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Scaling a project control system

We frequently hear people talking about “scaling” a project control system.  It sounds like a good and logical thing to do, but what “scaling” means is subject to interpretation.  How do you execute on the idea of a scalable project control system?  What does “scalable” mean to you?

A good place to start this discussion is with a basic definition and an illustration:

“Scaling is the art of selecting the appropriate level of data detail, project control discipline, and range of project control practices to match a project’s characteristics.  The project control practices become more robust as the demands of the project increase.”

Scaling a Project Control System

Examples of project control practices include:

  • Defining a project’s scope of work requirements.
  • Developing a basis of estimate for the work effort.
  • Establishing and maintaining a schedule and budget plan.
  • Identifying and qualifying risk.
  • Measuring progress against the plan.
  • Estimating the cost at completion.
  • Managing changes.

Examples of project characteristics or attributes that influence the project control practices include the:

  • Scope or type of work. Are you developing a new product or providing support services?  Are the requirements well understood or will they change and evolve over time?
  • Level of complexity.
  • Is it a six month or a six year effort?
  • Total cost.
  • Level of risk. This can be dependent on the range and type of risks such as technical, schedule, resources, or cost.
  • Internal priorities. What is more important to management?  Meeting technical performance goals?  Schedule deadlines?  Budget or other financial targets?
  • Contractual requirements. Contract deliverables, reporting requirements, and other customer requirements always influence how you manage a project.

Getting the Foundation in Place

Can your management and project personnel agree upon what are the basic requirements to manage a project effectively?  Can you define what “effectively” means to you?  Have you documented it?  Do project personnel follow it?

Why is this important?  Without a basic set of requirements or common core components, there is no foundation to build upon to create a scalable system.

One place to start is to define what makes up the core components of your project control system.  These are the project control practices you currently follow or want to incorporate.  You may already have this in place – or perhaps you are working on enhancing your system to incorporate more robust industry best practices.  A common example is incorporating earned value management (EVM) practices to satisfy new business contractual requirements.  Every project control system needs continuous maintenance to ensure it keeps pace with current best practices, it provides relevant and actionable information, and project personnel are using it.

You may have built your practices around one or more industry standard models.  One model is the Project Management Institute (PMI) knowledge areas defined in their Standard for Project Management of a Project.  Another model is the Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI) process areas and maturity levels.  One more model is the EIA-748 Standard for Earned Value Management Systems (EVMS)[1] list of EVMS principles found in the introduction or the requirements defined in the Standard’s five process areas and 32 guidelines.

Defining the Core Components

Why is it important to define a set of core components for your project control system?  It becomes the common foundation to manage all projects – your guidance or policy statement for project control.

The goal is to create a base of best practice components a project manager selects from and implements to match the needs of each project.  Some components apply to all projects and others apply based on the project’s attributes.  The desired level of management visibility and control for the project determines the level of data detail and project control discipline.

What data detail are we talking about here?  Examples include the level of detail for the work scope requirements definition – the WBS data dictionary, basis of estimate, network schedule activities and identified resources, budget plan, risk categories, quantifiable backup data for performance measurement, variance analysis thresholds, and reporting.

The same is true for the level of project control discipline.  For example, you might maintain a basic baseline change log for a short duration, low risk project.  For a complex, high-risk project, you might require a change control board with more robust what-if analysis to manage and track baseline changes.

Establishing the Guidance for Project Managers

Your project control guidance or overall policy statement can be simple and basic.  Your process description and procedures provide the specifics on how to apply it in your business environment.

For example, perhaps the basic project control best practices you always want project managers to implement on their projects include:

  • Producing a product oriented work breakdown structure (WBS) and determining responsibility assignments, the project organization. This is required to define the entire scope of work as well as to establish the appropriate level of management control for work authorization.
  • Developing an integrated master schedule (IMS) to model and status the plan for completing the work with identified resources. The project manager should be able to demonstrate the schedule is executable within the project’s contractual objectives.
  • Producing a time phased budget baseline from the schedule plan. The project manager should be able to demonstrate the budget is within the project’s total cost objectives as well as any funding constraints.
  • Identifying a means to measure progress objectively using clear accomplishment or exit criteria at the level where work is performed.
  • Collecting the actual costs incurred for doing the work for comparison to the budget plan and performance.
  • Producing regular performance metrics to fit the project’s scope of work as well as timely and relevant data views for management visibility and control.
  • Maintaining estimate to complete data to forecast the project’s completion date and cost at completion.
  • Managing and tracking scope, schedule, and budget baseline changes.

Building on this foundation, the project managers implement other practice components based on the type of work and project attributes to maintain a desired level of visibility and control.  For example, this could include managing:

  • Risks, issues, and opportunities for high-risk projects. This includes the scope of qualitative and quantitative techniques used as well as the risk categories.
  • Staffing constraints, work teams composition and experience levels, or critical skills availability. A project may be highly dependent on scarce resources required to do the work.
  • Requirements definition, volatility, and traceability. This is essential for development projects with a high level of to be determined or to be resolved product performance levels or attributes.
  • Technical performance compliance. Award fees or other performance criteria may be dependent on meeting these goals.
  • Supply chain performance and quality – this includes material, purchased equipment or parts, and purchased software or services. The success of a project may be dependent on one or two critical suppliers.

This approach sets the expectations for the project managers to apply the basic project control best practices with the understanding they can tailor the implementation within that framework.

Why Make the Effort?

What’s the benefit for defining this foundation of core best practices?  You can establish a reliable base level of consistency and quality in the type of scope, schedule, and budget data available to corporate management.  Management can use the data for project portfolio analysis, business and financial planning or reporting, and new business development.  Your new business development team and proposal writers have a compelling and proven basis for the management section content in proposals.

The next topic on scaling a project control system will continue this discussion.  How do you build a framework to help project managers select the right components as well as determine the right level of data detail and project control discipline?

Are you working on establishing a base of project control best practices? PrimePM can help you assess your project control system, gather fact-based information so you can make informed decisions, and define your action plan to improve your system.


[1] SAE International charges a fee for a copy of the Standard. As an option, see the NDIA IPMD web site, Division Guides and Resources page, and download a copy of their EVMS Intent Guide to the EIA Standard for EVMS.

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