How to manage a milestone, or managing by deliverables

                    Joan Knutson

A milestone is the planned completion of a significant event in the project. A milestone is not the completion of every task in the project. In an information systems environment, such a milestone might be the completion of the business (macro) design or a successful systems test. In construction, a milestone might the delivery of materials or the arrival of a specific craft on the job site. And in research and development, the approval of the required funding or the completion of a prototype might be considered a milestone.

As an executive, you would like to manage by milestones. You just want to know when those major events are completed. You don't have time to get any more involved. There are two fallacies to that logic:

  • First, milestones usually come few and far between. Waiting until the completion of a major milestone in order to check progress is an invitation to disaster. What if progress has not been made as planned and you do not become aware of the delays until it is too late to take corrective action?
  • Second, milestones are events, moments in time. To be told that a milestone is complete is not adequate. What if the appropriate deliverables have not been produced, or those deliverable have not met the quality standards that are required in order to assure a quality end product out of the project?

The alternative to managing by milestones is to manage by inch pebbles and by deliverables. Let me explain each one.

Managing by Inch Pebbles

It is wise to require a status review at specified checkpoints prior to the milestone date. Let's call these checkpoints “inch pebbles.” The premise is one of short-interval scheduling. At reasonable short intervals, the project team is required to complete a pre-defined segment of the project. Let's look at several examples:

  • The information systems team may need to complete the concept design as the first inch pebble towards completing the business (or macro) design milestone. This inch pebble would be followed by describing the flow of the system as the second inch pebble, and finally by obtaining the approvals as the last and final inch pebble, indicating completion of business (or macro) design.
  • In a construction project, relative to the delivery of materials, the signing of the contract might be the first inch pebble, followed by the turnover of the specs to the supplier, succeeded by specified supplier review meetings, culminating in the delivery of the materials in the receiving area and unloading them from the truck.
  • Research and development might consider the completion of the prototype as a milestone; however, the completion of each sub-assembly would be a separate inch pebble in the completion of this milestone.

Have you noticed that as each inch pebble was described it was described just as a moment in time when something happened (or more correctly, was supposed to happen)? It was also described as producing a deliverable that had some quality criteria by which that deliverable was to be measured. Let's look at the second part of managing milestones: that is, managing by deliverables.

Managing by Deliverables

An old partner of mine, Layne Alexander, used to say, “I can't manage by the ‘baby-blue-eye syndrome,’ which is to look into someone's baby-blue eyes and ask them how they are doing in completing a milestone. Then to receive the answer, ‘No problem.’ ‘No problem’ is not comforting. I need tangible proof of accomplishment and that proof is to see (or to have someone who is knowledgeable in that milestone see) a deliverable. Furthermore, it is not enough to see only the deliverable; it is critical to be assured that that deliverable has been evaluated against a pre-determined standard of performance criteria for acceptability.”

So we suggest that you, as an executive, not only position these checkpoints, or inch pebbles, during the evolution of the work in order to assure meeting the milestone deadline, but that you also require that a deliverable is specified; one that can be and will be quality assured at its completion. Taking an example from one of the three industries above:

  • In the information systems project, the second inch pebble in order to complete the business (or macro) design milestone was to describe the flow of the system. What does that really mean? What are the outputs, or deliverables, of that effort? The deliverables might be to finish the flowcharts and descriptive narratives justifying the flow of all the data through the manual and automated parts of the system. The deliverables are the flowcharts and the narrative; furthermore, the standard of performance is defined as all the data through the manual and automated parts of the system.

Thus, defining deliverables—and the quality assurance criteria upon which those deliverables are measured—provides a more solid base upon which to measure success.


Below is a certification process that presents questions which need to be answered:

1. Were the checkpoints (inch pebbles) completed, i.e., those events that were due to be finished during the last reporting period?

2. If yes, were the appropriate deliverables produced out of each to these inch pebbles?

3. If yes, did these deliverables meet the standard of performance (quality) criteria that was expected?

4. If yes, is work being accomplished with the quality committed?

Therefore, you are on schedule.

If the answer to any of the above questions is no, there is a problem, and the questions you need answered are:

1. What is the corrective action plan to fix the defects in the deliverables in order to have them meet the quality standards?

2. What is the “work-around” plan to complete the delayed inch pebble?

In other words, when will the project be back on schedule?

As an executive, do not be lulled into a feeling of complacency that managing by milestones is the high-level, efficient way to manage. If infrequently scheduled milestones are not met, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to catch up. Therefore, it is prudent to manage by inch pebbles (short-interval checkpoints) and to manage by the completion of deliverables that have met a pre-established standard of performance quality criteria. ■

Joan Knutson is president and founder of Project Management Mentors, a San Francisco-based project management consulting and training firm.

PM Network • June 1995



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