Connect the Dots with Requirements Traceability, Part 3 - The Process


The CEO of a major corporation who was present when I described requirements traceability at a seminar asked, “Why wouldn’t you create a requirements traceability matrix for your strategic business systems?” That’s an excellent question. He clearly saw the value of having that kind of data available to the organization for each of its applications. If you agree with this executive's viewpoint, you might be wondering how to incorporate requirements traceability into your systems development activities in an effective and efficient way.

Tracing requirements is a manually intensive task that requires organizational commitment and an effective process. Defining traceability links is not much work if you collect the information as development proceeds, but it’s tedious and expensive to do on a completed system. Keeping the link information current as the system undergoes development and maintenance takes discipline. If the traceability information becomes obsolete, you’ll probably never reconstruct it. Outdated traceability data wastes time by sending developers and maintainers down the wrong path, so it’s actually worse than having no data at all.

Requirements Traceability Procedure

Requirements Traceability How To ProcedureIf you're serious about this effort, you need to explicitly make gathering and managing requirements traceability data the responsibility of certain individuals. Otherwise, it just won’t happen. Typically, a business analyst or a quality assurance engineer collects, stores, and reports on the traceability information. Consider following this sequence of steps when you begin to implement requirements traceability on a specific project:

  1. Select the link relationships you want to define from the possibilities shown in Figure 2 from the first article in this series on requirements traceability.

  2. Take another look at the second article in this series and choose the type of traceability matrix you want to use: the single matrix shown in Table 1 or several of the matrices illustrated in Table 2. Select a mechanism for storing the data—a table in a text document, a spreadsheet, or a commercial requirements management tool.

  3. Identify the parts of the product for which you want to maintain traceability information. Start with the critical core functions, the high-risk portions, or the portions that you expect to undergo the most maintenance and evolution over the product’s life.

  4. Modify your development procedures and checklists to remind developers to update the links after implementing a requirement or an approved change. The traceability data should be updated as soon as someone completes a task that creates or changes a link in the requirements chain.

  5. Define the tagging conventions you will use to uniquely identify all system elements so they can be linked together. If necessary, write scripts that will parse the system files to construct and update the traceability matrices. If you don't have unique and persistent labels on requirements, design elements, and other system elements, there's no way you can document the connections between them.

  6. Educate the team about the concepts and importance of requirements tracing, your objectives for this activity, where you will store the traceability data, and the techniques for defining the links—for example, using the tracing features of a requirements management tool.

  7. Identify the individuals who will supply each type of link information and the person who will coordinate the traceability activities and manage the data. Obtain commitments from all of them to do their part.

  8. As development proceeds, have each participant provide the requested traceability information as they complete small bodies of work. Stress the need to assemble the traceability data as they work, rather than attempting to reconstruct it at a major milestone or at the end of the project.

  9. Audit the traceability information periodically to make sure it is being kept current. If a requirement is reported as implemented and verified, yet its traceability data is incomplete or inaccurate, your traceability process isn’t working as you intend.

This procedure is described as though you were starting to collect traceability information at the outset of a new project. If you’re maintaining a legacy system, odds are that you have some traceability data available. There’s no time like the present to begin accumulating this useful information. The next time you have to add an enhancement or make a modification, write down what you discover about connections between code, tests, designs, and requirements. Build the recording of traceability data into your procedure for modifying an existing software component. This small amount of effort might make it easier the next time someone has to work on that same part of the system. You’ll never reconstruct a complete requirements traceability matrix, but you can grow a body of knowledge a bit at a time during the application’s life.

Is Requirements Traceability Feasible? Is it Necessary?

You might conclude that creating a requirements traceability matrix is more expensive than it’s worth or that it’s not feasible for your project. That’s fine: it’s your decision. But consider the following counter-example. A seminar attendee who worked at an aircraft manufacturer told me that the requirements specification for his team’s part of the company’s latest jetliner was a stack of paper six feet thick. They had a complete requirements traceability matrix. I’ve flown on that very model of airplane several times, and I was happy to hear that the developers had managed their requirements so carefully. Managing traceability on a huge product with many interrelated subsystems is a lot of work. This aircraft manufacturer knows it is essential; the Federal Aviation Administration agrees.

Not all companies build products that can have grave consequences if the software has problems. However, you should take requirements tracing seriously, especially for your business’s core information systems. You should decide to use any improved requirements engineering practice based on both the costs of applying the technique and the risks of not using it. As with all software processes, make an economic decision to invest your valuable time where you expect the greatest payback.

About the Author :

Karl Wiegers is Principal Consultant at Process Impact, His interests include requirements engineering, project management, peer reviews, and process improvement. His most recent book is a memoir of life lessons titled Pearls from Sand: How Small Encounters Lead to Powerful Lessons (

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