan proceeding as planned, or have we encountered some variance? Or I might be more focused on cost: is the work going on in the project costing what I expected, and am I getting my money's worth for the results of the work? Tracking progress is one of the key activities that elevates one from a planner to a project manager.

Project supports various ways of recording progress. From simplest to most complex, these include:

  • Work completed as scheduled
  • Percent complete
  • Actual start or finish; actual and remaining duration
  • Timephased actual work per time period

We covered all of these tracking methods in the Project Step by Step books (see references below), so here I'm going to focus just on percent complete. This is the tracking method that I think is most risky: it offers the veneer of precision but can lead to significant problems in accurately knowing the state of work or completeness in a project plan. One of my project management mentors once cautioned me not to confuse precision with accuracy: data can appear extremely precise yet be completely wrong. Tracking progress by percent complete, with the wrong intent, is one such example.

The parable of the term paper

Let me describe the risk of tracking by percent complete through this parable.

Johnny is a typical college student enrolled at the state college. Johnny enrolled in a course that has a duration of 10 weeks. This course requires only a single assignment: a term paper to be turned in at the last class session. Johnny's entire grade for this course will be based on this paper.

Johnny is young, so 10 weeks seems like practically an eternity to him. Two weeks go by and Butch, Johnny's older and wiser brother, asks Johnny how the paper is progressing. Johnny responds "I'm off to a good start, in fact I'm right on track." The truth is Johnny hasn't started any work on the paper. After all, he has eight weeks remaining and that's practically an eternity.

More time passes. In the sixth week of the course Butch again enquires about the state of the paper. This time, with some forced enthusiasm, Johnny replies "Oh, I'm on it!" By this Johnny means he hasn't yet started any work on the paper, but he is now giving some serious thought to getting started real soon now. After all, he has four weeks remaining and while not practically an eternity, it's still a long time.

On the last night before the last session of the class, Butch arrives at Johnny's dorm room with triple-shot cappuccinos in hand because, as Butch has suspected all along (he is after all wise) Johnny is staring into the terror of his last night in which to start and complete what was intended to be a 10-week project.

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