One of the main jobs of a project manager is to track how the work is going.

Not only in terms of quality of deliverable but also more practically: are you getting through the work as planned?

Are you hitting all the right dates and moving through the project in a careful and considered manner, with a plan to avoid a massive burden to get everything done at the last minute?

Measuring progress is the easiest way to be able to answer that question.

Here are 3 options for tracking progress on your project.

Percentage Completion: The most common way of measuring project progress

Option #1: Percentage Complete

In my experience, the most common way of measuring progress is using your project schedule to track and record the completed percentage.

The finished project represents 100%. When the project starts your counter is at 0%. You should be making steady progress through the project and be seeing that number increase week on week as more and more tasks are started, progressed and completed.

Your project management software will update and consolidate the figures for you. You only need to track progress at a lower level – the task level. Make sure that you are updating your task progress regularly and you’ll see the overall project percentage completion adjust.

You might also see the overall project figure adjust itself downwards and this can happen if you add in a whole lot more tasks that haven’t yet started.

If your project is 50% complete you’d expect, logically, to be 50% through the elapsed time on the project but this doesn’t always follow. That makes it a bit unreliable to use percentage completion as the only way to track progress.

You might, for example, have a lot of tasks that completed early on and now you’re working on some longer activities so you aren’t seeing the same speed of completion as you did earlier. You can manually adjust this by changing and adding in tasks if you think it is worthwhile.

Set up milestones

Option #2: Milestones

Your project schedule in ScheduleReader will include a number of milestones.

Milestones are tasks with a duration of zero that show up on Gantt charts as a diamond icon. These mark the main deadlines or deliveries that you don’t want to miss. You might have 10-12 milestones that represent big events and maybe others as well that help you track.

Milestones are a great way to track progress because they are tangibly linked to work on the schedule. The easiest way to use milestones as a tool for tracking progress is to add a new work breakdown structure item at the top of your Gantt chart task list. You can either create the milestones from scratch or drag and drop your milestones from sections of the Gantt chart further down. I advocate the latter because then you don’t have to manually maintain a separate list.

The milestones are then really visible and you can easily use them to report against. When you compare the dates against your baseline schedule dates you can see how well you are doing against the progress overall.

A note on baselines: Baselines show you what you thought you should be doing and are useful to compare against what you are actually doing. In itself, this information can form part of the data you use to manage progress.

Time tracking as a traditional approach to measuring project progress

Option #3: Time Tracking

If you have tasks that require a certain amount of hours of work before they can be considered complete, then time tracking will give you a way to measure that data. An example – not from a project – would be the PMP® requirement to have a number of contact hours of training in order to apply for the exam. You can track your time doing the training and when you reach the required number then you know you are OK to complete the application.

Finding examples of where this would realistically work on projects is harder. Perhaps your deliverable needs to be tested for a certain amount of hours before it can be considered market-ready.

Timesheets do give you a broad way to measure progress as long as you use the data in there wisely. Just because someone has spent 52 hours on a particular task does not mean that it is close to completion, even if it was only booked to take 55 hours. You’ll have to combine time to track data with other information (like talking to the person doing the work) to get an idea of how close to completion they are.

One of the advantages of time tracking is that it does give you early oversight if something is going to be delayed. You can typically see from a timesheet that someone is working far more or far few hours than you would expect, and that should give you cause for concern. It might even result in you replanning that section of the project.

In reality, the best way to measure progress on your project is probably a combination of all of these. For some tasks, you’ll do it via hours worked, for others by the percentage of work achieved. Use your professional judgement, find a method that works for your project and don’t be afraid to mix them up and use multiple approaches.

How do you measure progress on your project? Let us know what tools you have that work for you.