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Middle of the Project Blues: Why You Need to Use Earned Value Management and the Work Breakdown Structure

For those of you who have tackled a home improvement project, you will come to a point where semi-assembled parts are scattered all around you. This is usually when someone comments on how it looks like you will never finish what you started. With some of the more complex projects, even you doubt that you will ever finish it. You frantically check the picture on the box to see how close your random assemblage of parts looks to that beautiful looking grill. You have the middle of the project blues.

In project management, your picture on the box is the work breakdown structure while Earned Value Management tells you how well you are doing in recreating that picture on the box. Using both of these tools will help you avoid the blues when you are in the middle of a project and wondering if your project will succeed on time and within the budget.

The concept behind the work breakdown structure (WBS) is simple: you start with the project product and begin dividing up the product into major deliverables or tasks.You divide these deliverables/tasks into smaller deliverables/tasks until you reach the work package. The definition of a work package can vary but it usually means a deliverable or task where it is a manageable piece of work that makes no sense to divide up further. I like to refer to work packages as “something you can put your arms around” in a figurative sense. The WBS should follow the “100% rule” in that all of the project tasks and deliverables must be somewhere in the WBS.

The WBS tells you where you are going but earned value management (EVM) tells you how much you are spending to get to the final project result and if you are making good time. EVM is a set of a calculations using your project schedule and budget. After you initially set a baseline, you can run various calculations as tasks are completed that compare your progress to the baseline. All measures are in monetary terms thus reinforcing the principle that time is money. There are several different calculations but they all have to do with comparing planned progress versus actual progress to determine if your efforts have earned a positive value or negative value.

Now, I am not telling project managers anything new but I am surprised that some new project managers don’t update their WBS or run the EVM calculations more frequently during their projects. Doing so will help avoid the blues when you are in the middle of the project without knowing if you are on schedule, within the budget, and if your project product will look just like the picture on the box.

What are some other ways to avoid the blues? How do you keep your project team and stakeholders from sharing the blues?

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Profile Photo Josh Nankivel

I enjoy using visual systems. My teams and I use Kanban, and so we have kanban boards where all of our work is displayed. We have systems besides this to be able to project milestone dates with reasonable confidence, but the visualization of the kanban board is awesome for having a true ‘gut feeling’ about how work is progressing.

Profile Photo Jaime Gracia

I am surprised that project managers (and not only new ones) not only don’t don’t update their WBS or run the EVM calculations more frequently during their projects, but never use a WBS or EVM when they should be!

The WBS, at a minimum, is the fundamental product (or should be) used to track scheduling goals, in addition to resourcing each work package for an overall project cost rollup. Further, the WBS should serve as the foundation for the creation of the government’s cost estimate.

Combined with EVM, the WBS helps project managers keep track of their project to ensure cost, schedule, and performance goals are being met.

That of course assumes the project has them. Having the contractor say “trust me,” and then having them submit monthly reports that shows they are performing flawlessly does not help or inspire the level of confidence that EVM analysis can provide decision makers.

Doing so will help avoid the blues when you are in the middle of the project without knowing if you are on schedule, within the budget, and if your project product will look just like the picture on the box.

Profile Photo Herman Gaines

In my sometimes simplistic view of the project managment world, I like to think of all the wonderful road trips I’ve taken with my family. Break out the map and plot the trip then periodically look at the map for current location (progress) and how far we have left to go (forcasting). If the map is of England and I’m headed to Chicago, the map is no help. Enter the WBS (map) in Project Management. Not having the updated WBS could mean we are using an outdated or even the wrong map. Actually drawing the highlighted progress on the map helps the whole family see and understand progress and forcasting. In the middle of a long trip it is essential to reinforce where we’re going and when we will arrive. Enter EVM. The mathematical equvilent to the highlighter on the map. Mid Project Blues can be minimized by the simple process of having the current map prominently displayed and the “You are here” pin easily distinguishable. Let me also suggest that a seasoned PM knows that Mid Project Blues are inevitable and has planned for them early. Let’s not forget that the team will need encouragement and the PM is the cheer leader when one is necessary. The human factor should not be overlooked.