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Project Management Communication

Dear Dave
We have put in place several initiatives designed to increase overall firm profitability on a project-by-project basis. Among other things, we’ve purchased and begun using one of the brand name project job costing and accounting software programs specifically designed for use by engineering and architectural firms to track and report project cost in addition to handling our general accounting needs. The initial set-up and training was considerably more costly and time consuming than we ever imagined, but we think we have the system pretty well up and running.

Now that we’re collecting project cost information, is there any particular format and frequency you would suggest we employ to most effectively relay project information to our project managers? How do we get the most out of this substantial investment?

Dear JM
The software you purchased comes out of the box with a few stock project management reports to get you started. These reports range from highly summarized recaps of project activity, to detailed and complete historical records of each project. In addition to the standard reports, the software provides a report generating capability used to create new formats or to customize existing report formats to suit individual firm or project manager preferences. Modern A/E software accounting packages make it possible to slice and dice your data just about anyway you can dream up to view it.

Why not ask the project managers what they feel they need? Think of them as clients, and make them full partners in the process of developing the project management reports and procedures to be followed. This gives project managers a vested stakeholder role in the process and goes a long way toward insuring they will actually use the system. Unfortunately, I have been to too many firms where project managers spend hours re-keying information into their own private “underground” set of spreadsheets or databases because they find what is available from the official system to be not helpful. This is a tremendous waste of time and energy.

Not withstanding involving the end users, I would suggest a basic system of distributing highly summarized project management reports geared to timesheet cycles. Like an iceberg, the bulk of your firm’s collected project data should be kept below the surface until needed. It is sometimes hard for the accounting folks to resist the temptation of pumping out too much data in the interest of being helpful, but they need to keep routine output to a minimum to avoid swamping project personnel with a blizzard of information so granular in nature the information becomes unusable.

Timesheets should be updated to the accounting system at least weekly for three reasons: First, project histories will be totaled four times each month instead of only two times. This can facilitate getting invoices in the mail more quickly for projects which reach a billing point anytime during the month. Second, with more timely data, it should be easier to spot and react to problems earlier. Third, the overall accuracy of the timesheet information is probably better if staff report more frequently. In fact, since most current accounting packages provide for on-line, real-time timekeeping options more and more firms are asking staff to update their time records daily.

Once timesheets are updated to the project record, each project manager should receive a simple, weekly one line per project report collectively recapping all of his or her assigned projects on a single sheet. The report looks very much like a spreadsheet with rows and columns. Each project would be a row. In the first two columns are the hours worked and dollars charged for that week. By scanning the sheet, the project manager can quickly see which of his or her projects received what activity that week and, just as important sometimes, which projects may not have been worked on at all. The next two columns would show the cumulative hours and dollars as of that week ended. The next two columns would show the budgeted hours and dollars for the project. The final two columns would display a calculation of the percent used of budgeted hours and dollars as of the reporting week end. If your firm is of the minority that still prefers that project managers not see dollars, it is possible to suppress the dollar columns and issue the report on an hours only basis.

This type of “tickler” report serves as a quick and easy opportunity for a project manager to review where they are on one piece of paper without having to sort through reams of data. If everything looks OK, that’s the end of it and the project manager can get on with work. If something looks out of line, the summary is intended to cue the project manager to mine more deeply into the available on-call data in order to find the answer and resolve the problem.

At an increasing number of firms, project managers have restricted direct access via networks and the accounting software to the project management data and are responsible to generate their own reports on an as-needed basis. Call me old school, but I still prefer the idea of passing out a paper reminder in the form of a regular weekly summary. As busy as they are, project managers can go weeks before they find the time (or remember) to check projects.

To complete your project management system, project managers should meet with whomever they are accountable to within the firm at key stages of projects to review overall progress against project milestones and objectives. The frequency of these reviews should be determined case-by-case based on the circumstances of each situation and the track record of the particular project manager at bringing in winners.

Remember, your new project management software is just a dumb tool. It will only be as valuable as the ability and willingness of your staff to interpret and use the information productively. If you wish to capitalize on your investment, be sure to seek input from, and then adequately train, those who will be called upon to use it.


Wahby and Associates