Real-Time Control: Five ways to drive your project safely
Posted on: March 3rd, 2014 by

Barnaby Mercer

Barnaby Mercer has over twenty-years of experience in project controls, and has worked with some of the world’s largest organizations to improve their project performance. He specializes in analyzing processes and systems to improve the performance of project teams. His recent work involves developing a mission control system to deliver optimized project behavior.

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Out of control? Imagine driving a car where your instrumentation was not up-to-date: the fuel gauge shows the status as it was last week; the speed dial is thirty minutes behind; and your warning lights only come on after the failure they were supposed to alert you to. Worse, you don’t even know how far behind your information is. Dangerous, right? Even with a perfect memory, this historical information is useless for making rational decisions about the current environment. It gets even worse if your response to the information also requires a long lead time: push the brake and the car begins slowing tomorrow…

Ok, so it’s a ridiculous example to make a point, but project control teams are often forced to operate in a similar environment. All too often, these teams are forced to use last month’s data to make decisions about today. Without real-time metrics, the situation can be as risky and unpredictable as the high-latency car. Should you trust out-of-date information when making decisions affecting millions of dollars? Can you operate safely and accurately when your decisions take too long to take effect?

Granted, a degree of latency is acceptable and necessary, but where does the boundary between acceptable and dangerous lie, and how do you find out which side you’re on? How do you know when your information is old, or when the risk has grown beyond acceptable? And what happens when you make a decision based on old information? It’s difficult to know. The only thing one can do to mitigate the risk, is to reduce latency as much as possible: to make one’s information as current as one can. It might not be practical or necessary to get second-by-second feedback, but the closer one can get to this, the lower the risk becomes.

So how can one reduce latency in a project environment, and ensure better control? The answer to this lies in looking at the processes involved, identifying steps where data hits a bottle-neck and removing those obstacles. The following principles can be used to facilitate a smoother flow of data within a project.

1. Automation

You’re a qualified and experienced professional, not a robot. Use your time more effectively by developing automated processes and delegate the tedious, repetitive work to the computer.

Look at areas of your process where data is being transferred manually between systems. Possible indicators are the use of Excel spreadsheets to record information, manual uploads, and information copied by hand from other sources. Look for repetitive tasks, the ones that feel like you’re trying to eat soup with a fork. They’re consuming your time for intelligent and creative work each month. Eliminate them! Computers are fantastic at repetitive tasks; use them to simplify your workflow.

The obvious place to do this is for data transfer. Eliminate manual capture: pull data from other systems using programmable interfaces. Decide on a suitable schedule – e.g. 24 hours – and set up transfers to ensure the latest information is gathered at these intervals. Validate against expected formats. Identify common data issues and code for these – prevent errors from propagating through to your reporting by ensuring that automated validation is conducted.

2. Capture live data

Provide your team with the tools they need to capture live data. For example: have progress information entered directly as the measurements are taken, or push expenditure requests as soon as they are raised. With improved real-time information gathering, alerts can be configured to warn of overruns, identify exceptions and other anomalies as they occur. It is always better to know as early as possible when a problem has arisen.

3. Mobile technology

Use RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds – or email – to push notifications directly from your control system to your reader. Have your mobile device alert you as soon as there’s an issue, or simply to keep up-to-date with major changes as they occur. Receive information that you need as soon as it becomes available. Schedule alerts to warn you when expected information has not been received on time. Push a button to remind your engineers that their data has not yet been supplied.

4. Set up a dashboard

With automated processes, mobile access and live updates, your view of the project’s performance can be further improved with a dashboard. Have all the vital information presented in a quick and easy-to-read format. Select the key information – and only the key information – and have this visible together in one place. Use graphs and dials to allow you to read everything at a glance. The less time you have to spend reading and interpreting information, the more time you have available for thinking creatively. And make it browser-enabled so that you can access the information from whichever device you have on hand.

5. Push the tempo

Just as a drummer sets the tempo in a band, a project typically has a strong beat: a pulse that synchronizes the team and its activity. Projects usually operate with a low-resolution tempo of one month – dictated by the reporting requirements of the parent organization. At the end of the month, there is a rush to produce the key reports. This end-of-month reporting cycle provides the key information to stakeholders, but reduces their opportunity to react intelligently to emerging situations. What if these reports were automatically available at any time during the cycle, and monthly reporting was as simple as taking a snapshot of the reporting period on a particular day? What if the reporting cycle could be pushed down to two weeks? One week? How about daily? Wouldn’t that improve the ability of decision makers to respond to new information? And wouldn’t it take the pressure off the project team if the effort was reduced to as close to zero as possible? With the previous steps in place, this becomes much closer to being reality.

The holy grail of project control is to have all information available immediately and easily. Knowing exactly what the status of the project is at all times and being able to make the best decisions as soon as possible is the ultimate goal. This ideal is, of course, aspirational, and the reality is that there will always be a delay between the world and your view of it. The aim is to reduce this delay as far as possible and make you, the project professional, as effective as possible.