Project tracking guide

Your most important duty as a project manager is to track the project’s progress relentlessly. That is why project tracking tools are so essential for project management.

When it comes to project tracking, the definition gets a little bit murky. What are you tracking, exactly? 

Are you tracking the progress of each task in the project over time?

Are you tracking how each individual is doing in the project? Do you have your eyes only at the due date of the project and each task? 

Where does quality is considered when tracking projects? If a project is completed, but the quality is shit, have you succeeded or failed?

How about the cost? If you finish a project with a large cost overrun, is it called success or failure?

Project Tracking Fundamentals

A project is a success only if it is finished on time, on the budget, and with the same or higher quality defined by the customer.

So, project tracking is not just about deadlines, but making sure the budget is met and the quality is not compromised.   

I will go over the best methods for tracking projects and which tools help you and your team to do better in this paper.

In order to be able to track something, you need to plan and document it in the first place!

If your planning is flawed or if you don’t document your goals and how to reach them, you will have a tough time tracking your project.

Why, because you don’t have anything to measure against. Without this comparison, you need up flying blind.   

So how do you plan right? Regardless of the project management method you use, be it Agile or waterfall or Hybrid, you need to plan in fine details.

That is why work breakdown structure or WBS is so important regardless of the methodology you use. 

Use WBS to write down everything that needs to be done in your project. These are called level one tasks.

Then try to break large tasks to smaller ones. Keep doing as long as possible. These are called subtasks.

When you have refined your tasks and subtasks such that each subtask is small and would not take more than a few days or weeks, you are ready to create the schedule.

Use a robust project management software to enter your tasks, subtasks, and milestones to create your schedule.

Use the schedule you have created to establish a baseline. The baseline is the planned schedule before starting the project. The baseline is what you hope your project progress in time and finish on schedule.

Now that you have a baseline, you should compare the actual schedule against the baseline every day or every week.

To update your project’s schedule, you need to collect the project data.

In the old dark days of Microsoft project, data was collected manually by the project admin or in large projects admins.

This process was a major pain and the number one reason most projects failed.

The status of the project was never accurate and current. It always showed the status of the project for a while back!

The fact that you had to collect data about your project is the major cause of failure.

Think about it, the status of your project is only as good as the data you collect.

If this data collection is done manually, the data is never up to date. It is also prone to errors.

In addition to all the above, manual data collection is very costly and by its nature cause delays in the project’s progress.

A better way to collect data is automated data collection. This way the data is always up to date and there is a minimal cost in collecting data.

Imagine, as your project progresses, the data is collected instantly. No one needs to initiate the prosses or actually going around from office to office to collect project’s data.

Are there tools that do such a thing, you ask? Yes, I will go over that later in this paper.

Now that you have your data under your fingerprint daily, what do you do with it?

You update your project schedule and compare it to your baseline.

Do I have to do it manually, you might ask?  No, the same process that collects the data will update the schedule and shows differences from baseline.

This way you can see instantly which tasks are on-time and which tasks are in danger of falling behind and which ones are already late. This should not happen if you project tracking correctly.

One of the best tools for project tracking is a Gantt Chart which displays the baseline.

This way, in one glance you can see the progress of the project during the project’s lifecycle.

Don’t forget, you don’t just track projects, but tasks too. The same process outlined for project tracking works perfectly well for task tracking.

Make sure your project management software includes a robust task management subsystem.

It should include tasks, subtasks, milestones, recurring tasks, and dependencies.

Project tracking gets compromised when unforeseen issues pop up during the project lifetime.

Having a mechanism to handle issues when they occur is an important part of project planning.

When you plan for a project, you need to pay special attention to the following:

Project’s Start date: When the project starts? Make sure before the project starts all requirements are met. There is nothing more demoralizing when you have to put a project on hold if you did not plan right.

Project’s Due date: When the project needs to finish. The project’s due date is calculated when you plan and put a project together. Don’t underestimate the due date. It is a mistake that most rooky managers do.

Budget: You need a budget to finish a project, so plan for the right budget from the very start. It is much easier to get the right amount for your budget at the start.

Resources: Every project has resources and you need to plan for it from the beginning. Resource planning is a huge subject in project management and requires its own article.

Risk planning: Nobody likes to plan for unforeseen risks in the project, but it is a huge factor in the success of the project or not.

Tools for project tracking

To track a project you need the right tools. Below I have listed the ones I use. If you have a favorite project tracking tool let me know. 

Gantt Chart: I have already mentioned the Gantt chart. An interactive Gantt chart which shows the baseline is a blessing for every project manager.

No other tool displays the project’s status like a Gantt chart. An interactive chart lets you update your project’s detail graphically. 

Recently, I hear some software vendors proclaim that the Gantt charts are outdated and not needed anymore.

This is absolute bullshit. There is no better tool for project tracking than the good old Gantt Chart.       

Time Tracking: There are many automatic tools for tracking time spent on projects. A built-in time tracker is the best option since it is integrated into the task management software.

Time tracking tools help you find out the actual time spent on finishing tasks and not rely on estimates or on the memory of your coworkers.

Burndown Chart: Another great tool for getting a realistic view of the project progress is the Burndown chart

Burndown chart is a graphical view of the work left in a project versus the time.

There is a horizontal line going from left-top to right-bottom that shows the baseline progress over time. If the actual graph is above this baseline, the project is late or in danger of finishing late.

If the actual project graph is on or near the baseline, then the project is on time.

If the actual graph is below the baseline (very unlikely) the project is ahead of the schedule and you should be proud.

Burndown chart is an amazing tool for project tracking. For a robust description of the burndown chart and how it can help you track your project better check here.  

Automatic notification: A great feature of the new software tools is that they can trigger email and desktop notifications when things go bad.

Imagine getting a notification that says an important task that should have been done today, is not!  You don’t need to update the project plan or get an email from the person working on the task to know this information.

I would like to expand on this topic further in the future. If you have ideas about how to track projects better, I love to hear from you. Leave a comment here and I will get back to you in no time.          

David Robins


David Robins is the founder and CEO of Binfire. David studied at both Cornell and MIT, and was the Director of Software Engineering at Polaroid for 11 years.


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