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Project management On completion of a project it's tempting to head straight for the nearest hostelry to sample some fine beverages; and then some. Maybe a good idea, but as any student of Prince2 will tell you, the job ain't finished until some form of closure report and benefits assessment has been done.

Such reports allow lessons to be learnt and act as an audit of required benefits against those actually achieved. They will also be essential reading for the project steering group and other relevant stakeholders.

The primary function of the closure report is to indicate whether time, cost and quality targets have been met. The problem for project managers is that it often depends on the quality of data collected to date, something that is sometimes a concern.

Julian Holmes, co-founder at IT consultants Upmentors says: "False measures of progress are commonplace. For example effort spent versus plan, or volume of documentation 'signed-off'. Neither demonstrate real progress, but constant evaluation of working solutions, and real-time reporting of work that is 'done' (as opposed to eternally 95 per cent complete) is extremely important."

In practice the closure report will go through at least one iteration after peer review and amendment. Only when the report is accepted can some form of lessons learned report be produced.

Typically the lessons learned report will look at organisation, communications, planning and delegation, monitoring and reporting, change control, risk management, quality management.

These case studies illustrate how three very different projects approached the learning phase of project management.

British Library - smaller projects, more shared learning

Lessons learned logs are essential at the British Library in its Digital Library Programme, where logs are maintained by all projects and key lessons are reported back to programme management.  The British Library insists that all projects refer to recent lessons learned during the start-up phase, so that improvements are fed back into new activities.

Terry Chapman, Programme Manager, British Library, explains: "The work that the programme is undertaking is complex, and solutions to many of the problems that we face are not available in the public domain. One of the key lessons that we have learnt is to keep projects small so that they focus on delivering business benefit early, and then improving functionality in an iterative fashion.

"All of our projects now work in this fashion, typically taking around five months to execute between drafting the project brief and agreeing closure.  This has been a significant change in ensuring timely project delivery."

Sellafield - avoiding the blame culture

On projects in distress it is important that the post-mortem process does not become a blame game. An environment of sharing lessons must be created to ensure that a free flow of ideas takes place.

"False measures of progress are commonplace"

Neil Crewsdon, head of projects, High Level Waste Plants, Sellafield Ltd, took over midway on a particularly sensitive maintenance project which required rescheduling and considerable professional risk to bring back on track.

He reports that there had been morale problems and distrust between different parts of the company over the nature of work being carried out which he resolved by resetting the project and increasing communication. A new budget was secured and the work of maintenance to a key part of the waste process completed on time.

But when it came to the review process he deliberately decamped the stakeholders to a hotel off-site so that the review would take place in an atmosphere of reward and learning. He also arranged for a time-lapse video of the work to be shown to give a sense of completion to the stakeholders.

"The project had significant learning opportunities for all parties involved and I was determined these lessons were learned to improve future project performance and overall business decisions process. I was conscious this could test relationships and the trust built between all parties so I decided to employ an external company to facilitate the sessions."

Crewdson says that the post-project reviews identified learning for all parties involved in the project, and also "gave several of the wider team, including myself 'closure' on what had been a difficult, challenging and fast-moving  project."

This case study illustrates both the psychological importance and sensitivity of the review process.

Prestwick Centre - relocation, relocation, relocation

Some note that assessing a project is a mixture of hard facts and softer attitudes. Franco Valente, Business Manager, Prestwick Centre speaking about the project to plan and execute the delivery of the new air traffic control centre at Prestwick: "There's the way of measuring a project using hard metrics, where you compare the finished product to your original conception to see if it's delivering the expected benefits.

"There's also a soft way of measuring success, which has to do with how people feel. Success on this scale is largely down to how people felt about the journey they were on during the project and at the end when they reflect on the project."

So what were the lessons learned?

The project reinforced key beliefs: Firstly that you need to have the right people in the right jobs to deliver results at every stage of a project; and the optimal mix of individuals and skills will change as the project progresses.

Secondly, of the need to put as much thought and effort into managing the impact of this project on people as we did the technical challenges.  "This was particularly relevant as we were moving employees and their families from Manchester to Scotland; we knew that we had an obligation to keep the future staff of the new centre engaged with the project," says Valente.

The £180m Prestwick centre now employs 850 people and handles one million flights annually, 10 per cent of all European air traffic. All key milestones were achieved earlier than planned.

Learning from a completed project is clearly key to not making the same mistakes twice and ensuring that what works well is repeated and refined on future projects. The difficulty for project managers is getting stakeholder commitment to a process that may be uncomfortable or just hard to find time for. ®

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