Use early warning indicators as a management tool

An Early Warning Indicators (EWI) can be used as a trigger to focus our attention

You can use Early Warning Indicators (EWI) and Key Performance Indicators as instruments of measurement to enable proactive management of projects, programmes or business as usual operations.

The topic of Early Warning Indicators is part of Performance Metrics, here we are highlighting the use of metrics as Early Warning Indicators.

From a project perspective we want to increase the probability of achieving the project objectives. This includes but is not limited to effective management of time, scope, cost, quality, benefits realisation, team work and well-being of the project organisation.
In order to know how we are doing it is useful to have some form of regular feedback to indicate if we are doing well, mediocre or badly in relation to the objectives and where to focus our attention and limited resources to resolve problems and optimise on opportunities.

A EWI can be used as a trigger to focus our attention on a particular area that will affect the project. In the case of negative consequences this will give us time to make a recovery plan before the full impact of a situation derails the project completely.

Examples where we can develop EWIs to be used from the project perspective?

1. Understanding why we are doing this project, what is the business case?
2. Estimated delivery date, are we ahead or behind schedule
3. Number of work packages accomplished to schedule, late or early
4. Number of work packages passing or failing quality review
5. Are approvals or disapprovals for work done given as agreed
6. Supplier / production team performance
7. Level of feedback at retrospective meetings
8. Rate of spend, behind or ahead of planned spend
9. Spend against degree of completion
10. Staff turnover both on the client side and supplier side
11. Conflicts in various forms.
12. Claims submitted
13. Stoppages
14. Knowledge that end users have on the proposed end product and how it will affect them
15. How much multitasking is taking place and what is the nature of the multitasking
16. How much trust or distrust is there between individuals and groups?

Examples of tools and approaches that can be used for identifying early warning indicators

Maturity Models

Several international organisations have developed reasonably simple maturity model guides that can be used to assess an organisations maturity in relation to delivering projects. Use one of these to assess if your organisation is likely to deliver a project successfully. If you have a low score then that is an EWI that your organisation may need help from a professional, a high score indicates that you have a good opportunity of delivering projects successfully.


The Boston Consulting Group has a tool called DICE that they have developed to measure the likelihood of a change initiative being successful. This is based on four elements, duration, integrity, commitment and effort. It is simple and provides a consistent way of measuring if a project is likely to be a problem. (

Stakeholder Analysis

A good stakeholder analysis will identify what drives individual stakeholders and what power and influence they have over the project. Importantly you will get an insight into how stakeholders might react if they do not get what they want from the project. If you have this information early on then you have the possibility of proactively resolving possible future problems.

Simple questions and questionnaires

Try this exercise when you next have a chance, write up a few questions about the project you are working on now and then go and put those questions to the relevant people.

Question for selected decision makers:
• How much is this project expected to cost?
• What is the priority of this project in relation to other initiatives and business as usual operations?
• What strategic objectives are we aiming to satisfy as a result of implementing this project?

Questions to those likely to be affected by the project.
• When is the project output expected to be used by the operational department?
• Who will use the expected output?
• What capability is expected from the project output?
• Who has responsibility for realising the benefits?
• How will this project affect you?

Retrospectives & Lessons Learned

The use lesson learned sessions can bring up sources of previous problems for which you can develop EWIs’ so that the problems can be identified in their early stages.

Retrospectives can be used during the project to identify new threats or opportunities that have not been identified before. They are also an ideal forum to review identified EWIs’ and see if any are near a trigger point.

Cause and effect diagrams

You can use Post-Its’ for this exercise. Write down a problem then identify possible causes to the problem. You can use these possible causes to start identifying early warning indicators (EWIs)

Using cause and effect thinking to identify early warning indicators

Burn Down Charts

A Burn Down charts is a graphical representation of work left to do versus time. Read more on this

Earned value management

Earned value management is a project management technique for measuring project performance and progress. It has the ability to combine measurements of: Scope, Schedule (time), and Costs. Read more on this

Critical Chain Scheduling

Critical Chain Scheduling can be used to monitor the expected delivery date of the project output as well as improving cost management. Read more on this

This graphic communicates the project status in relation to the delivery date. As long as the marker is in the green, the project should deliver on or before the final delivery date. When the marker approaches the orange/yellow this is an early warning that the project may be delivered late.
critical chain scheduling gives an EWI on project delivery date