Code Yellow

August 19, 2007 | Author: PM Hut | Filed under: Communications Management,Performance Reporting,Project Stakeholder Management

Code Yellow
By Sainath Nagarajan, PMP

I am always intrigued to hear about projects that are consistent in terms of reporting their “stop light” status–and the consistency turns out to be the use of Code Yellow to report project status. Not that I am averse to this sunny color, but the notion that it can be used as a shield for self-defense against the closet monsters is something that I desist to nurture and promote.

Considerations regarding the usage of Code Yellow

  • Code Yellow cannot be an “automatic project state” by default. Project progress and status needs to be reported against an established and agreed upon baseline. While not all projects (and project managers) might use formal processes like Earned Value Management, the reality is that you need at least one baseline and an agreed-upon process to track and report against the baseline. Even a stand-alone process like overall milestone tracking can be used as to benchmark and report status. On the other hand, you could go as granularly as you’d like on the WBS and report status at the elemental level. In any case, report the status against a baseline, so that you can track progress over time and take corrective action as required.
  • Code Yellow doesn’t deliver any results, nor is it an insurance policy against known risk and uncertainty. It definitely offers no hedge to manage potential unknown risks. So the argument about using “yellow” as a barometer to identify and manage risk is not quite tenable, although at first glance it might even seem intuitive. The reality is that color codes don’t deliver project results, people do. So, make sure that you don’t create a false sense of security–or worse, complacence–that the yellow status is a safety net in case work doesn’t end up getting done per plan.
  • Normal state expectations cannot by themselves make a project status yellow without underlying supporting detail. Project execution phase statuses need to be tracked against constraints and expectations identified during project initiation and planning. However, a known constraint like a Dec 31 end date, by itself, cannot make a project status yellow if there is no direct tracking of the earned value versus planned value for the current point in time. Telling someone that the status is yellow because of a pre-set end date (for instance) is merely restating the obvious, and doesn’t add constructive value to the project.

Managing Code Yellow statuses

  • If Yellow is a steady state within a project, then its time to go red or green. If a project consistently presents itself in limbo, it’s time to do one of two things. You could clarify the constraints and reset expectations (like more time, cost, resources, etc.) to make the project green. Alternatively, place the status in red, get the appropriate level of stakeholder attention to specific decisions and direction to get out of the sand trap. If there truly are show-stoppers that need to be addressed, red is the way to go. And while we are on this topic, yes, it is okay to go directly from green to red. Things happen. Life happens. Change happens. If you can back-up a sudden change in status from green to red with a baseline plan and strong logic, you don’t need to wallow in yellow before you get there.
  • A sea of yellow status reports might be symptomatic of some of other deeper issues that warrant management attention and action. For instance, if there is a risk-averse culture, the project managers might tend to insulate the teams and themselves in the safety foam of Code Yellow. A real or perceived fear of persecution should also not be a trigger for false negatives. If you are working in a culture where project risk management is not fully understood, explore ways of elevating the dialog to highlight risk management practices, instead of seeking redress in color-coded status reports.

Obviously, putting this in practice

So, am I suggesting that Code Yellow should not be used? Hardly. However, it should not be used as a security blanket, because it really is not intended to be one. If you are already in the midst of the yellow sea, it might be time to start addressing your organizations’ interests with a solution-centric (take action) approach, rather than taking a problem-centric (take cover) approach.

  • If you are a project sponsor, ask your project manager to explain the specific solution-oriented steps that he/she is planning to take to move the status out of yellow. Ask the project manager if he/she is concerned about an activity, its duration, its dependency (e.g., a prerequisite that needs to be done), its resource or the quality of its outcome.
  • If you are a project team member, ask your project manager what you can do to expedite the movement of the status toward green. Tasks can take longer or shorter time than originally planned, so make sure that you can provide the project manager accurate inputs of actual start dates, actual duration, remaining duration for activities and specific risks/issues related to each activity.
  • If you are a project manager, look back at the trend of color statuses across all your projects, and ask yourself, would you buy the product from yourself? Sometimes, that’s all we need to crack the code! Set a specific reporting period and choose an update strategy (for tasks, assignments, or status) to make sure that the status and forecasts tie in to current reality. If activities on the critical path risk slippage, identify specific corrective action and recommend a timeline within which resolution is expected.

Stop-light reporting is a very valuable method for high-level reporting and project communication, however using it responsibly in a solution-oriented approach would pay off more dividends. As a project manager, as long as you have an agreed-upon baseline, keep your schedule current, track risks/issues and changes at a level of management control–and communicate information according to an established and agreed upon communication management plan–there is no need to find succor in the confining comforts of stop-light statuses.

This article was originally published in Global Knowledge’s Business Brief e-newsletter. Global Knowledge delivers comprehensive hands-on project management, business process, and professional skills training. Visit our online Knowledge Center at for free white papers, webinars, and more.

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