Project Health Checks: Repairing in Motion

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In today’s business world, it is vastly important to track the progress and health of a project as you are executing it. This quick check can help you determine if you are on track to delivering successful results. Otherwise, you can only assume progress is being made. You are stuck assuming that the workplan developed early on in the project was good enough to account for those unknowns – which of course always pop up during the course of a project.

A project health assessment, or project health check can give you the visibility you need so that you have a good sense of what’s working, what’s not, and what may need to be improved to meet your desired end goal.

Taking the Vitals

Think back to a time when you were at your doctor’s office. This may have been a while ago since most of us are Teledoc’ing it with the outbreak of COVID, but just go with it. As you were escorted back, the nurse would stop at the weight and height station to take your measurements. Then they would lead you on to the examination room to perform the next set of checks: your temperature, oxygen, and blood pressure levels.

These checks, commonly known as taking your vitals, allow medical professionals to measure your current health levels and to assess their ranges. The results are logged as inputs that eventually factor into your overall health assessment. The goal of which is to determine where your health falls and what care plan, if any, should be developed and administered. 

Checking your medical vitals is a lot like checking your project’s vitals. It will either assure:

  1. That the project is in good health and on track to deliver the desired results
  2. That you need to formulate a recovery strategy to bring the project back on track

Want some tips on how to use Program Recovery in a Crisis? Read our article.

5 Metrics in Project Health Checks

You may be wondering how exactly one can measure project health. Only once you have identified your key project health check metrics can you then set out to assess them. There are five project health metrics that you can use to report to your project stakeholders:

  1. The current status of the project schedule
  2. The current budget performance
  3. Reviewing the scope statement, work breakdown structure (WBS), or product backlog for agile projects
  4. Understanding any issues that are negatively impacting the project vitals
  5. Revisiting scope and focusing deeper into mitigating possible failure modes – i.e. risk management.

Metric 1 - Project Schedule

For an in-flight project – one that is already underway – you should start with reviewing the project schedule.  This is because this constraint is the one most likely driving the project. Key stakeholders (like your project sponsors, project owners, and product owners) need to know when they can expect delivery. 

For those newer to schedule management, the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) developed a robust set of guidelines known as the DCMA 14-Point Assessment. This thorough assessment will guide you through conducting an in-depth analysis of the schedule so you can identify and shore up any weak points. 

In order to complete your schedule analysis, you will need to ask these questions to assess the logic within the schedule:

Are all tasks linked, or do you have orphan tasks?

What are the relationship types?

Do you have any hard constraints?

Have resources been assigned?

How are you doing against the baseline?

If that sounds like a lot, it is. Schedule Management is a specialty area. It’s also typically a dedicated role within the Project Management Office, as within large complex engineering initiatives. The integrated master schedule could be several hundred to a thousand line items.

Read more: Schedule Development – 5 steps to success for more information on building a schedule.

Here is a more simplified approach that I often use to review a schedule:

  1. Look at Start and Finish Dates
    • Examine your schedule, and then cross-reference it with the following step.

  2. Compare Present Date to Finish Date
    • You’ll need to walk through a series of questions that become inputs to any corrective action plans later:
      1. How close or far is the finish date from the present date?
      2. Are there any remaining tasks that will obviously be delayed?
      3. Will the delayed tasks delay the project finish date (critical path check)?
      4. Is the schedule already optimized (including lag and parallel starts)?

  3. Confer with Project Sponsors
    • Determine if the project sponsor will be concerned with the state of the schedule or if they will accept as-is (i.e. are you within agreed schedule variance).

  4. Pace of Work
    • Is the project team straining or are the cadence and pace appropriate?

  5. Impact of Adjustments
    • Determine the impact of a schedule variance beyond the agreed target (i.e. beyond 10%).

Using these five questions, you may get a good read on the viability of your project schedule. Based on your assessment and impact on the project, you will assess red, yellow, or green status, and then review options with your key stakeholder team.

Metric 2 - Project Budget

Assuming proper project planning is done, the budget would be able to withstand a certain level of additional cost that contingency funds and management reserves could address. This also assumes that you have a contingency set aside (see question 4).

Here are five actions in your project health check checklist to assess your budget performance:

  1. Find the project budget amount and all top-level components that make up the budget (i.e. Labor (internal, external) Materials, Contingency). This should be available in the project business case used to gain approval for the project.

  2. Determine how much of the budget has been expended to date.

  3. Determine how much of the budget is remaining. The schedule should be used here as well for a time-phased view and to forecast.

  4. Determine if the contingency amount is adequate.

  5. Determine the impact on the project for a budget variance beyond the agreed target (i.e. beyond 10%)

Again, you will assess red, yellow, or green status and review options with your key stakeholder team.

Metric 3 - Project Scope

After the budget comes Scope. The assumption here is the scope statement has been made clear, and the project team understands what needs to be delivered. It assumes that the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) or product backlog contains all the necessary elements to deliver the right product to the sponsor and ultimately the organization.

Here’s how I review project scope: 

  1. Look at the scope statement, WBS, or backlog, and then determine what the final product and product acceptance statement is.

  2. Review any context diagrams, user stories, and any use cases.

  3. Look at the schedule to see how close or far the work is to delivering the product.

  4. Determine any delays or roadblocks along the critical path of the schedule.

  5. Determine the impact of any deviation in scope to the business.

Metric 4 - Project Issues

Within the scope review, you should look for delays and roadblocks that need to be tracked within the issues log. Issues are current problems within the delivery system (scope, budget, schedule, quality) that put the project at risk of adhering to the baseline project plan. All issues must be identified, assessed, and resolved. If you don’t, then the product probably won’t be delivered on time or budget – equaling project failure.

Here is a simplified approach to review your project issues:

  1. Review the Issues Log
    • There must be an issues log. If no issues log exists, create one immediately, and host a meeting specifically to go over key issues.

  2. Determine the Show-Stopping Issues
    • Review the project schedule critical path. If there are issues with any of the activities along this path, then you not only have a delivery system problem; you have a problem with the integrity of the final product.
    • Resolve the issues. Work with the team to identify viable solutions, choose the best fit and implement immediately.

  3. Ensure All Issues Have Due Dates
    • For any issues without due dates, work with the owner to identify a date.

  4. Don’t Let Issues Linger
    • Track your days to close metric on issues to ensure that you are resolving at the soonest point possible.

  5. Determine Impact of All Issues
    • Again, you will assess red, yellow, or green status and review options with your key stakeholder team.

Metric 5 - Project Risks

Finally, you want to go back to the scope and look for possible failure points to add to your risk management plan. Without mitigating these risks, these failure points will degrade the health of the project. 

One of the most effective tools to conduct this type of analysis is the Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) commonly used in engineering. Here is a simplified approach to reviewing failure points using FMEA:

Start with a Critical-To Diagram

This diagram is typically comprised of four (4) levels: complex, system, subsystem and element:

Critical to Quality Tree detailing Needs, Drivers, and CTQs
Source: Visual Paradigm

The critical-to diagram will give you a visual of the critical components that are necessary to complete the project work which produces the final product for delivery. Review this critical-to diagram with the project team to elicit failure points.

Go Deeper with FMEA Analysis

Look at your critical-to diagram and walk-through each component with your team looking to identify the impact if the failure were to occur.

Use an « if, then » approach. If this component fails, then the product cannot be completed as was specified by the sponsor.

Establish Controls

Once the failure modes have been recorded within your risk log, establish controls to prevent or detect the cause of the failure mode 

Review and Control Impacts

Review the FMEA list often to ensure it is up to date and to control negative impact to delivery 

The FMEA analysis allows the team to view the critical components that make-up the final product. This level of analysis can decrease the probability that a critical component was omitted, overlooked or was incompletely recorded.

Accomplishing Your Own Checks

While we recommend beginning with assessing the schedule, ensuring each vital sign is recorded at all is more important than the order. Some project sponsors view the schedule as top priority while others see the budget as the most critical. However, assessing schedule, cost, scope, issues, and reporting on each is universally accepted. 

Just as a medical health assessment examines a patient’s current health state, a project health assessment is conducted to understand the health of a project delivery system, the quality of what the project is producing, and any necessary corrective actions to bring a project back to a healthy state. 

We hope this quick project health check checklist can help you conduct your next assessment and ensure that you have positioned the project for successful delivery.

brandon l coleman

Brandon L. Coleman

Senior Principal Consultant 
@ MI-GSO | PCUBED USA