In a recent consulting assignment we realized that there was some lack of understanding of the whole system of project cost control, how it is setup and applied. So we decided to write up a description of how it works. Project cost control is not that difficult to follow in theory, it is displayed in graphical form in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Cost control concept
First you establish a set of reference baselines. Then, as work progresses, you monitor the work, analyze the findings, forecast the end results and compare those with the reference baselines. If the end results are not satisfactory then you make adjustments as necessary to the work in progress, and repeat the cycle at suitable intervals. If the end results get really out of line with the baseline plan, you may have to change the plan. More likely, there will be (or have been) scope changes that change the reference baselines which means that every time that happens you have to change the baseline plan anyway.
But project cost control is a lot more difficult to do in practice, as is evidenced by the number of projects that fail to contain costs. It also involves a significant amount of work, as we shall see, and we might as well start at the beginning. So let us follow the thread of project cost control through the entire project life span.
And, while we are at it, we will take the opportunity to point out the proper places for several significant documents. These include the Business Case, the Request for (a capital) Appropriation (for execution), Work Packages and the Work Breakdown Structure, the Project Charter (or Brief), the Project Budget or Cost Plan, Earned Value and the Cost Baseline. All of these contribute to the organization's ability to effectively control project costs.
The way it works is described in the following pages.
I am indebted to my friend Quentin Fleming, the guru of Earned Value, for checking and correcting my work on this topic.