By Dr. Gerald Mulenburg, PMP:

A colleague of mine once complained to me about earned value management (EVM). “It’s ok, but it seems that managing using earned value management information is as if you’re driving down the highway using only what you see in the rear view mirror for guidance about how to steer. In the rear view mirror you see everything that brought you to where you are. The problem is that there’s little information there to guide you about the road ahead, except that you may recognize the need to make some corrections to your steering. Depending on how fast you’re going it may be too late for that, and you have, or are going to, run off the road. Knowing exactly where you are at the present time using earned value is like looking out your car’s side windows. It doesn’t give you much information about where you’re going either. It’s nice to know, but doesn’t help much in creating the future for your project. Earned value does help identify where you’re likely to end up if you keep going as you’ve been doing, but this is not much use in creating your project’s future, either.”

In thinking about her statements, I decided there are usually three key pieces of information your management needs to know about any particular project:

  1. Where you are now compared to where you are planned to be (which you get from EVM)
  2. What you are doing to correct any shortfalls that exist
  3. What you plan to accomplish before the next project review

Although EVM is the primary method used for measuring projects, it is a reactive method of managing. For effective project management, the road ahead is what you need to be most concerned with, not where you’ve been. This is called being proactive. So let’s dispense with only looking through the rear view mirror or through the side windows to guide your project. To be an effective project manager you need to look through the windshield to see areas that are unclear or uncertain.

Are there incomplete parts of the roadway (missing in the project plan)? Are there any potholes (poorly defined areas)? Are there be bridges or tunnels needing to be built (unclear pathways), or mountains that need to be climbed or avoided (obstacles in your way)? How can you look into the project’s future to see if these things exist?

There’s one method that has proven very successful in a number of different areas that may apply equally well to project management. It’s called failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA), and was developed for determining what would fail and when in design, manufacturing, or product lifetimes. A failure mode is defined as a potential, or actual, error or defect that affects the customer or, in this case, the project. Effects analysis means identifying the consequences of failures and prioritizing them by their seriousness and/or likelihood of occurring.

Wow! This sounds similar to risk analysis! And it is. I see the difference being that risk analysis is usually applied to determine what might affect the product of the project, and FMEA in the context presented here is more about determining what might affect the management of the project.

We don’t often think of applying risk management to our project management processes, so how can we apply FMEA to our project management?

  1. First is the need to identify any gaps or weaknesses in our project management processes. These could vary from a lack of information about some methodology needed to a weakness in the skill or expertise of a team member and practically everything in between.
  2. Next we must determine what possible effects this might have on the project and what actions we might take to eliminate or reduce those effects. Once the actions are identified, some of the answers will be straightforward and some will require constant attention to prevent or minimize their consequences.

So is, or can, FMEA be a meaningful addition to our project management tool kit? It certainly seems worth the effort to improve our project management processes to give it a try.

Let us know if you tried FMEA and how it worked for you.