Posted by: Linda Russell | 14 August, 2008

Project Management Tools

I occasionally contribute to the Forums on allPM and recently there was a thread started on “How do you feel about network diagrams, Gantt charts, etc?”

My comment was:

“I’ve noticed that a number of people create a beautiful gantt chart which shows the project being completed on time, with nice neat task relationships, and then they sit back and leave it at that. If asked how the project is going, they say “Fine” because the chart looks fine. What they fail to do is update it with what’s actually happening and re-schedule it according to real progress.
If some tasks are taking longer than expected, are they going to continue at the same pace and if so, what impact will this have on the rest of the plan? If some tasks are ahead of schedule, what will be the effect on resources?
What I always say is, charts and schedules are only tools to help you manage better – they won’t give you the answers – and you must keep them up to date.”

In response, Harry Waldron said:

“Linda shares a good point Smile While team members and PMs always want to accentuate the positive, it’s also important to be realistic and truthful as well. Once a project plan is published, it’s important to measure and report real progresss against the baseline as tasks are being completed.

Sometimes for less critical and small projects, the initial exhibits will just be used to guide development and tasks won’t be updated against it. However, on most large projects I’ve been associated with, the milestones will be very carefully tracked and scruntinized as Linda suggests.”

Posted by: Linda Russell | 11 August, 2008

Oliver Cromwell

A couple of years ago we gave a copy of 4c to the Great Central Railway to help them manage their locomotive and rolling stock restoration projects.

The last steam engine to run on British Rail mainline was 70013 Oliver Cromwell. Its last trip was on 11th August 1968 (the ‘Fifteen Guinea Special’) and the plan was to have it running again in time for its 40th Anniversary.

I just did a Google search and found this blog entry on the restored Oliver’s first run under his own steam.

This weekend I was listening to Broadcasting House on Radio 4 and heard the sound of a steam loco leaving Liverpool Station – it HAD to be Oliver! I felt strangely proud that we had made at least a small contribution to this bit of railway history.

PS One of the GCR people just sent me this link to the BBC report on the commemorative run from Liverpool to Carlisle on 10th August. There’s also a YouTube video of the arrival at Manchester Victoria.

Posted by: Linda Russell | 1 August, 2008

The 4c User Group Meeting

One of my most enjoyable activities is organising our annual User Group Meeting. For several years we just booked a meeting room in a hotel somewhere in the Midlands.

Then 2 years ago we gave a copy of our software to the Great Central Railway, to help them manage their locomotive restoration projects. As a token of thanks, they allowed us to hire a train for the User Group Lunch. We were expecting it to be hauled by a diesel, but on the day we were delighted to see a steam loco at the front. As we travelled up the line from Loughborough Central to Leicester North Station and back again, we were entertained by the Steward telling us about the history of the railway, and the work being done there now.

Last year we wanted another “interesting” venue for the meeting, and as I had recently been involved in my drama group’s production of Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore (a play about Alan Turing), I made enquiries at Bletchley Park. Following an entertaining presentation by Dennis Lock and other contributors, and a tasty buffet lunch, we were escorted on a tour of the famous code-breaking “huts”, and saw the reconstructed Colossus computer in action. We were very fortunate that day, as Tony Sale was there to tell us all about it.

So where shall we go this year? Having sampled some 19th century steam technology in Loughborough, and the start of 20th century computing at Bletchley, at last we’re moving into the 21st century by going to the National Space Centre.

Posted by: Linda Russell | 19 June, 2008

Why don’t people read manuals?

People sometimes ask me why I bother writing manuals (and Help) when users don’t actually read them. As part of my MA I did a bit of investigating. I talked to a number of users and got some others to fill in a questionnaire. I also looked at a number of pieces of research in this area.

One of the things I discovered is that if people have had a bad experience in the past, where they have failed to find the information they were looking for, they are less inclined to refer to the documentation in the future: “It’ll be a waste of time looking there.”

Part of the problem can be knowing how to search for the information you need: one of the quotes I particularly liked was “To ask a question, one must know enough to know what is not known.”

Another reason is that people differ in their approach to learning something new. Some prefer to ask a colleague for assistance; others will just keep trying different things until they get it right. This approach is more likely to be adopted by younger users: older (or less computer literate) ones are more likely to panic if something unexpected happens or an error occurs.

However, I came to the conclusion that there are at least some people who would much rather read about how to do something, and they get very frustrated if the documentation provided doesn’t give them the guidance they need. So that’s my justification for continuing to try to provide the best documentation I can!

Posted by: Linda Russell | 8 May, 2008

Earned Value

What is Earned Value?
Traditionally, project managers have tended to compare actual costs with planned expenditure, and actual hours with the estimate.

This leads to actual values being confused with actual progress. Actual costs/hours are not necessarily a good measure of how the project is performing.

Earned Value Management (EVM) provides an objective reference point indicating the status of the project, i.e. the value of the work completed to date in comparison with the desired end result. This value can be compared with both planned and actual costs and hours, to determine the performance to date and to give early indications of problems.

Cost forecasting can be enhanced with the use of EVM, as it can indicate the likely “outturn” result, based on continuing performance at the same rate as previously. Used with time estimates, it can help to predict that tasks will run late or even that they may finish early.

If payments against contract are required, EVM can form the basis of this. It can also be used in the management of risk.

How is Earned Value Calculated?
You need to be able to record:

  • planned hours or costs – known as the Budgeted Cost of Work Scheduled (BCWS)
  • actual hours or costs – known as the Actual Cost of Work Performed (ACWP)
  • task progress (percentage complete)

Calculating costs is better than working with just hours. Even if the hours are on track (or ahead of schedule), you may have had to use more expensive resources than planned, and working out the earned cost value and other cost indicators can highlight when a project is likely to go over budget.

To calculate Earned Value, multiply the BCWS by the Percentage Complete.

Other Useful Indicators

When you have calculated the Earned Value, you can calculate a Performance Ratio: if it’s less than 1, the task is underachieving; a performance value above 1 indicates you’re ahead of schedule.

It’s also possible to calculate a Predicted Forecast, which is the total outcome (in hours or cost) of the task, assuming that progress continues at the current rate (as indicated by the Performance Ratio).

Examples Using Costs

The total cost of Task A was estimated at £600. So far, the ACWP (the cost of the work done on it) is £200, but it’s only 20% complete.

  • The Earned Cost is £600 x 20% = £120
  • The Performance Ratio is 120/200 = 0.6

Using these values, the Predicted Forecast = £400 [remaining cost]/0.6 + £200 = £866.67 which is worse than planned and will mean the task is over budget.

Task B was estimated to cost £800. The ACWP is £400 and the task is 70% complete.

  • The Earned Hours are £800 x 70% = £560 hours
  • The Performance Ratio is 560/400 = 1.4
  • The Predicted Forecast is £400/1.4 + £400 = £685.71 which is less than the estimate.

So you might think that Task B is doing really well. But that’s not the whole story.

What about Time?

Performance isn’t just measured in cost terms: you need to take into account the earned Hours and the time performance.

You may have used a more experienced (and hence more expensive!) resource in order to reduce the amount of effort needed to complete the task, which may be ahead of schedule.

On the other hand, if the task is under budget, lower value resources may have been allocated, and they may be underperforming.

So it’s important to review both measures, and to reschedule the project regularly, to keep track of time progress.

How Software Can Help

It will come as no surprise to realise that software can take the legwork out of these calculations, and can also help you produce reports and graphs to help you review task and project progress.

Here’s an example of a graph (sometimes called an S-Curve) showing earned, planned, actual and forecast cumulative Costs:

Cost Variance Graph (S-Curve)

Cost Variance Graph (S-Curve)

Want to know more?

Dennis Lock’s Project Management (7th Ed) has a section on earned value (pp 564-583). The latest (9th ) edition is published by Gower and is available on Amazon.

The excellent Max’s Project Management Wisdom website has set of slides on Earned Value.

You could also try Wikipedia.

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