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  4. Measuring success: A guide to project management KPIs

Measuring success: A guide to project management KPIs

PostsProject management
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

August 11, 2023

When you’re at the helm of a project, understanding your progress in terms of clearly defined, quantifiable outcomes can be the difference between steering your project ship to the promised land of successful completion or getting lost at sea. And that’s where project management KPIs come into play.

Just like a coach tracking their athlete’s scores, project management KPIs are the numbers that show you how well your project’s going, where you can improve, and what you’re doing well. 

But here’s the kicker: not all KPIs are created equal, and understanding which ones really matter can sometimes feel like trying to choose a snowflake in a blizzard. That’s exactly what we’re diving into with this article.

What are project management KPIs?

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are data-driven, measurable values that give you a 360-degree view of a project’s health and progress. Essentially, KPIs are the objective yardsticks that help us answer the critical question: ‘Are we on track to meet our goals?’

They reflect the performance of your project execution, shedding light on everything from resource utilization and budget adherence to time management and quality.

But why do we need these KPIs? Well, without them, you’re essentially driving blindfolded. KPIs act as the eyes and ears of a project manager, offering insights into what’s working, what’s not, and where there’s room for improvement. They provide data-driven evidence to support decision-making, helping you course-correct as needed and ensuring you’re always steering in the right direction.

It’s crucial to remember, though, that KPIs aren’t just about keeping score. They’re about understanding the story behind the score. Each KPI is a piece of the puzzle, offering a snapshot of a specific aspect of your project — and when you put these snapshots together, you get a narrative of your project’s journey. 

What’s the difference between KPIs and OKRs?

As you head deeper into the world of project management, you’ll likely come across many acronyms — two of the most popular ones being KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). Similar? Yes, but not the same. 

While KPIs track performance, OKRs focus on broader objectives and the measurable outcomes tied to achieving them, giving you a more holistic view of both your goals and the steps needed to attain them.

Key differences

1. Purpose: While KPIs focus on the performance and health of ongoing processes or projects, OKRs are used to set, track, and achieve specific goals over a set period of time.

2. Scope: KPIs are often used for ongoing monitoring and can be used at different levels (from individual to organizational). OKRs, on the other hand, are typically set at the company, team, and individual levels and are time-bound.

3. Mindset: KPIs often have a performance-based approach and focus on hitting specific targets consistently. OKRs foster a goal-setting mindset, where the journey towards ambitious goals matters, and falling short isn’t necessarily considered a failure.

4. Change: KPIs tend to be relatively stable over time, as they track ongoing processes and operational performance. In contrast, OKRs are set for a specific period (usually a quarter), after which they are evaluated, and new OKRs are set.

When to use KPIs

1. Monitoring performance: KPIs are great for tracking ongoing performance against set benchmarks.

2. Establishing continuity: KPIs are consistent metrics that businesses monitor over long periods to identify trends, efficiencies, and areas for improvement.

3. There’s a need for specificity: When you need to hone in on precise figures or metrics — like sales volume, customer satisfaction scores, or production efficiency — KPIs are the tool of choice.

When to use OKRs

1. Setting ambitious goals: OKRs are designed for setting and working toward aspirational objectives, often over a shorter term, like a quarter or a year.

2. Aligning teams: OKRs help align different teams or departments toward overarching goals by setting clear objectives and measurable outcomes for each group.

3. Promoting agility: OKRs can be adjusted more frequently than traditional goals, making them ideal for businesses in fast-changing environments with shifting priorities. 

4. Seeking holistic progress: Rather than just tracking a specific metric, OKRs aim to push forward broader initiatives and capture the steps or results that lead to goal achievement.

How to use KPIs to determine a project’s success

To start with, let’s imagine a scenario. You’re driving from Point A to Point B. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have a GPS that tells you your current location, the distance covered, the remaining distance, and the estimated time of arrival? 

That’s precisely what KPIs do for your projects. They give you tangible data about the current state of your project, comparing it against your predefined objectives or targets. This comparison helps you gauge if you’re on the right path.

But KPIs aren’t just about real-time tracking and management. They’re equally valuable when it comes to post-project analysis. KPIs allow you to look back and evaluate how well you did against your original goals, offering key insights into things you did well and areas for improvement. 

Let’s break down some of the ways KPIs can be used to assess project success:

Schedule adherence

Is your project following the planned timeline? Are milestones being met on time? KPIs related to schedule adherence help you track progress against timelines and identify any potential or existing delays.

Budget management

How well are you sticking to your budget? Are there any unexpected costs creeping in? Budget-related KPIs give you a snapshot of your financial health, letting you know if you’re within budget or overshooting it.

Quality of deliverables

Are the project outputs meeting the predetermined quality standards? KPIs concerning the quality of work can give you a clear picture of whether your project is delivering the expected value.

Stakeholder satisfaction

Are your stakeholders happy with the project outcomes? Stakeholder satisfaction KPIs help gauge the overall approval and satisfaction levels of the people who matter most.

Risk and issue management

How well are you managing project risks and issues? Risk-related KPIs can help you understand your risk landscape and how effectively you’re navigating it.

30 different types of KPIs

Timeliness KPIs

1. Planned Value (PV): The estimated cost of project activities planned for a given period.

2. Schedule Variance (SV): The difference between the planned and actual project progress.

3. Schedule Performance Index (SPI): A ratio to understand if you’re ahead or behind schedule.

4. Project Milestone Timings: Comparison of planned vs. actual milestone completion dates.

5. Project Completion Date: The date when all project tasks are completed.

Budget KPIs

6. Actual Cost (AC): The real costs incurred for the work performed on the project to date.

7. Cost Variance (CV): The difference between the budgeted cost of work performed (Earned Value) and the Actual Cost.

8. Cost Performance Index (CPI): A measure of the cost efficiency of budgeted resources.

9. Budget at Completion (BAC): The total approved budget assigned for the project.

10. Estimate at Completion (EAC): The forecasted cost of the project at the end.

11. Variance at Completion (VAC): The difference between the BAC and the EAC.

12. Earned Value (EV): The value of the work actually performed up to a given point in time.

Quality KPIs

13. Defect Density: Number of defects identified per unit size of a deliverable.

14. Rework Effort: Time spent on correcting defects.

15. Customer Complaints: Number of complaints received from customers.

16. Customer Satisfaction: Measured through surveys and feedback sessions.

17. Failed Deliverables: Number of deliverables that didn’t meet the required quality standards.

18. Net Promoter Score (NPS): An index ranging from -100 to 100 that measures the willingness of customers to recommend your company’s products or services.

Efficiency KPIs

19. Resource Sufficiency: Whether the project has adequate resources (people, equipment, etc.) to meet project needs.

20. Risk Severity: The potential impact of the risks identified on the project.

21. Open/Close Ratio: The ratio of open to closed issues at any given point in time.

22. Team Utilization: The percentage of total productive time spent on the project by the team.

23. Project Scope Changes: The number of times the project scope has been modified.

24. Return on Investment (ROI): The profitability of the project, calculated by comparing the project’s gains to its costs.

25. Project Dependencies: Number of dependencies your project has on other projects or external factors.

26. On-Time Delivery Rate: The percentage of tasks or deliverables that are delivered on time.

27. Time Spent per Task: The actual time spent on a task compared to the estimated time.

28. Backlog Change Rate: The rate at which tasks are being added or removed from the backlog.

Culture KPIs

29. Stakeholder Engagement: Level of involvement and interaction of stakeholders in the project.

30. Employee Satisfaction: The overall happiness of the project team, often measured through surveys.

Real-world project management KPI examples 

Let’s delve into some industry-specific KPIs to get a taste of how they vary based on the nature of the project.

Construction project KPIs

Construction projects have their own unique set of challenges, including managing materials, labor, and equipment across different stages of the project.

  • Safety incident rate: In an industry where physical safety is paramount, the number of safety incidents per 1000 hours worked provides insight into the effectiveness of safety measures and protocols.
  • Cost variance: This is a crucial KPI for any construction project. It shows the difference between the budgeted cost of work performed and the actual cost.
  • Percentage of projects completed on time: This KPI helps you identify systemic issues with planning and scheduling.

2. Software development project KPIs

In the tech industry, projects often involve developing new software or improving existing ones, and KPIs need to reflect that.

  • Velocity: This is a measure of the amount of work a team can handle during a single sprint. It helps in planning and predicting project timelines.
  • Code quality: Measured by factors like the number of bugs found, code reviews passed, or adherence to coding standards.
  • Deployment frequency: The number of times software is successfully deployed can indicate the efficiency of the development and integration process.

Event planning project KPIs

Event planning can involve anything from corporate conferences to music festivals, and each requires careful planning and execution.

  • Attendee satisfaction: Usually gathered through post-event surveys, this measures whether the event met or exceeded attendee expectations.
  • Budget adherence: Keeping a strict eye on the planned vs actual event budget is critical to ensure the financial success of an event.
  • Social media engagement: For many events, social media serves as a key promotional tool. Measuring likes, shares, comments, and mentions gives you insight into the effectiveness of the event’s social media strategy.

Tips for using project KPIs effectively

Having a toolbox is great, but knowing how to wield those tools is where the real magic happens.

1. Align KPIs with your goals 

KPIs should offer insights into how well you’re moving towards your goals — so make sure they align with those goals. Sit down, consider your project’s purpose and what you hope to achieve, then tailor your KPIs accordingly.

2. Keep it simple and understandable 

Avoid the temptation to make your KPIs overly complex. They should be simple, clear, and easy to understand for all project stakeholders. Remember, the goal here is to provide a clear picture of your project’s health, not swamp people with detail. 

3. Ensure KPIs are measurable and actionable

A KPI isn’t much good if you can’t measure it or take action based on its results. When setting your KPIs, think about how you’ll gather the data and how that data will guide your decision-making.

4. Don’t overdo it with too many KPIs

Having too many KPIs leads to information overload and dilutes your focus. Stick to a select few that give real insight into your project’s performance.

5. Regularly review and update your KPIs

The utility of a KPI isn’t set in stone. A KPI that was once crucial might become irrelevant as your project evolves. Regularly review your KPIs and be ready to update them to ensure they’re still serving their intended purpose.

6. Communicate the KPIs

Make sure your team and stakeholders understand what KPIs are being used, why they’re important, and what the results mean. This keeps everyone on the same page.

7. Use the right tools

There’s an abundance of project management software out there that can automate KPI tracking, including features like burndown charts and Gantt charts. Use these tools to save you time, reduce errors, and gather real-time insights.

A Gantt chart created in Backlog

Common mistakes when using project KPIs

Here are some common mistakes to watch out for.

1. Setting unrealistic KPIs 

As a project manager, it’s natural to aim high. But when setting your KPIs, it’s crucial to keep them realistic and achievable. Setting the bar too high can demoralize your team and set your project up for perceived failure.

2. Ignoring negative results

KPIs may sometimes bring bad news, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore them. Instead, use this as an opportunity to investigate what’s causing the issue and find a way to resolve it. Remember, KPIs are there to help you track both successes and areas for improvement.

3. Not aligning KPIs with business objectives 

KPIs should not exist in a vacuum; they should be directly tied to your business objectives. A common mistake is to chase KPIs that look good on paper but don’t actually contribute to your overall business goals.

4. Neglecting to communicate KPIs and their importance 

Your team and stakeholders should understand what your KPIs are and why they’re important. Without this understanding, they might not take the metrics seriously or understand their role in achieving them.

5. Using KPI as a blame tool 

KPIs are meant to measure the health of your project, not to point fingers or assign blame. Avoid using KPIs to penalize team members. Instead, focus on how you can collectively improve those metrics.

6. Relying on vanity metrics 

It’s easy to get caught up in vanity metrics that make your project look good but don’t actually provide any real value. Focus on KPIs that give you actionable insights and contribute to your project’s success.

7. Not reviewing and updating KPIs 

Your KPIs should be dynamic, not static. They should evolve with your project and remain relevant. Make sure to regularly review and adjust your KPIs as needed.

Leveraging project management software for killer KPIs

PM software is an absolute game-changer, transforming the way we track and manage KPIs. Here’s how. 

1. Automated data collection and analysis

Manual data collection can be tedious and prone to error. Most project management software solutions come with built-in features to automatically track, collect, and analyze data. This not only saves you a ton of time, but also ensures your data is accurate and up-to-date.

2. Real-time tracking and reporting

With project management software, you can have real-time updates on your KPIs. This feature allows you to identify and address issues immediately as they arise, instead of discovering them too late. Many of these tools also generate comprehensive reports, providing you with an in-depth understanding of your project’s status.

3. Dashboard visualization

Data visualization is a powerful way to understand complex information. Most project management tools come with dashboards that display your KPIs in a visually engaging and easy-to-understand format. This can include charts, graphs, and trend lines that provide a quick snapshot of your project’s health.

4. Collaboration and communication

These software solutions often include features that enhance collaboration and communication, such as sharing of reports, annotating on dashboards, and discussing KPIs in real-time. This ensures that your team and stakeholders are all on the same page about project performance.

5. Customizable KPI tracking 

Every project is unique, and so are its KPIs. Many project management software options allow you to customize the KPIs you want to track, based on the specific needs and goals of your project.

To make the most of project management software for your KPIs, here are some tips:

  • Choose the right tool: Not all software is created equal. Consider your project’s needs, your team’s size, and the specific KPIs you wish to track when choosing the right tool.
  • Train your team: Make sure your team is well-versed in how to use the software. This might involve training sessions or tutorials. The more comfortable they are with the tool, the more effectively they’ll be able to use it.
  • Regularly update and maintain the software: Ensure your tool is always up-to-date and maintained properly. This includes regular data backups and software updates.

Remember, project management software is there to help you, not hinder you. Choose wisely, use it effectively, and you’ll find it becomes your secret weapon for tracking and managing project KPIs like a pro. 



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