Published here August 2007.


Musings Index

Managing Project Metrics

"Metrics" is a popular word these days. It seems that every project manager and everyone working on a project needs them, so what are they? Well, it turns out that "Metrics" are nothing more than "A theory or system of measurement" and isn't that what we are supposed to have been doing on projects all along? How else can we know how we are doing, where we are at, and how we are going to get the rest of the way to where we want to be?

But today, that's no longer sufficient - people want to know the results of those measurements post-project so they can determine how successful the project was. That's a diplomatic way of expressing the thought "How good a job did you do on the project" and usually framed in terms of: "Was it on time and within budget?" With a little more forethought that might be extended to "And to specifications, requirements, (you name it), and customer satisfaction?" Never mind the problems, (er, risk events), you encountered, the questioner probably would not have done any better, because at this point they are asking the wrong questions!

What they should be asking is how successful is the product? And that can only be measured after the project is completed, perhaps long after, and typically measured by those who promoted the project in the first place. But the definition of "success" itself is a vague term, so let's be more specific: "Did we obtain expected value or even best value?" That question should take you back to the justification in the project's Business Case (your project does have a Business Case justification, doesn't it?) and the Project Charter that shows how that justification is to be achieved.

Still, you are not going to get best value unless you track such things as:

  • Scope containment
  • Quality of deliverables
  • Duration
  • Cost
  • Risks
  • Effort
  • Productivity
  • Stakeholder involvement, including project team performance

And sorting your way through this lot, looking for the "best" feels rather like unraveling a bowl of spaghetti - it just gets more entangled the more you dig into it. What you need is good "judgment", based on evidence provided by measurement (make that "metrics). Got it? Only this way can we find our way through the maze and the precise route to the required outcome. And with judgment comes accountability. When you make a decision then you will be accounted for it, and you can only really be comfortable with that if you have dependable evidence that you can rely on - in other words, good metrics. So, we are told that the connection between all of these goes something like this.[1]

"Best value requires dependable evidence that is purposeful
  • To obtain "best value" you must improve performance
  • To improve performance you must act to fulfill a purpose with due care
  • To act you must take responsibility
  • To accept responsibility you must be able to justify your actions, i.e. be accountable
  • To account for your actions you must have good reasons
  • Good reasons must be based on evidence that the purpose will be fulfilled
  • To assess the evidence you must use judgment
  • That judgment must be objective to be convincing
  • To make a convincing judgment, you must measure
  • For a measurement to be a justification for action, it must be dependable.

So, not only must we be making the right measurements but also the dependability of our chosen measurements is critical. There appear to be four conditions for an ideal measurement to be dependable. While sufficient, these conditions are not necessarily essential although anything less reduces the level of comfort, which is typical in the case of making judgments. The four conditions are:[2]

  • The state of the system to be measured must be clearly definable, not fuzzy, ambiguous or imprecise
  • And it must be sufficiently stable while the repeated measurements are being taken
  • The measurement process must be repeatable - that is we can measure it more than once and still get effectively the same answer
  • "Effectively the same answer" means that the actual readings are within an acceptable level of tolerance to be considered dependable.

Note that dependability is not a substitute for truth but rather is a currency through which we can demonstrate the degree to which we have evidence that an action will fulfill an intended purpose.

It seems to me that these statements are exactly what the project manager's job is all about.

1. Blockley, D., FICE, & P. Godfrey, FICE, Abstracted from: Measuring judgments to improve performance, New Civil Engineer International, April, 2006, p29
2. Ibid, p30
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