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Using a burn down chart to measure project progress

What tools are helpful for ensuring projects are on track to meet stated requirements?

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Have you ever worked with someone who believed that once something is entered into MS Project, the project plan represents reality? I have. I think I know why they think that way - because they focus on measuring what's "easy to measure." It is easy to look backwards and measure progress to-date. You can see what work has been done, and you can see how long it took to get it done. From there, you simply extrapolate into the future. If the extrapolation is "on track," then so too must be the project.

Unfortunately, that's not actually true.

Have you ever heard the phrase "90% complete, 90% remaining?" The key insight from this clever (if you like project management jokes) phrase is that what you've accomplished so far doesn't really tell you what you still need to do.

When someone asks if you're "on track," what they actually want to know is if you (still) expect to complete the project "on time." The only way to answer this question is by balancing the estimate of how long it will take to finish the remaining work with the time that is remaining.

The best tool I've seen for showing this is by far is the burn down chart.

Instead of looking backwards to report how much time has been spent, the burn down chart looks forward and reports how much work is remaining. Instead of being forced to infer that having spent 90% of the allocated effort implies 10% remaining work, the burn down chart reports explicitly that 90% is remaining, leaving it to the reader to see if more than 10% of the originally estimated effort has been spent. It specifically reports "what is left to do?" instead of "what has already been done."

This change in philosophy (1) dramatically reduces the bias towards sunk-cost-based decision making, (2) incorporates changes that occur between the time of the initial estimate - both positive and negative, and (3) provides the information for forward-looking decisions.

The other key difference is that "what is left to do?" is measured in terms of "requirements to be delivered" not "effort (estimated to be) remaining." This is a more nuanced distinction - tracking material, relevant, delivery instead of tracking correlated, but not implicitly valuable effort. The measure of what a team can deliver is not how hard or much they work, but rather, what they build.

By measuring what is truly important - delivery, not effort - and reporting the information such that it directly - rather than by inference - provides the information to make the right decisions, the burn down chart stands head and shoulders above other tracking tools for understanding the status of a project.

This was first published in July 2012

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