High-Level Reporting with S-Curves

//High-Level Reporting with S-Curves

High-Level Reporting with S-Curves

The S-Curve compares the planned progress versus the actual progress and helps you keep the the project overview in the long-run.

The Challenge

Throughout the project life cycle reporting becomes more complex. Multiple Performance Indicators (MPIs) and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) evolve and the project sponsors feel the need for more measures over time. Although methods of, for example, an Earned Value Analysis as well as work-related reports provide constant instruments of monitoring progress, the “bigger picture” should always come first.

One way to keep the overview is a S-Curve to compare the planned progress versus the actual progress.

Elements of the S-Curve

The S-Curve is a visual representation of cumulative data – selectively based on actual work or cost over time. The shape is determined by the cumulative indicators chosen, whereas it is generally assumed that it will be S-Shaped because less work or cost occur at the beginning and end of the project.

Because an S-Curve typically measures work or cost over time it usually consists of:

  • Cumulative Baseline Work Hours or Cumulative Baseline Cost
  • Cumulative Actual Work Hours or Cumulative Actual Cost
  • Optional: Work per period, for example per month as bars (see picture on the left)

Be aware that the S-Curve is a mid- to long-term indicator. Within a short time frame the S-Shape might not be easily recognizable.

S-Curve: Cumulative Baseline Work vs Cumulative Actual Work (with Actual Work per Month)

S-Curve and the issue of future work

It is arguable what conclusion can be drawn from an S-Curve, as the only statements that it leads to can be:

  • Actual Work versus Baseline Work over time
    • “We have done less work than planned.”
    • “We have done more work than planned.”
    • “We have done exactly the amount of work that was planned.” (very rare)
  • Actual Cost versus Baseline Cost over time
    • “We spent less money than planned.”
    • “We spent more money than planned.”
    • “We spent exactly the amount of money that was planned.” (very rare)

As the project progresses, tasks and/or cost are added during execution. When showing the work or cost for each month on the S-Curve it is possible that cost or work that was planned for the future already occurred.

S-Curve with future work already reported

S-Curve with future work already reported

In this case, the S-Curve might be misleading. Did the project members have enough time to accomplish future work? Did the project members skip some planned tasks due to constraints, risk or other factors and instead focused on future work? Did it make sense to pay for certain equipment to get discounts, although the purchase was planned in 2 months from now? Etc.

To get a deeper understanding of future work/cost that was already done it is advisable to break it down by resource department or cost type and take a closer look at the number of late tasks or expenses and their dependencies according to the project sequence. This way, the resources that worked on tasks ahead of time can get the credit for it and expenses may be transparently justifiable. Also, corrective actions can be taken with teams that slipped from the schedule because of events that made it difficult to get planned work done.


The S-Curve is a useful starting point to see the current project situation at a glance. It is not sufficient to understand the situation and therefore should be accompanied by drill-downs and other charts/tables in project-specific categories.

Next post: Creating S-Curves in Project 2013

While this post covered the theory of S-Curves, the next post will walk you through on how to create a set of S-Curves in Microsoft Project 2013.

By | 2017-11-17T11:30:37+00:00 October 19th, 2015|Categories: Reporting|Tags: , , , , , , , , |Comments Off on High-Level Reporting with S-Curves

About the Author:

Jakub reduces complexity and increases productivity in Projects and Portfolios for Fortune 500 and DAX 30 companies through educational methods and analysis of people, processes and technology. As a Solution Consultant he guides efforts on digital transformation. He further raises awareness in NGOs for Project Management to build sustainable solutions with a focus on strategic partnerships. Jakub is especially passionate about thought leadership in the areas of Demand Management, Portfolio Analytics & Selection, Business Intelligence & Reporting as well as Resource Management.