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Selecting and Deploying an Effective Project Tracking System

Why do we not value our time as we value our money?

In general, organizations these days are pretty good at keeping track of their money. At any given moment, the CFO (or at least the bookkeeper) can tell you how much money is being made and spent, and where it is coming from and going. Money is recognized as a scarce and valued commodity, and financial planning and tracking systems are put in place so that people can rest easy knowing that every dollar is accounted for. Rarely are similar systems in place for tracking the time spent on projects.

If you have seen your share of project success and failure, you will likely agree that not tracking your project as you work virtually guarantees that you will diverge from your plan far more than necessary. Project tracking, however, is not nearly so well understood as project planning, and I would like to share with you some of our wisdom on the subject of setting up a long-term, effective system for tracking project progress.

It is tracking, of course, that allows your organization to catch problems early and gives you some heads-up time to actually fix them. And it is the triad of planning, tracking and learning that allows your organization to get better at estimating and executing on your projects with every project you do. In time you will know enough about the team, the work, and the environment to make your planning, and often even the activities themselves, much more effective. If you are new to project management, the hard numbers that effective tracking provides can quickly help you develop the 'gut instinct' that is the stock and trade of a professional project manager.

Notice that I used the expression 'effective tracking.' All tracking solutions are not created equal. In fact, when an organization buys into the need for project tracking, they often implement a tracking mechanism that is doomed to fail. Organizations often forget that the planning process is driven by a single individual, the Project Manager, whereas tracking requires the full buy-in and long-term support of every member of your project team. If you implement a solution that your project team does not use diligently, consistently, and voluntarily, you have not really implemented a solution at all.

We have seen many such project tracking non-starters. For example, one large financial services company has a full-time employee whose sole responsibility is to run around the office with a clipboard interviewing team members about their progress and status and inputting the information into an exhaustive portfolio of Microsoft Project files. There is the commercial printing operation that asks its employees to enter status information into an Excel spreadsheet that is over 6,000 rows deep. There are, even as I write this, thousands of custom-built Visual Basic timesheet applications grinding along at various stages of completion not quite meeting the needs of the organizations that are developing them. There are companies that are trying to take the paper timesheets employees fill out for payroll and analyze them for project tracking purposes. When it comes to project tracking practices, it is an interesting world out there, and it is not pretty.

I urge you to consider the following requirements when putting together a tracking solution. Rather than trying to roll your own, you may find that a commercially available time tracking system best meets your needs.

Will my people use it?

This is the most important consideration by far, as a tracking system is only as good as the data that gets into it. If your people ignore it (as they will if the data entry requirements are too onerous) or, worse, sabotage it (if their performance evaluations or compensation are tied to their entries), your solution will only serve to create a barrier between you and your team. Select a system that makes time tracking as easy and painless as possible for your people, and avoid using the system for individual evaluation. Better yet, if your system can actually provide regular automated feedback to the individual team members, this could create an incentive for timely and accurate data entry. If you are considering a web-based solution, keep in mind that the nature of web applications often makes them more cumbersome to use than desktop tools. The option to use either a web entry method or a desktop client is ideal.

Can it answer my questions?

Do not get distracted by the hundreds of reports a project tracking system offers. Ask yourself what questions you have about your team's time usage and see if the system can answer them. Here are a few good ones to start with: "Are we on track?" "How much will this cost in the end?" "Which tasks are taking longer than we thought they would?" "How much money are we really making on this?" You get the idea.

Can it integrate with my planning software?

A tracking system is rarely an island unto itself. It should provide the capability to integrate with your planning software, estimating software, accounting software, third-party analysis and reporting tools, and any custom tools you use in your project work. You are unlikely to find a system that provides all this integration built-in: look instead for an open database back-end that offers you the ability to build your own integration as you need it.

Will it help me learn?

Ask yourself how you can use your project tracking system to improve the way you work in the future. How will you take the data collected for your current projects and turn it into useful insight for future work? This is how your tracking system will pay for itself, many times over.

In the project management community we recognize that time is just as scarce and valuable as money, and there is no factor more important to the eventual success or failure of our endeavors. Nevertheless, we constantly see examples of projects that are diligently planned but poorly tracked, if they are tracked at all.

The question is not whether you should track. You must track. Take the care to choose the right system for your organization. Be sure to evaluate it in real-world conditions before making your decision. Get the buy-in of the individual team members. Pick a system that everyone can live with, and start learning about how your organization really works.

Written by Gene Goykhman of Indigo Technologies. This article was originally published in the Project Times magazine, Summer 2001 issue. For more information about how you can set up an effective time tracking system, e-mail us at sales@indigo1.com.


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