So why are dashboards often ineffective as a project management tool? Is there too much information, not enough information, or the wrong information? Do project managers lack the skills to read and understand what the dashboard is telling them, or do they lack the confidence that they can trust what the dashboard says? Are dashboards an appropriate tool for managing projects?
To answer these questions we need to understand what a dashboard can do well and what it cannot do well. Then we can consider how to best use it in the project environment. Finally, we need to determine how to prepare and equip our project managers to use a dashboard.
A business dashboard is an information management tool used to track key business metrics and other data relevant to managing a business unit, department or process. Often dashboard use data visualization tools to display the metrics in charts and graphs and allow drill down to underlying detail data elements.
The dashboard metaphor is very applicable. The driver of a vehicle does not drive by looking solely at their dashboard; rather they are watching the road and frequently glancing at the dashboard to determine if everything is operating as expected. If the dashboard shows they are going to fast or slow they change their speed. If it shows that they are low on fuel, they stop for a fill-up. If the warning lights are on or a gauge is in the “red zone” it indicates a problem and they begin to take preventive and corrective action to restore the vehicle to a proper operating condition. The same is true with business dashboards only instead of a vehicle it is a business unit, department or process.
Think about your dashboard for a moment. It requires real-time information to be helpful. Showing the speed that we were traveling yesterday is meaningless. Showing the fuel level of the vehicle from a month ago is useless information. Likewise, the dashboard must provide information about key performance indicators to be helpful. For instance, providing the temperature reading of the outside air temperature does not tell me if the engine is running hot. Measuring the acceleration time from 0 to 60 mph may give you bragging rights at the drag strip, but that measure is irrelevant if I am driving across town to visit relatives. So instead my dashboard shows fuel consumption and if I entered the address in the GPS, it shows time and mileage to my destination which are far more practical.
So what is the implication for project management? First, the project dashboard must have real-time information. That means we can’t wait for a weekly or monthly team meeting to update the dashboard. Don’t get me wrong. Those meetings can be very useful team integration and team decision-making. But waiting for a week or a month to find there is a problem with the activities on the critical path is unacceptable. This means that either the project team must gather at least daily to update status or there must be some other system measurement that is collected frequently and can be used to track project performance.
Agile/Scrum projects use the first approach. They gather every day, sometimes more often, for a scrum meeting to update their Scrum Board and Burndown Chart – which are two dashboard views for an Agile/Scrum project. Some collaborative project management software attempts to provide real-time information through daily status reporting of project tasks by all project team members.
When properly implemented both of these systems can work well. However, not every project is suited to Agile/Scrum (see Blog post “Choosing the Best Project Management Methodology”). For the other approach, setting up the baseline project plan in the project management software can be very time consuming and frequent changes are almost impossible to maintain. Not to mention, now all the project team must be trained and disciplined to provide status on project tasks.
So what is the answer? Forget about project dashboards? Add people to the project team that spend all their time creating and maintain dashboard data? How about create a pretty chart with random data we can easily measure, give it to the PMO and hope they leave us alone? Of course none of these are palatable. Instead, we must find a way to simplify the dashboard so it can be easily created and maintained, but still have useful information.
Project Dashboard Metrics
Where do we start, start with the risk register. Think about your automobile dashboard again. If your vehicle was built during the last 30 years, it has tons of sensors embedded in it. All of that information does not get displayed on the dashboard, only information useful to the driver while driving. In particular, information that tells the driver if there is a problem. So your project dashboard should provide meaningful real-time information about project risks. Now there may not be a direct measure of risks, but often there is an indirect measure or leading indicator of a risk.
Let’s say you have resource availability as a major risk on your project. Track the number of hours spent on project tasks by all project team members each day. You don’t need a breakdown by task and by minute where they spent their time; just determine if they were available. Or let’s say that a major risk is the late delivery of an item from a vendor. Request weekly status reports until within one month, then daily status reports of the vendor’s schedule progress. You don’t need a full vendor audit each time, just a schedule update (which you should periodically validate). This provides an early warning of a potential delay and gives you a chance to take corrective or preventive action.
The point is to determine the simplest way to get real-time data about the risk condition and place that on your dashboard. This doesn’t overwhelm the project team with unnecessary reporting about low risk, routine activities. Yet it provides valuable insight about the things that the project manager should be most focused upon. Remember you are not driving the vehicle by only watching the dashboard; rather you use the dashboard to confirm that all is running well or to take corrective and preventive action.