Critical Action Planning – How to Manage and Measure Scope and Progress

Scopes change. It’s practically a law of physics. Even if the overall project goals don’t really change, we often find that the project is harder to accomplish than we originally thought. During the project we often discover a need for new features, or our regulatory strategy changes.

Critical Action Planning makes it easy to incorporate and quantify scope changes. In fact, simple quantification of scope and progress is one of the key benefits of the Critical Action Planning approach. It’s a by-product of the technique, that requires virtually no extra work.

Here’s how.

Tracking Project Scope

As I’ve previously described, the Project Plan is a comprehensive list of Project Tasks, with an estimate of Work-units for each task. The sum of Work-units for all the tasks in the project is defined as the the Project Scope. Can’t get much easier than a sum in Excel.

So now, imagine the starting Project Scope is 2000 person-days of Work units, and then imagine that three weeks into the project we discover the need for a new feature. We simply add a set of new tasks into the Project Plan, with estimated Work-units for each new task. We then re-sum the Project Scope. Voila. New day, new tasks, new scope.

The Project Scope changes over time, as tasks are added or subtracted, or estimates are changed. Tasks might be revised during task prioritization or during WIP assessment. Each week, the current project scope should be recorded, and the weekly Project Scope can be plotted to see how the Project Scope has changed over time. We can annotate the plot, if we like, with the reason for changes in scope. If we don’t change tasks, but decide we need to revise our Work-unit estimates for a set of tasks, we simply make the changes in the Project Plan and re-sum the Project Scope. Pretty simple.

Tracking Project Progess

Projects progress as as tasks are completed. We quantify this with work units. Halfway through the project duration, we hope that half of the project’s Work Units are complete and that half remain.

To track progress, we keep track of Work Units remaining. Each assessment cycle, as we complete Project Tasks in a Critical Action plan, we record the remaining Work-units for that task as zero. For example, suppose we have a task to complete a drawing for a new part, estimated at one person-day of work. Whether it actually takes a half of a day or two days, when we complete the task, we set the remaining work to zero. By setting the remaining work to zero, we are getting credit for completing one person-day of Project Scope. In other words, we get credit in our plan for completing the estimated number of work units, not the actual number of work units expended. As long as the project estimates are reasonable, this works fine.

If we did not finish the Project Task, we simply estimate the Work Units still needed to complete the Project Task. If we didn’t finish our drawing, and we still have half a day’s work left, we set the remaining work to 0.5 person-days. I’ve seen remaining work be larger than the original estimate, when tasks have run into some obstacle. This is okay too. It’s reality. If remaining work builds up, we need more capacity to get the project done on time.

Backlog tasks have their full estimated Work Units remaining. Incomplete tasks have their recently estimated remainder Work Units remaining. Sum these all up to get the Remaining Scope.

If we assume that the Project Scope is completed linearly over the Project Duration (the number of weeks that the project is scheduled to run), then at any point in the project we can estimate the cumulative work units that we hope will be completed by that point in the project schedule. In practice we do this weekly. Each week, we calculate the Cumulative Work Plan as follows: divide the current Project Scope by the Project Duration and multiply by the number of weeks that have elapsed since the project started. For example, if a Project has 2000 Work-units of scope, and is projected to take 40 weeks, then by the end of week 9 our Cumulative Work Plan should be 2000 Work-units / 40 weeks multiplied by 9 weeks, or 450 Work-units.

We can easily calculate the Cumulative Work Complete as the Project Scope minus the Remaining Scope. Remember that Cumulative Work Complete is not the real effort expended. We only get credit for each Project Task’s estimated Work Units. That’s ok. It’s the forward-looking Remaining Scope that we care most about.

Each week we can compare the Cumulative Work Complete to the Cumulative Work Plan as a metric of progress. We can visualize trends by plotting the Cumulative Work Complete and the Cumulative Work Plan over time. It only takes a little math to calculate the number of weeks ahead of plan or behind plan.

Two simple plots (Project Scope over time, and Cumulative Work Complete and the Cumulative Work Plan over time) make a great start to a weekly project progress report. Annotated, they tell a great story about the project.

Project Scope: The sum of the Work-Units for all tasks in a project at any point in time.
Remaining Scope: The sum of the remaining Work-Units for all tasks in a project at any point in time.
Project Duration: Number of weeks that the project is scheduled to run.
Cumulative Work Plan: The cumulative amount of Work-Units that should be complete at a given point in the project, to be on track for timely project completion.
Cumulative Work Complete: Project Scope minus Remaining Scope.


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