Measure in the Middle


I ended up in the hospital last weekend (facial cellulitis – yuck). On my floor, we had people who were not too sick, who needed a few days to recover from an acute problem. Everyone's prognosis was good, and the average stay on the floor was 3 days.

Recovering from an acute illness takes good nutrition, sleep, and moderate exercise. The kitchen helps patients plan menus so they can make better choices. Sleep and exercise are very difficult to attain in a hospital, surprisingly enough.

Luckily, my previous overnight hospital experiences were limited to childbirth. In OB, they know to let sleeping mothers sleep. They don't wake you up to take your vital signs (Hey, you still alive?). However, on my floor, the nurses woke us up every 8 hours to make sure we were alive. They took blood pressure, temp, and oxygen levels. If your IV schedule doesn't line up with your vital sign schedule (as mine didn't), you have the opportunity to be awakened every 4 hours. I couldn't wait to go home to get some sleep.

However, the idea of continual trend measurement is a good one. Taking the few vital measurements daily (or weekly or monthly) in a project, and for some period for people management is a Very Good Idea. Knowing where you start is critical, which is why planning is so useful. Knowing where you end up is also critical, but measuring in the middle is even more important. Measuring in the middle helps you complete the work to obtain the result you want.

Continuous measurement of vital signs helps you see when things are starting to go awry. If my temp had gone up even half a degree, that would have been enough information for my doctors to help me in different ways. If your project has an area where the defects start to increase, or the number of reviews starts to decrease, or the estimations are off (either way), you have an opportunity to continue to watch the project or take some action based on the measurements. If you don't measure in the middle, you're surprised by the result.

One of my favorite project measurements is the number of people I need on a project and the number of people I actually have on a project. I find staffing curves help me organize the WBS in different ways, and help me talk about potential project organizations differently with management. Here's a project staffing table:

Month Planned Actual
1 2 2
2 4 2
3 6 4
4 6 6
5 6 6
6 6 8
7 not planned 8
8 not planned 8
total people-months 30 48

They'd originally planned a 6-calendar-month 30-person-month project. By the time I arrived (month 6, when they realized they weren't going to make it), the best we could do was an 8-calendar-month, 48-person-month project. During the senior management debrief, a bunch of the senior managers wrung their hands and asked why they couldn't make it. I showed them this table, and asked if they'd checked with the project manager at month 3. At month 3, it was clear the project they had wasn't the same one they had planned. If they'd measured staffing (as opposed to trying to push to meet milestones), they would have seen this.

Product-projects aren't the only ones that require interim measurement. Any cultural change “project” requires interim measurement. In one organization, we changed the culture from a “let's have a meeting but not agendas or action items” to using meetings to come to agreement on decisions and track action/obstacle progress. Here, we measured the number of meetings per week, and the number of action items accomplished per week. As long as the number of action items per week from the meeting continued to go up, it was ok if the number of meeting went up. If the number of meetings went up, but the action items didn't, we sent email like this: “Last week the total number of meetings increased. The number of action items didn't. Please make sure you track your action items, and if you're having trouble accomplishing your to-dos, don't be afraid to ask for help.”

Measure your work in the middle, looking for trends that will help you understand progress and health of your effort. Don't unnecessarily disturb the people, but make sure you've incorporated appropriate measurements.

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