By Phil Smith
It is always wise to use preventative measures to keep your IT project on track. Assigning a great project manager, utilizating formal risk management, utilizating of a system development process with tollgates, and implementing health checks are all examples of proactively working to keep things on track.
In this article I will discuss a few simple points to consider regarding the use of health checks for your project. A health check is a valuable tool for any project manager or business consultant. I welcome readers to respond back with additional thoughts or counterpoints.
Definition of a Health Check
While I’m open to other definitions, I need to capture at least a basic definition here to support the remainder of the article.
Health Check: An independent, unbiased review of the condition of a project. Ideally multiple health checks will be executed at various points in the project, with each one focusing on appropriate, critical success factors for the project, and appropriate critical maturity factors for the organization. The scope of a health check should be limited to a preset questionnaire that is designed to help the project and the project manager. Results should be reported in the context of degrees of compliance with required and recommended process steps. Results should also capture corrective follow-up steps, and should highlight risks and/or issues that require attention from the PM.
Point 1: Responsibility
We need to address organizations that are large enough to have the support of a program office, and organizations that are small and do not have a program office.
For large organizations, the question of “who is responsible for health checks” is easy to answer: it is the program office. Valid arguments could be made for organizational leadership, or for the project managers to be tagged with responsibility for the health check. However, I prefer the view of having a “strong” program office with the charter to integrate the health check with the SDP. Even though the project manager executes the SDP, the PMO should, based on triggers (from events within the SDP) step in and perform unbiased, “external” reviews of the project.
Small organizations without program offices can perform health checks. It would be tempting to allow project managers to do “self checks”. Think of this as examining yourself instead of going to the doctor. On the surface this notion has merit. You know how you feel, you can look in the mirror, and you can think about specific ailments and determine if you have symptoms. However, the leaders in the organization should be concerned that bias, or simply “being too close to the facts” could result in a self check skipping over low-lying risks or issues. To avoid this, leadership can assign an unbiased person such as a peer or another leader to conduct a health check. In this case, responsibility to make sure these self checks occur rests with organizational leadership. Organizational leadership needs to implement the appropriate checklists and put processes and enforcement mechanisms in place to make sure they occur.
In both cases I am arguing to put an unbiased person, who has appropriate authority and is not directly associated with the execution of the project, as the executioner of the health check. I am also arguing to put someone other than the project manager in the position responsible to make sure it occurs, and I am arguing to integrate it into the SDP.
Point 2: Focus
The content or focus of a health check will depend on the timing of that individual health check—specifically, where it is sitting in the overall process. A health check that is executed in the planning phase of a project will obviously explore the status of the contract, the high level plan, and the organizational commitment to execute. A health check that occurs mid-project may look at defects, adherence to process, plans, schedules, and delivery commitments. A health check executed at the end of a project may look at root cause analysis, corrective actions, customer satisfaction, and archiving. I could go on, as the potential number of areas to explore feels almost endless when you start to think about ensuring that PM’s are following the organization’s practice in any number of areas:
- Planning Processes
- Requirements Collection
- Schedule Development
- Activity Definition
- Activity Sequencing
- Risk Identification
- Procurement Planning
- Cost Management
- Monitoring & Controlling Processes
- Communications Management
- Integration Management
- Procurement Management
- Project Management / SDP
- Cost Control
- Earned Value Management
- Quality Management
- Resource Management
- Scope Management
- Performance Reporting
- Closing Processes
(note, received some help with this list from the Project Management Institute: http://search.pmi.org/default.aspx?q=health
If you design your health check questionnaire to explore all of these areas, or even a significant subset of these areas, you’ll drown your project manager and defeat the purpose. Leadership should work together with the program office to agree on the process areas that make the most sense to focus on for the whole organization. Then the health checks can be designed to focus on those areas. Once those areas are stabilized and engrained in the culture, it is safe to progress to higher maturity level process areas. Again, leadership and the PMO should work together to select those next process areas, based on the overall CMMi (http://www.sei.cmu.edu/cmmi/) progression plan.
For example, an organization that knows it needs to improve on cost management and budgeting should design health checks that focus on those areas, along with a few select other elements. Once cost management is on track at an organizational level, that organization can introduce additional areas in to the health check, like quality management.
Point 3: Results
Once a health check is complete, the PMO has to determine what to do with the results. I recommend caution here. Sharing unfiltered, project-specific results with leadership could end up with health checks morphing in to performance reviews for project managers, which would ultimately make them unsafe for participation. Serious problems that are project specific and need to be understood by leadership should already be visible to leadership, and if they are not then the PMO will have no choice but to escalate accordingly.
In general, project-specific health check results should be provided to the PM by the PMO, and should be used by the PM for corrective action, and by the PMO to contribute to general understanding of process maturity and organizational improvements. The PMO should summarize results across projects for leadership.
The PMO should follow up with the PM on all health check results to make sure the PM has had time and resources available to address all open items.