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The Project Control Cycle
By Martin Webster

The Deming Cycle (or PDCA cycle) was introduced by Dr. W. Edwards Deming during the 1950s as a universal improvement methodology. The concept, which is founded on statistical quality control, is simple: continual1 improvement. Whilst this method has its root in manufacturing and quality control it follows basic cybernetic theory. That is, a closed signal loop where there is a circular causal feedback mechanism.

Similarly, in project management the project manager needs to create an environment where any change to the project plan is fed back as information. Typically, this is depicted as the project control cycle. The application of the project control cycle cannot and should not be understated; it is the raison d’être for the project manager.

During each stage of the project it is essential that the project manager continually forecasts and re-forecasts the three areas of project benefit viability: time, cost, and scope. And to do this effectively, the project manager needs to plan. That is, know what you are going to do next and know how risk may disrupt your plans.

Monitoring and Controlling a Project

Tracking and managing progress is crucial to project success. If you don’t do it you won’t know where you’re at and when you’re going to arrive at your destination. The project control cycle assumes that there’s an agreed plan. Once this is in place the project manager needs to continually measure progress against the plan, re-forecast to the end of the stage (or project) and take any steps necessary to bring the project back on course.

How you achieve this is a matter of choice. My preference is to estimate when a task or product will be completed and report on the activity in one of three ways:

  • Completed
  • Not started
  • Started but not completed

What’s more, concentrate on what’s important – use critical path analysis – and that which isn’t started.

Managing Risk

Risks affect the balance of project benefit viability. Whilst risk management alone will not eliminate risks altogether it may be possible to avoid risks in some instances or minimize the disruption in others with careful planning. That is, you really need to address risk at the start of the project so that contingency plans are prepared and their potential impact minimized. Pre-empting future issues is key. Once the project is started you should:

  • Regularly maintain and monitor the risks with the project team and reassess their proximity, likelihood of occurrence, and seriousness of impact. It’s always a good idea to schedule the more risky activities early to reduce their impact.
  • Log all new risks and opportunities. Categorise and report on the action being taken to deal with them in regular project progress reports.
  • Use scenario or sensitivity analysis to check and predict the impact of possible outcomes.

And finally, if things don’t go according to plan and you need to revisit your schedule do this under strict change control.

1I prefer to use continual rather than continuous because I see activities such as forecasting, reviewing risk, or making improvement as a cyclic activities. That is, I see it as a wave. Activities are regular occurrences: monthly, weekly, or even daily. In contrast, continuous implies that these things are done all the time, i.e. a continuum.

Martin Webster is Systems Support Manager at Leicestershire County Council. He has over ten years project and programme management experience. Martin’s professional interests include project management, leadership, and strategic information systems planning. Read more at Martin Webster, Esq.

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