Tracking Project Milestones
- Himanshu S. Mahanta
The highly turbulent, ever evolving and competitive market place demands that the delivery programs get executed on time. So that the program benefits can be realized as soon as possible. Tracking delivery milestones diligently therefore becomes critical for achieving on time delivery.
Managing and tracking project milestones effectively is an extremely important aspect of any delivery. A host of COTS products are available for tracking project milestones which allow the project manager to manage inter dependencies between the tasks, optimize resource allocations and so on and so forth. While a tool based management is efficient for standard projects, the tracking can become extremely overwhelming in case of programs which are complex in nature. "I have come to expect a certain level of complexity in most transformational projects right now.” says Steve Martin, VP & Delivery Executive, IBM. "Given the huge pressure companies are under to invest in innovative technology and drive competitive solutions, one would expect challenges in upgrading legacy ecosystems.
” Programs can be categorized as “complex” due to various reasons. Typically they may involve complex system integrations involving multiple technologies, be first of a kind type of implementation, have multiple stakeholders both internal as well as external with varying priorities, involve multiple geographies and may even have stiff delivery timelines with an associated penalty clause for delayed deliveries. Given the complexities, tracking of deliveries becomes difficult as there are too many moving parts. There is also an additional aspect of reporting where reports shared by the PMO need to be synchronized as it is important that the status shared through various mediums with different levels of stakeholders is consistent. A tool based monitoring does allow an automatic revision of dates should a dependent task undergo a change. However, more often the change is not expected to be linear and the client expects that the end date remains the same while the internal milestones are reworked upon. This therefore, leads to a significant manual realignment of the plan and while this is manageable to a large extent on single deliveries, the tracking becomes extremely stressful in a program with multiple sub projects having vast interdependencies.
At a very basic level following are the key milestones of any delivery:
• Project initiation,
• Business requirement closure
• SoW creation
• Testing (Unit test , System Integration test, Performance test)
• User Acceptance Test
• Production Deployment, Cutover
• Go live
• Steady State, Project Closure
• Business case approval
• Requirement closure
• Road Map approval
• Design for Release 1
• Prototype Development Release 1
• Prototype Signoff
• Development for Release 1
• Testing (Unit test , System
• Integration test, Performance test)
• Version Release
• Design for Release 2 (as per roadmap)
Given the above mentioned environment around a complex delivery, what are the options available to Project Managers, irrespective of the tracking tools used, to effectively manage the delivery milestones?
"In this competitive landscape where both time and money are extremely important, on time delivery or ahead of time delivery is the mantra for success and this can only be achieved by first, having well defined milestones and then tracking them diligently" says Sujit Sahay, Associate Partner at IBM and currently leading a major transformation delivery for a large telco.
Following is the list of initiatives which is likely to yield positive results in managing the milestones for complex deliveries:
Each project would have a common set of key milestones as listed above. And as per standard Project Management principles we would have dates for each milestone. While internally the dependencies may exist, each milestone would have a clear date. The dates associated with the key milestones need to be shared transparently with all stakeholders – internal as well as external and these must be presented at the outset during the project kickoff itself.
Executive management support:
A critical element around the success of any delivery is the senior management involvement. This becomes even more critical in case of complex deliveries involving multiple stakeholders. It is likely that the stakeholders have varying priorities and hence senior management support helps pass on the right message so that the teams are well aligned.
Focused tracking of milestones and dependencies:
Since all the milestones for the various deliveries are available, the PMO has clear visibility on the milestones that fall on each day. While there may be many parallel deliveries across geographies, there will be only a handful of milestones for a specific day. It is therefore important that the status of the milestones is reviewed jointly with the client on a regular basis. The ideal way of tracking would be to filter all upcoming milestones (say for a week)and the team must highlight to the PMO of any issue that they envisage on achieving a future milestone.
What should be avoided is coming on the day of a milestone closure and then announcing that the milestone is likely to be missed.
Pre - defined process and strict adherence:
As the project moves from initiation to go live and passes through different stages, there needs to be a clear entry and exit criteria for each stage. The process should be documented and at each stage the approving authority needs to be clearly listed. It should not happen that the project moves to the user acceptance stage and then there is a realization that the delivery is missing some key components because the right individuals were not involved during the requirements stage.
Need for Artifacts:
The fact that the guidelines are actually being followed can only be proven through artifacts. For any milestone closure, the PMO needs to review the artifacts and then mark the milestone as complete. These could be signed documents with the right set of signatories or could be mail approvals as specified in the documented process. Verbal confirmations or assurances on milestone closure must be avoided as these are likely to pose issues later. It is therefore, best to have the correct artefacts' in place for each closure and should there be any issue, the same needs to get addressed early enough so that the remedial actions or escalations can be made.
Escalation process with pre-agreed tolerance duration for each stage:
An escalation is only meaningful if it's carried out at the right time. Thus forthcoming milestones need to be reviewed diligently every day and should the team envisage any issue around any milestone, the right stakeholders must be informed. The aim should always be to achieve the milestone as per the documented plan and hence right escalations must be carried at the right time.
Ownership at each level:
The milestones must be owned by the relevant Project Manager. However even during reviews with the client, there needs to be a defined individual in the PMO team who would own the milestones. This individual must be aware of the status of the milestones being discussed to a granular level. If issues are to be discussed, the same should be available with the PMO to be taken up with the client leadership or with the relevant stakeholders internally. Raising an issue and then stating that the details would be provided later will only delay issue resolution
As daily milestones will be tracked with rigor, over a period of time, it will become apparent which are the teams that are performing well and which are the projects or teams which come up with delays. The leadership then must review the performance of the associated leads critically. The hindering factors need to be addressed via mentoring or coaching and if the performance still does not improve then decisions around moving individuals to different roles may be taken so that the weak links are removed.
Change management with senior management concurrence:
It is likely that certain milestones would be missed or delivery dates would need to be revised due to re prioritization of the delivery. In this case, the required change management process must be followed and the right approvals must be taken to accept the revision with very clearly documented reasons for the shift.
Documented steady state period:
While the project is commercially rolled out successfully, the final milestone that needs to get tracked is the conclusion of the steady state period. This basically implies that the project has moved to the operations and maintenance teams and it’s business as usual. This needs to be signed off by the relevant stakeholders that are taking over the installation as per the agreed process thereby releasing the project team of the responsibilities.
“Tracking significant events or Milestones throughout complex programs is not only a requirement for the delivery team, but it presents an excellent opportunity to interact with key stakeholders” says Steven V. DelGrosso, Director, IBM Project Management Center of Excellence. While the Project Manager is focused on the details of managing intricate dependencies across activities and tracking status at the work package level, key stakeholders will want to know if the program is meeting its milestones. Focus on these key events ensures the PM has a handle on the overall schedule health of the program.
Proper tracking of milestones becomes a critical activity and setting up a “war room” with active participation from the client and the project teams would help in identifying the weak links early enough so that appropriate measures are taken proactively to address any deterrent. Most of the concepts mentioned above are very basic and simple, yet when these are used in conjunction, the impact on the overall delivery performance will be widespread and would translate into a truly successful delivery.