"S" Curves Are a Project's Best Crystal Ball


It’s very easy to track costs. Accountants insist that we update the financial books every month. As a result, month-by-month tracking of costs in various categories is simply a matter of analyzing and graphing the data. Forward-looking data is harder though. That exercise entails that you know where you are going and how you are going to get there.

Good projects usually have a scope, budget and schedule.  In each phase there is a certain set of activities that demonstrate progress.  If you’re tracking engineering, drawings and design documents may be the right thing to measure.  If you’re interested in the construction progress, perhaps looking at cubic meters of concrete placed is the right metric to examine.

In either case, you know the total number of deliverables or volume of concrete that needs to be completed and usually you can assign a weight and a timetable as to when each unit is required. Based on the units, weighting and timeline, one can develop an “S” curve showing planned progress. Once developed, the team can track actual progress against the same curve. As a deliverable is issued, the team gets credit for that weighting on that date.

Tracking actual performance against the planned performance on the “S” curve shows clearly the historical performance against what’s left to go, and what was originally planned. It makes very clear the volume and production rates required for the remaining work, and gives all who analyze the chart a sense of the challenges ahead, as compared to the work to date.

This is a forward-looking KPI that sheds light on what’s left to be done and when. As you may be able to tell, I am a big fan of “S” curves for tracking progress on projects. They can be used to get a picture of the overall project, but the real value is at the production level. They’re an invaluable “crystal ball” helping the project team to focus on the next set of activities or deliverables.