What is the Best Project Control Method?

The best project control methode

Project control methods are used to detect deviations from the planned values at an early stage and to get the project back on track with effective measures. There are more complex and simpler project control methods. In this article you will get an overview of the different methods, their effort and benefits and the knowledge needed to use them effectively. This article describes methods for traditional projects. If you are interested in Project Control for Agile Projects, get more information here.

Project Control is Not Only Project Monitoring

Project control is understood by most project managers only as project monitoring. However, this is not entirely correct. The following figure shows the meta model of project management. It includes all activities of project management, project execution and, in between, project control with monitoring and control. Among the project control elements I also count project planning, because without planning nothing can be monitored and controlled.

Project control consists of planning, monitoring and control

Project control is a closed cycle of planning, monitoring and control. This is often forgotten. The main focus of most project managers is on monitoring. The other two elements are just as important. However, the project control methods presented in the next section are mainly used for project monitoring.

Methods for Project Monitoring

If you have worked in a project environment for some time, you are probably familiar with some of the following project control methods:

  • Budget/Actual Comparison
  • Milestone trend analysis
  • Earned Value Management
  • Project status meetings
  • Status reports
  • Traffic light report
  • Management by Wandering Around (MBWA)
  • Reviews, tests, audits

You might not have associated some of these methods with project control, but rather with project quality management. However, project control does not only monitor costs and time (deadlines), but also project progress, quality, resources, risks, issues, contracts, changes, etc.

In the following sections you will find a short description of each method with its advantages and disadvantages.

Budget/Actual Comparison

The traditional cost analysis in projects focuses on the actual costs of the work performed, which are compared with the budgeted costs on the status date. The budget/actual comparison is the simplest form of project monitoring. It determines the deviations of the actual values, e.g. actual costs, actual working time, actual working quantity, etc., from the corresponding planned or budgeted values on the status date.

Evaluation: A budget/actual comparison can be created relatively easily. However, its statement is practically worthless because it does not give a clear statement about the status of the project. To do this, you must consider cost and time information as well as the degree of completion together. In order to obtain a reasonably useful statement, you must therefore supplement the budget/actual comparison, at least with a Gantt chart with progress bars and/or a milestone trend analysis. An appropriate evaluation of the content of the project provides even more clarity.

Milestone Trend Analysis

In the milestone trend analysis, the milestones and their dates are displayed on a rectangular triangle whose shorter sides serve as time axes. The planned reporting times are entered on the horizontal axis and the originally planned milestones (base plan) on the vertical axis. The expected date of each milestone is entered in the trend diagram and linked to the previous date by a line. This creates a forecast curve for each milestone that runs as horizontally as possible to the hypotenuse where the planned milestone date lies. Often, however, the curves rise (deadline delay) and reach the hypotenuse late. A milestone is considered completed when all deliverables have been completed and tested according to the defined quality criteria. At this point, the milestone reaches the hypotenuse.

More about the Milestone Trend Analysis

Evaluation: The Milestone Trend Analysis (MTA) is a simple, straightforward method with which you can identify negative trends in deadlines at an early stage. It is easy to understand and a good means of communication within and outside the project, with the aim of sharpening the awareness of deadlines among all project participants. However, it is used relatively little, because tools for it are missing. The MTA also only monitors deadlines.

Earned Value Management

Earned Value Management (EVM) is a program management tool that integrates project scope, deadlines and cost parameters. This allows a comprehensive project monitoring with different key figures as well as forecasts about the project end costs and the project completion date.

With the help of the Earned Value you determine the value added or the “true project performance” on the corresponding status date. The Earned Value is most easily equated with the physical progress of the project. The Earned Value is the value of the work performed at a given time, based on the planned (budgeted) cost of the work performed. EVM enables forecasts to be made about the timing of project completion and project costs at the end of the project, long before the end of the project. This creates the prerequisite for early reaction to detected deviations.

More about Earned Value Management

Evaluation: Earned Value Management is not more complex than other project control methods. However, it requires good training for all project participants, a high level of project management maturity, good project management software and great discipline—and this is unfortunately not present in many companies. EVM may also be mandatory for large government contracts.

Project Status Meetings

The main purpose of the project status meeting is to determine the status of the project and to keep all project team members informed. This way every project team member knows the project status of his colleagues and knows the current problems, issues and risks. Everyone then knows what is planned for the next days or weeks, or, for example, which activities will be postponed. However, the most important item on the agenda is the status of the work packages (progress, costs, deadlines, risks, issues). Project status meetings don’t have to last long, but should be done more often (take agile projects with the Daily Stand-up Meetings as a guide). The shorter and riskier the project, the more often status meetings should take place.

Assessment: Project status meetings are very effective, if they are conducted in a tight and disciplined manner and if the agenda is adhered to. Simple minutes of the meeting with decisions and to-do’s increase the benefit.

More about Effective Project Status Meetings

Traffic Light Control

Like status reports, traffic lights are not an actual project control method. Traffic lights show the project status at a glance and have proven themselves in weekly or monthly project status reporting. With traffic lights you can easily and efficiently evaluate the status of the following project parameters: overall project, project scope, deadlines, costs, quality, resources, customer relationship and project benefit. Project traffic lights are a good tool for senior management to monitor the project.

Evaluation: The traffic light colors are usually defined subjectively by the project manager, unless they are derived or calculated from project key figures. The monthly traffic lights are often too late for effective control. The advantage of project traffic lights is that the stakeholders can see the status of the project at a glance, which is particularly helpful for a large number of projects or project portfolios. Traffic light colours should best be updated weekly and provided with trend indicators.

Management by Wandering Around

Management by Wandering Around” essentially aims to ensure that the project manager actively maintains and shapes contact with the project team members and their activities.

Control here means that someone shows interest in the performance of the employees and that someone “watches out”. “Management by Wandering Around” implements this in a positive way. As a superior, the project manager must remain in contact with his project team members. However, it should not be autocratic control, but interest in the team member and his work. Periodic discussions between the project managers and team members can provide both sides with useful insights for the management of the entire project and problems can be uncovered and dealt with at an early stage.

Comment: In project management MBWA is an important success factor, because only through regular contact with the operative project execution a proactive and target-oriented control is possible. If you as a project manager only hide behind network diagrams and reports, you endanger your project! The success of MBWA is completely based on trust—without this you are regarded as a spy by your project team members.

More about Management by Wandering Around

Reviews, Tests, Audits

Reviews, tests and audit are monitoring techniques to see if “everything is in order”. This means checking whether project results are error-free and processes (e.g. the defect management process) are adhered to. These methods can also be assigned to quality control.

According to the motto: “Trust is good, control is better”, controls for important deliverables of the project have proven themselves. The following control methods are used in projects:

  • Reviews: Technical Reviews, Consultation Reviews, Walkthrough
  • Tests: black box test, white box test
  • Audits: Product Audit, Process Audit, Supplier Audit, Handover Audit
  • Technical Performance Measurement (TPM)

A Review is a formally planned and structured analysis and evaluation process in which deliverables are presented to a group of experts. This group comments on or approves the deliverables presented.

The aim of Testing is to gain assurance as to whether a technical device, software or process functions within the planned framework or whether certain properties are present. A deliverable should always be checked or tested before it is accepted.

An Audit is an activity in which compliance with specified procedures, instructions and standards and their effectiveness are checked. Audits in project management can be distinguished as follows:

  • Product audit (conformity with the specifications of the product)
  • Process audit (conformity with project execution processes and standards)
  • Project management audit (conformity regarding project organization, project management processes and standards)
  • Handover audit (functional and physical completeness check for smooth operation and maintenance)
  • Supplier audit (checking the supplier’s process control)

Technical Performance Measurement (TPM) determines how well a system (or system elements) meets the expected technical requirements during the development process. TPM combines time, cost and technical performance during the entire development process. This gives the project manager a better overall picture of the progress, costs and risks (especially technical risks) of the project. This method provides early warning signals of deviations, enabling rapid response.

Assessment: These monitoring techniques are not optional, but an essential element of good project management and control. Audits are useful for larger and longer lasting projects.

The Best Project Control Method

Which project control method should you use now? The best, of course! The most effective project control method is Earned Value Management, but your company needs a good project management maturity and few companies have this.

In the following list you will find my subjective evaluation of the methods according to necessary effort, achieved benefits and required PM maturity or other requirements, such as leadership quality.

The assessment in the following table is:  * low, ***** high

MethodEffortBenefitPM-Maturity/Requirements
Budget/Actual Comparison****
Milestone Trend Analysis*****
Earned Value Management**************
Project Status Meetings*********
Status Reports*******
Traffic Light Report*****
Management by Wandering Around********
Reviews, Tests, Audits***********

Depending on the size and complexity of your project, you will always use several project control methods so that you can monitor all aspects of project implementation and detect deficiencies at an early stage. If I look at the list in this way, I would use all methods except the Plan/Actual Comparison and EVM. You think I am crazy? Status reports with traffic lights always prescribe the governance of the company and the other methods are no more than good project management and complement each other very well.

There is a single best method. It’s called the one that works when you need it to work in the manner you need it to work!

Stephen W. Maas

This article described project control methods for traditional projects. If you are interested in Project Control for Agile Projects, you can get more information here.

Do you have a different rating or opinion? In your experience, what is the most effective project control method? Write your experiences in a comment to this article.

Here You Can Find Even More Knowledge

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Posted in Earned Value Management, Project Control.

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