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Project Recovery Part 3 – Leading Indicators of Trouble

Is your project in trouble?

Welcome to the third of a five post series dealing with the first stage of project recovery – recognising the signs of trouble. In the previous two posts, we discussed leading indicators of trouble during planning and kick-starting phase of projects in Part 1. In Part 2 of the series, we looked at the execution phase and now in Part 3 we will take a look at the close-out phase.


The Closing Out Stage

You may well think that at this stage there is no need to think about recovery and that any chance for improvement has passed you by. Nothing could be further from the truth – a lot of time and money is lost at this stage of projects. Projects are rarely handed over as one big deliverable, rather there is a flow of deliverables over time. The experience we gain from early deliverables can highlight upstream problems that we can still fix, and if they are not fixed, we need to have a discussion about how we will live with the reality and what can be done longer term to discuss these items – possibly by a totally different team.

The first indicator of possible trouble is that the handover of parts of the project are slower than anticipated. This can have a number of root causes, but you need to get to the true root cause and fix it – otherwise it will only get worse as it becomes a normal routine. It could be that there is a mismatch in expectations – in which case you need to refer back to the charter and key design documentation. If it is not resolved by this, then the issue should be escalated to the project manager to deal with – this may well indeed the key stakeholder

The next indicator to keep an eye out for is that handover deadlines are missed Рhopefully you have these clearly stated in your schedule and are monitoring them. The emergence of delays here could either be that the reporting to date has been overly optimistic and now you are beginning to get a true story of where things are at. If this is true, then you need to do a root and branch review with all parties and make it clear that misleading reporting will not be tolerated, as it is jeopardising everybody’s chances of success. The other cause could be delayed handover as discussed above. The key here is to take this seriously and get to the root of the problem; only then can you start to build a solution to that will fix it.

As you go through the handover process, there may be arguments about what makes up complete and why are people not accepting the work products – these are indicators of something that is either broken or missing and needs to be sorted out if it not to cause bigger trouble down the line. This indicates that you are missing a clear handover process. Deliverables should complete their handover at the end of a projects but the process should be a continuous one whereby at each critical stage the end customer is buying in to the deliverable as it becomes more and more tangible – for the case where you find you either have a broken process or no clear process, all you can do is arbitrate and make sure you fix it for the rest of the project.

The next items that acts as a leading indicator of trouble is the almost complete syndrome, characterised by missing deliverables – nearly everything is finished, but there are some small items missing. This may be simply a little attention is required to close it out, but it may also be that there is a lack of attention to detail and some items are not getting the attention they deserve – if this is the case, then you need to sort it out for this case and for all potential future cases.

Hopefully you are now at the latter stages of your project and you are looking at leading indicators of a positive outcome – you expect that the headcount would tail off as work is completed – however, if headcount does not reduce as anticipated, then there is likely some sort of uncomfortable story behind this – the sooner everyone comes to terms with this the better.

The flip side of the slower reduction in headcount is the loss of key people earlier than desired – this can have a very negative effect as there may be unfinished work such as transfer of knowledge to the client team, some sticky issues that have not yet been resolved but need an in depth history of how they arose and possible solutions – keep an eye out for this.

Now for a real horror scenario; the project has progressed well and with little cost or schedule variance; then it seems to become stuck, with only minor schedule progress, but the meter is still running. This is a troubling sign and you need to get real with the remaining scope of work and what is required to finish it from a time and cost perspective. The sooner you know the true variance, the better off you will be.

Another leader indicator that you will begin to see at the closing stage is quality issues. If this arises, you need to get a true picture and hopefully you have an opportunity to discuss future deliverables. Get to the bottom of this issue as quickly and decide how you are going to discuss it – when you make your decision, communicate it to the full tea. Bear in mind that the end for some vendors may come in the middle of the execution life cycle – take an example where we are purchasing a machine from a machine builder – before shipping to your facility, you will conduct a factory acceptance test – issues arising here should be dealt with at the vendors premises as they have the people and equipment to resolve them, which will not be the case when you get to your own facility.

That is a huge myriad of leading indicators. The good news is that they are leading indicators, which means that when detected, they give you an opportunity to resolve problems before they have had an opportunity to inflict too much damage. These indicators are only useful if they are treated with respect and people embrace them by dealing with the facts of the project and seek to improve performance – otherwise they will only act as sources of frustration and arguments – yet another sign of trouble.

In summary:

  1. Slower handover progress than planned
  2. Missed handover milestones – confirm that the handover is indeed a true reflection of progress and not a bottle of smoke.
  3. Lack of clarity on handover process leading to arguments and delays
  4. The almost complete syndrome – loose ends
  5. Slower reduction of people working on the project than planned
  6. Loss of key staff earlier than planned
  7. Progress falls off a cliff
  8. Quality issues
  9. Unanticipated complexity
  10. Mismatch in expectation
  11. Nobody to accept the deliverables


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