REVIEW: Effective Project Control



National Audit Office, UK
HC30 Session 2005-2006,
20 May 2005
The Stationery Office, London


For the last 20 years the annual Major Projects Report has highlighted the variable performance of the Ministry of Defence's (MoD) highest value defence equipment procurement projects. To help understand why sustained improvements in performance are proving so difficult for the MoD and its industry partners to deliver, the National Audit Office (NAO), in March 2004, published an analysis of the complex cultural and systemic drivers which need to be managed if military capability is to be delivered faster, cheaper and better. Building on this analysis, this report, the first in the series, compares current UK defence performance for one of the key drivers – project control – to a theoretical ‘gold standard’ developed from an analysis of the best UK practices and those adopted by a range of overseas and commercial comparators.


Project control is defined as how progress is tracked and decisions made to ensure successful delivery of projects, and the structures and processes which need to be put in place to underpin these activities. Overall, the report concludes that some UK defence projects compare favourably with the ‘gold standard’ with a number at the very forefront of good project control. However, there is a wide variety of performance across projects and the challenge for the MoD and its industry partners will be to learn from its own good experiences, and the success of others, to consistently deliver more successful project outcomes on all projects.


The ‘gold standard’ is based around four main aspects of project control: establishing and sustaining the right cultural environment; creating clear structures and boundaries; measuring progress and making decisions focused on successful project delivery; and reporting to enable strategic decisions. Traditionally much activity has been focused on the first three, more quantifiable and scientific, aspects. However, the strongest message emerging from the report is that successful working relationships are characterised by ‘soft’ factors such as team working, trust and honesty. When the MoD and its industry partners display these behaviours they are more likely to develop a common understanding of the task and the progress being made, giving early warning of problems. When a project operates in a supportive and open corporate environment the other parts of the project’s own organisation, such as senior management, are more likely to have timely and accurate information about the status of the project to enable them to make sensible decisions. Without this strong foundation, even projects which apply all of the right project management processes are unlikely to succeed.


Overall, the report shows that the MoD has strong examples, such as FIST, of good practice in gaining shared ownership with industry partners; can point to a few cases, including the HMS Illustrious refit, where it specifically measures the strength of the client/contractor relationship; and, on projects like Trojan and Titan, has pockets of good practice in fostering an open environment although there is substantial scope for improvement in this area.


Given the richness of the evidence gathered, the NAO have also set up a website ( to enable those interested to explore the evidence underpinning the recommendations in more detail and to better understand the ‘gold-standard’ criteria.

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