I’ve Got Your Number — Types of Project Measurement and Services Contracts

Glen Alleman reminds us at his blog that we measure things for a reason and that they include three general types: measures of effectiveness, measures of performance, and key performance parameters.

Understanding the difference between these types of measurement is key, I think, to defining what we mean by such terms as integrated project management and in understanding the significance of differing project and contract management approaches based on industry and contract type.

For example, project management focused on commodities, with their price volatility, emphasizes schedule and resource management. Cost performance (earned value) where it exists, is measured by time in lieu of volume- or value-based performance. I have often been engaged in testy conversations where those involved in commodity-based PM insist that they have been using Earned Value Management (EVM) for as long as the U.S.-based aerospace and defense industry (though the methodology was borne in the latter). But when one scratches the surface the approaches in the details on how value and performance is determined is markedly different–and so it should be given the different business environments in which enterprises in each of these industries operate.

So what is the difference in these measures? In borrowing from Glen’s categories, I would like to posit a simple definitional model as follows:

Measures of Excellence – are qualitative measures of achievement against the goals in the project;

Measures of Performance – are quantitative measures against a plan or baseline in execution of the project plan.

Key Performance Parameters – are the minimally acceptable thresholds of achievement in the project or effort.

As you may guess there is sometimes overlap and confusion regarding which category a particular measurement falls. This confusion has been exacerbated by efforts to define key performance indicators (KPIs) based on industry, giving the impression that measures are exclusive to a particular activity. While this is sometimes the case it is not always the case.

So when we talk of integrated project management we are not accepting that any particular method of measurement has primacy over the others, nor subsumes them. Earned Value Management (EVM) and schedule performance are clearly performance measures. Qualitative measures oftentimes measure achievement of technical aspects of the end item application being produced. This is not the same as technical performance measurement (TPM), which measures technical achievement against a plan–a performance measure. Technical achievement may inform our performance measurement systems–and it is best if it does. It may also inform our Key Performance Parameters since exceeding a minimally acceptable threshold obviously helps us to determine success or failure in the end. The difference is the method of measurement. In a truly integrated system the measurement of one element informs the others. For the moment these systems presently tend to be stove-piped.

It becomes clear, then, that the variation in approaches differs by industry, as in the example on EVM above, and–in an example that I have seen most recently–by contract type. This insight is particularly important because all too often EVM is viewed as being synonymous with performance measurement, which it is not. Services contracts require structure in measurement as much as R&D-focused production contracts, particularly because they increasingly take up a large part of an enterprise’s resources. But EVM may not be appropriate.

So for our notional example, let us say that we are responsible for managing an entity’s IT support organization. There are types of equipment (PCs, tablet computers, smartphones, etc.) that must be kept operational based on the importance of the end user. These items of hardware use firmware and software that must be updated and managed. Our contract establishes minimal operational parameters that allow us to determine if we are at least meeting the basic requirements and will not be terminated for cause. The contract also provides incentives to encourage us to exceed the minimums.

The sites we support are geographically dispersed. We have to maintain a help desk but also must have people who can come onsite and provide direct labor to setup new systems or fix existing ones–and that the sites and personnel must be supported within a particular time-frame: one hour, two hours, and within twenty-four hours, etc.

In setting up our measurement systems the standard practice is to start with the key performance parameters. Typically we will also measure response times by site and personnel level, record our help desk calls, and track qualitative aspects of the work: How helpful is the help desk? Do calls get answered at the first contract? Are our personnel friendly and courteous? What kinds of hardware and software problems do we encounter? We collect our data from a variety of one-off and specialized sources and then we generate reports from these systems. Many times we will focus on those that will allow us to determine if the incentive will be paid.

Among all of this data we may be able to discern certain things: if the contract is costing more or less than we anticipated, if we are fulfilling our contractual obligations, if our personnel pools are growing or shrinking, if we are good at what we do on a day-to-day basis, and if it looks as if our margin will be met. But what these systems do not do is allow us to operate the organization as a project, nor do they allow us to make adjustments in a timely manner.

Only through integration and aggregation can we know, for example, how the demand for certain services is affecting our resource demands by geographical location and level of service, on a real=time basis where we need to make adjustments in personnel and training, whether we are losing or achieving our margin by location, labor type, equipment type, hardware vs. software; our balance sheets (by location, by equipment type, by software type, etc.), if there is a learning curve, and whether we can make intermediate adjustments to achieve the incentive thresholds before the result is written in stone. Having this information also allows us to manage expectations, factually inform perceptions, and improve customer relations.

What is clear by this example is that “not doing EVM” does not make measurement easy, nor does it imply simplification, nor the absence of measurement. Instead, understanding the nature of the work allows us to identify those measures within their proper category that need to be applied by contract type and/or industry. So while EVM may not apply to services contracts, we know that certain new aggregations do apply.

For many years we have intuitively known that construction and maintenance efforts are more schedule-focused, that oil and gas exploration more resource- and risk-focused, and that aircraft, satellites, and ships more performance-focused. I would posit that now is the time for us to quantify and formalize the commonalities and differences. This also makes an integrated approach not simply a “nice to have” capability, but an essential capability in managing our enterprises and the projects within them.

Note: This post was updated to correct grammatical errors.

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