Very few long-term projects make it to the closing stages without some kind of hindrance or bump in the road.

These obstacles range from minor issues to full-blown disasters. Anticipating these obstacles isn’t an exact science, and knowing the right time to step in to correct a project’s course is an art-form. Below we discuss the proper timing to intercede to save a project and, once you do, how to steer it back on the right track.

Timing is Everything

If you step in too early, the perceived delays and disruptions become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you wait too long, the issue is allowed to fester and can cause catastrophic project meltdowns. When is the right time to get involved? The simple answer is: before everyone is in agreement that the project is in trouble.

The easiest way to pick your entry point is to identify or develop your “canary in the coal mine.” In the early 20th century, canaries (which are susceptible to carbon monoxide) would be taken down into mine-shafts. If the canaries died, the miners knew there were dangerous gases present and would evacuate. Identify a report or key metric that can serve as your canary. If issues arise in these areas, you will know there is a larger and more dangerous problem lurking beneath the surface.

Canary Metrics

We’ve found the following metrics to be an excellent indicator of impending set-backs:

  • Labor Productivity: How well do your outputs reflect your inputs and initial labor estimate?
  • Actual Cost: What percentage of your budget have you spent, and does it line up with your projection?
  • Change Orders: How many changes have been ordered vs. being officially submitted to the client

A robust project management toolset should provide you with key “canary metrics” at a glance, so you can see the early warning signs and provide stakeholders with the data to backup your concerns.

Re-Evaluating Scope

What do you do once the project has shown signs of leaving the track and you’ve decided to intervene? The first step is to re-evaluate total scope and make sure it has been clearly broken out and can be managed. Additional scopes may have been added or changed after the planning stage, which is often the root cause of the delays and disruptions. Your goal in this stage is to audit the scope and identify the recovery efforts need to be implemented.

The audit is taken to ensure that the project still aligns with the original estimate. By breaking down scope using a standardized work breakdown structure (WBS), it becomes easier to identify which scopes are impacting the project’s success.

Redirecting Your Project

As issues are identified with scope, you will need to assess if any personnel or process changes need to be made. Redeploying resources to areas that require improved production or efficiency will go a long way in getting the project back on target. Re-assess the processes and make sure the essentials, such as change management and compliance processes are in place. It goes without saying, but do not compromise quality in order to accelerate schedule.

Trim Non-Essential Processes

At this stage in the project, it’s time to go lean. Eliminate any non-essential processes that are taking time and resources away from the recovery efforts of this scope. Rely on your time tracking and change order management tools to easily monitor if your changes are successfully recalibrating your project.

Track Canary Metrics From Start to Finish

Your project management technology should allow you to track key metrics from Day 1, and ease communication channels throughout the project. It should also serve as a depository for critical information and provide analytics and other measurements in real time.

Technology is not the answer to all project problems, but it is a powerful tool to help make your company as efficient as possible. The right tools will make it easier to identify when projects have gone awry and will play a key role in the recovery process.


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