When I was on the IBM Corporate Technical Staff, I used to go around to the various locations around the world and “help” them with their projects. I visited with a myriad of project management people at all levels and on all types and sizes of projects. One of questions I would ask each person I spoke to was “what do you look at in your everyday management of your project?” Most people showed me some version of their project plan: tasks, checkpoints, people assignments, and so on. But one day, I was shown something that I had never seen before, something so useful that I have shared it with every project team I have worked with since.
What I saw was a graph with time running left to right and top to bottom. The origin at the top left represents the start date of the project. The scale of both the horizontal and vertical axes is the same. The horizontal axis is labeled “plan dates” and the vertical axis is labeled “actual dates.” The initial plan for the project is represented by checkpoints (or “milestones” if you prefer) on a horizontal line. The vertical position of the horizontal line is the actual date the plan was created or modified.
Here’s what this looks like:
The project in this example starts in mid January and has three checkpoints shownin mid-May, mid-June, and mid-September. The completion date of the project is mid-November. Keep in mind that this is merely an example. A real project will (and should) have checkpoints more frequently. The 45° line running down and to the right shows where the plan meets reality.
Assume that the project runs for a month and that all of the plan dates remain stable. The chart, drawn in mid-February looks like:
Note that a horizontal line has been drawn to denote the current date.
Now, assume that another 6 weeks has gone by. Today’s date is April 1, and checkpoint one has been missed and is now two weeks late and counting, but no new completion date has been established. In mid-March, noticing that checkpoint one was missed without a new date, the person managing checkpoint 2 has moved this completion date out a month. However checkpoint 3 and the completion date remain unchanged. Here’s what the chart would look like on April 1:
This chart is showing a common project phenomenon: early checkpoints being missed or delayed with later checkpoints and the overall end date remaining unchanged. Seeing a chart like this should cause the overall project manager to ask some tough questions.
Here’s one more peek at the status of this hypothetical project as of May 1 when the plan is reset. Assume that checkpoint 1 has been rescheduled to complete mid-may (altogether a two month slip), and that and additional checkpoint has been established. The overall end date has been moved to December 1.
Obviously, this example doesn’t show how to handle anything that could happen, but it turns out that this graphical approach has handled everything that I’ve ever encountered and reveals the status of a project along with its history better than any single display I’ve ever seen.
One final note: One of the symptoms of project managers trying to cover up problems is that they will issue a new plan and never again show the original plan. They do this because too many tough questions arise out of the comparison. Given that most complex projects change their plans several times during the project execution, having access to history and being able to relate the checkpoints of a new plan to the older versions is extremely useful.
For this reason, a colleague of mine once called this chart the “You-can-run-but –you-can’t-hide” chart.