by Christopher Worsley

Audits, reviews and health checks

Project Assessment

Audits, reviews and health checks
Audits, reviews and health checks

Although most project managers recognise their value and importance, there is some debate about the differences between audits, reviews and health checks.

We find a useful distinction to be the following:

Project audits (focus on process  are we doing it right?)

These are typically instigated by the project office as part of a process maturity review, or by an audit function (internal or external) as a check on performance, or as a benchmarking exercise. They may target single projects or whole portfolios.

Project reviews (focus on status  where are we up to?)

These are called for where there is uncertainty or concerns around the project and these are normally instigated by the sponsor or the project office.

Project health checks (focus on delivery of value)

Health checks ask whether we are likely to achieve the anticipated outcome. These may be called for by the sponsor or the project office, but importantly, it may also be the project manager who identifies the need for a project health check. After all, it is often the project manager, who is closest to the project, who first identifies the tell-tale signs that benefit-risk is rising. The project may be on track for perfect deliverables, but still have little change impact or deliver any return on investment in the business. In this context, the project health check is the weapon of the project manager – the weapon to refocus the project, mobilise change effort and, ultimately, clarify portfolio-level decisions around whether the project should continue or should be ‘culled’.

Choose the review

No, you can’t do all three at once! There is a temptation to attempt to answer all three questions in one all-purpose review. It just won’t work – not least because different skills and processes are required for the different types of checks. Also, if the project is significant enough to warrant a review, it is unlikely to be a project you want to put on extended hold as serial reviews take their turn. Project reviews must be focused – short and sharp – and result in clear, evidence-backed corrective actions.

Get the right competence

The trouble is that project audits are much easier to run than the other two types of reviews. You don’t need highly experienced project managers to do audits, and for this reason alone, this approach is inappropriately overused. Project audits, which focus on process, should be driven by a checklist, drawing upon one of several process maturity models that exist in the project domain. The auditors are people who can recognise whether the processes are being carried out as specified.

As many organisations know – to their cost – proving that you are doing what you say you should be doing can be a low value and sometimes counterproductive exercise. Many organisations, knowing they have problems with project performance, bring in external checklist-driven auditors who prove to them they are in fact doing a good job in following their project processes. This can make matters worse, as it gives out the message that “even external groups are saying our projects are working well” – yet the business knows, and is left with the problem, that project performance is poor – even if it is achieving this poor performance well.

Project status reviews demand project-knowledgeable staff with the experience to recognise the signs that indicate status concerns. They need to be able to recognise the ‘hot spots’ and have the ability to drill down into the detail to unearth the issues and determine, incisively, which corrective actions are required. This provides specific and usable information on a single project’s performance. The project office should collate and review the data from several project status reviews and from that determine what issues to address in order to resolve and improve overall project performance.

Health checks ask the question: “Are we likely to achieve a good outcome?” and this is the most complex question of the three. To carry this out demands a combination of project expertise and business acumen, as it makes its judgment and recommendations based on a particular understanding of what ‘success’ is. This cannot be decided in terms of the traditional time, cost and quality trio, but rather by the harsher reality of delivering the change impacts that will result in the benefits claimed for the project. Finding this combination in a single person can be done, but it’s recommended that you set up a small and properly constituted team. The findings from health checks should also be taken into account by the project management office when considering changes to improve project performance.

Plan for reviews

Any significant project of more than nine months should expect to be involved in at least one of the three kinds of review. With a strong project manager in post, the need for audits and status reviews is diminished. Given the changing nature of the business environment and the importance of ensuring limited resources are focused on projects with valuable and predictable returns, health check should be scheduled right from the start of the project.

Christopher Worsley, Executive director of CITI, founder and principle consultant at PiCubed

Contact PiCubed
Tel: +27 21 7955 130

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Issue 29


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