What is Project Control? Basic, Principles, Techniques, Reporting

  • Post last modified:16 July 2021
  • Reading time:14 mins read

What is Project Control?

Project control is the process of controlling actual performance against plan to identify deviations, evaluate possible alternative courses of actions and take corrective decisions. The successful performance of a project depends on appropriate planning.

The execution of a project is based on a robust project plan and can only be achieved through an effective schedule control methodology. The development of a suitable Project Control system is an important part of the project management effort.

Project management control is not equated to authority control of project team and activities. Project controlling is like steering a ship towards harbor safely; making necessary changes on the way. Project manager is captain of that ship.


Basic Project Controls

In project control process identifying important project control factors. Safety, quality, cost, schedule, and risk are the basic project control areas which have direct influence on project results:

  1. Safety
  2. Quality
  3. Cost
  4. Schedule
  5. Risk

Safety

CIDC (City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra) has estimated that nearly 31 million workers in India are engaged in building and other construction works. Construction process often results in fatal accidents which demotivate workers, disrupt work, delay progress, and it has adverse impact on productivity, cost, and schedule.

Therefore, use of effective planning and control techniques to have safer construction has merit. Safety starts from project development phase. It needs to be planned and subsequently controlled. The designer and contractors need to be given safety brief by client.

Role of owner with regard to safety could range from selecting better contractor to active participation in safety management during actual execution of work.

Quality

There is a growing concern about decreasing quality in construction in India with news of newly constructed building collapse in metros and increasing number of dissatisfied end users. The government projects are equally criticized for lower quality.

There is a substantial cost attached to poor quality. Most companies do not record quality deviation during construction and just rectify the defects as and when they occur. On their study on direct cost of rework on nine industrial projects, found that design deviation and construction deviation costs were 9.5% and 2.5% of the project cost respectively.

The status in other sectors may not be better. Clear policies, quality assurance plan, technical specifications, independent audit, and statistical quality control are some of the quality control factors at front end. Client’s vision of project quality guides the consultant and the contractor.

Technical specifications form the part of contract document. It plays important role in controlling construction projects. Quality assurance plan is devised by contractors with reference to guiding principles and specifications provided by client.

Quality control is effective implementation of quality assurance program. Currently in India, quality control is entrusted to third party consultants. In public projects this is practiced as a means of bringing transparency in system.

While testing, frequency of testing and interpretation of results are clearly mentioned in quality assurance plan, the effective implementation, monitoring and controls is something that needs to be strengthened.

Cost

Cost is measured in terms of unit costs and percentage variation over final costs. Out of 951 central sector projects in India, 309 projects have cost overrun of 55.22% and 12.10 % overall cost overrun. There are several reasons for the cost overrun.

The incorrect baseline estimates due to inadequate time available for estimating is one of the prominent reasons. In India, due to urbanization, infrastructure development programs and industrial growth, projects are often put on fast track.

This results in quantity variation as the estimates are prepared prior to design completion. Tools such as earn value management are not widely used particularly in real estate projects.

Schedule

Time is often measured in terms of construction time, speed of construction and time overrun. Time overrun is popular measure for project performance. Out of 955 central sector projects in India, 466 projects have shown time overrun ranging from 1 to 192 months.

Out of these 466 projects 139 have exhibited both time and cost overruns. The results clearly indicate that the project monitoring in terms of schedule is ineffective. Schedules are used as a tool for project control. A comprehensive schedule covering all the phases of the project is missing from many projects in developing countries.

The schedule is restricted to the construction schedule and it is often left to contractors. It is not derived from master schedule, but it only captures milestones provided by the owners. The use of software in scheduling is a must, but it is not extensively used for the monitoring purpose.

Subcontractors are employed for most jobs in India. Main contractors lose control over number of laborers employed by subs and in the process. Resource schedules are rare in such situation. Overall project monitoring thus happens through milestones and gut-feeling.

Risk

Barnes defines risk as uncertain future events, which, if they happen, will cause significant extra cost or delay. Good risk management practices can minimize losses and increase profitability in construction. However formal risk management practices are not widely practiced due to lack of awareness, particularly on small and medium scale projects.

The ways, in which contracts are written, owners try to transfer risk to contractors. However, the ultimate sufferer is the owner and the end results of the project are affected by such risk transfer.


Principles of Project Control

An easy way to remember what project control is all about is to think PDA. PDA stands for Prevention, Detection, and Action. Let’s take a closer look at these fundamental principles of project control:

  1. Prevention
  2. Detection
  3. Action

Prevention

As with your own health, the secret to wellness is strengthening your immune system and minimizing contact with harmful agents. In other words, don’t get sick in the first place. The same principle applies to effective project control.

The best way to keep your project on track is to prevent (or at least minimize) variances from occurring. How do you do this? This takes your entire array of project management skills, but a few key activities include investing in planning, communicating effectively, monitoring risk factors continuously, resolving issues aggressively, and delegating work clearly.

Detection

For this aspect of project control, think “radar system” or “early warning system.” Project control should provide early detection of variances. The sooner we can act on a variance, the more likely we are to get the success factor back on track.

The key for early detection is to have the tracking systems and work processes in place that allow for the timely measurement of project results. Common examples of detection methods are performance reporting and review meetings.

Two important concepts to note here are that to have a variance, you must be comparing actual results to a baseline of some type, and a variance can apply to any of the critical success factors, including stakeholder expectations and quality, not just schedule, cost, and scope.

Action

While the prevention aspect has a strong action orientation too, this principle goes hand-in-hand with early detection. For project control to be effective, the detection of a variance must be able to trigger an appropriate and timely response.

The three most common action types are corrective actions, change control procedures, and lessons learned. Often, as part of the planning for project control, specific variance thresholds are established that dictate what variances and corrective actions can be managed by the project team and what ones need the immediate attention of senior level management.


Techniques for Project Control

These are techniques for project control which given below:

  1. Small Work Packages
  2. Baselines
  3. Status Meetings
  4. Completion Criteria
  5. Reviews
  6. Milestones and Checkpoints
  7. Track Requirements
  8. Formal Signoffs
  9. Independent QA Auditor
  10. V Method
  11. Escalation Thresholds

Small Work Packages

This was a point of emphasis during our discussion on building a WBS. If you recall, there were two primary reasons for advocating small work packages: more accurate estimates and better control.

From a control perspective, if your work packages are scheduled to complete within one (or at the most, two) reporting periods, it is much easier to detect a delayed or troubled task. With earlier notice, you are more likely to resolve the variance and protect the project’s critical success factors.

Baselines

A fundamental control principle is to manage to baselines. First, establish a baseline. This is generally applied to the critical success factors of schedule and budget, but can be applied equally as well to product-oriented aspects of the project, especially requirements.

Second, measure and report performance against the baseline. Third, maintain the baseline unless there is a formal agreement to reset the baseline.

Status Meetings

The simplest, and most widely known, technique is the status meeting. Consistent and regular status meetings help to keep everyone honest, accountable, and on their toes—especially if work assignments are small and have clear completion criteria.

In addition, status meetings are powerful tools for improving project communications and managing expectations.

Completion Criteria

This starts during project definition with defining the acceptance criteria for the project, and it continues for each deliverable and work assignment. Answer this question in advance for each deliverable and work assignment: “How will we know when it is done?”

Understanding the completion criteria up front increases productivity and avoids many of the issues associated with status reporting on work tasks, especially the infamous “I’m 90% done” syndrome.

Reviews

Reviews are a key technique for ensuring quality and managing expectations on project deliverables, and they can take many forms. The principle here is to plan for the review-feedback-correction cycle on most, if not all, of your key deliverables.

Common examples of reviews are process reviews, design reviews, audits, walk throughs, and testing. In addition, reviews can be combined with predefined milestones and checkpoints.

Milestones and Checkpoints

A key feature of most proven project methodologies is the use of predefined milestones and checkpoints. These markers are important points to stop, report progress, review key issues, confirm that everyone is still on-board, and verify that the project should proceed with its mission.

Besides being a powerful expectations management tool, these predefined points allow project sponsors and senior management to evaluate their project investments along the way, and if warranted, redirect valuable resources from a troubled project to more promising pursuits.

Track Requirements

A simple, yet often neglected, technique to help control both scope and expectations is the use of a requirements traceability matrix. The traceability matrix provides a documented link between the original set of approved requirements, any interim deliverable, and the final work product.

This technique helps maintain the visibility of each original requirement and provides a natural barrier for introducing any “new” feature along the way (or at least provides a natural trigger to your change control system).

In addition, the trace matrix can link the specific test scenarios that are needed to verify that each requirement is met.

Formal Signoffs

Formal Signoffs are a key aspect of change control management, especially for client-vendor oriented projects. The formal record of review and acceptance of a given deliverable helps to keep expectations aligned and minimize potential disputes.

Most importantly, the use of a formal signoff acts as an extra incentive to make sure the appropriate stakeholders are actively engaged in the work of the project.

Independent QA Auditor

The use of an independent quality assurance auditor is another specific example of the “review” technique mentioned earlier, and is often a component of project quality assurance plans. In addition, the quality audit can be focused on product deliverables, work processes, or project management activities.

The power of this technique is in establishing the quality criteria in advance and in making the project accountable to an outside entity.

V Method

The “V method” is a term used for a common validation and verification approach that ensures that there is validation and verification step for every deliverable and interim deliverable created.

The left side of “V” notes each targeted deliverable and the right side of the “V” lists the verification method to be used for each deliverable directly across. The diagram in Figure 10.2 helps illustrate this method.

Escalation Thresholds

Escalation thresholds sound much more ominous than what they actually are. The purpose of escalation thresholds is to determine in advance what issues and variances the project team can handle and what issues or variances demand attention by senior management.

Often, these thresholds are defined as percent variances around the critical success factors. For example, if the cost variance is greater than 10% or schedule variance is greater than 15%, engage senior management immediately for corrective action steps.

The key value of this technique is that it helps define tolerance levels, set expectations, and clarifies when senior management should get involved in corrective action procedures.


Performance Reporting

if you keep these following principles in mind, you can adapt your performance reporting process to best meet the needs of your project environment:

  1. Answer the Big Three Questions
  2. Measure from Current Baseline
  3. Think Visual
  4. Think Summary Page
  5. Show Forecasts
  6. Highlight key issues, risks, and change requests
  7. Avoid Surprises
  8. Adapt to meet stakeholder needs
  9. Appropriate Frequency

Answer the Big Three Questions

As a rule, key stakeholders want to know the answers to these three questions when reviewing project performance:

  1. Where do we stand (in regard to the critical success factors)?
  2. What variances exist, what caused them, and what are we doing about them?
  3. Has the forecast changed?

Measure from Current Baseline

If you are going to report project performance with a variance focus, you must establish and maintain your performance baselines. Any change to the performance baselines is controlled via your change control procedures.

Think Visual

Another key concept in reporting is to think visually. Most people are visual and spatial learners and will grasp the important project performance metrics more quickly if they are presented in a visual format. The use of bar charts, graphical schedule summaries, and stoplight indicators (red, yellow, and green) for key metrics are good examples of this technique.

Think Summary Page

Along this same theme, you generally want to provide your key status information in no more than 1–2 pages. If it is appropriate to have details that will take more than 1–2 pages, it is recommended that you provide a one summary page up front.

Highlight Accomplishments

A part of the status report’s function is to serve as a public relations tool for the project, so make sure key accomplishments are highlighted prominently.

Show Forecasts

In addition to reporting how the project has performed to date, remember to show the forecasted schedule and cost metrics. Often, this information is shown as Estimated At Completion (EAC) and Estimated To Complete (ETC) figures. Specifically, highlight any changes to these figures from the last reporting period.

Highlight key issues, risks, and change requests

A natural category when assessing project performance. Make sure any key issues, risks, and change requests are included on status reports. We will discuss these in greater detail in subsequent chapters.

Avoid Surprises

An important point about consistent, performance-based status reporting is that stakeholders are aware and knowledgeable regarding overall project status and are not caught off guard with project developments.

To this extent, depending on the audience for any status report, you may want to communicate with specific stakeholders in advance of any official report distribution. Always remember, don’t surprise anyone—especially your sponsors and accountable senior management stakeholders.

Adapt to meet stakeholder needs

This is an example of the customer service orientation and servant leadership qualities of effective project managers. Be prepared to offer examples of performance reports that have worked well for you in the past, but most importantly, go into any project looking to understand the information needs for this given environment.

Show enthusiasm and willingness to adapt to the customer’s standards or to develop custom formats to best meet the stakeholders’ needs.

Appropriate Frequency

Consistent with a management fundamental mentioned earlier, the frequency of performance reporting needs to be appropriate for the project. The process of gathering information and reporting performance needs to be quick enough and occur often enough to be useful and relevant.


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