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8 Tips for Tighter Project Schedule Management

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RefineM Blog

8 Tips for Tighter Project Schedule Management

December 14, 2015
Image of a large clock in a city.

Managing the schedule is a critical function of project managers. Most stakeholders want to know when they can expect value to be delivered from a project. If project managers do not have tight control of the schedule management process, they cannot relay this valuable information and are at greater risk of schedule slippage, delays, and project failure.

  1. Start with strong scope management. Without strong scope management, generating a schedule that is effective and can be tightly controlled will be difficult. Before activities can be defined and sequenced, the WBS needs to be created and decomposed to the lowest feasible level. Strong change management also needs to be in place since the schedule may change due to changes to scope.
  2. Start with a strong schedule management plan. In addition to scope management, the schedule management plan is also an important part of the project management plan. Its greatest value lies in establishing how the schedule is built and monitored up-front so that stakeholders can validate the project manager’s logic. It includes how often the schedule is updated; for example, once a week, so that stakeholders can validate this frequency. If the schedule needs to be crashed or fast-tracked, how this happens can also be documented up-front. By determining and validating procedures before the schedule is even built, there are typically fewer surprises during the project.
  3. Consider rolling wave planning. Larger projects tend to be more difficult to manage tightly because there is more to keep track of and more opportunity for change later. In rolling wave planning, short-term work is planned out in detail, and long-term work is planned at a high level. Rolling wave planning may take more time overall, but it allows project managers to monitor and control a smaller portion of the schedule at a time.
  4. Take time to understand dependencies. Dependencies can take the form of:
    • Mandatory vs. discretionary (hard vs. soft logic). Mandatory dependencies may include legal requirements, contractual requirements, or requirements dictated by the logic of the work. For example, a team may be contractually required to perform the work in a specific sequence, or they may not be able to create one software module until another has been created. Discretionary dependencies are not requirements, but are typically based on best practices. For example, based on historical information, the team prefers to build and fully test one module before starting another.
    • External vs. internal. External dependencies come from outside, while internal dependencies come from within the organization. Either can be mandatory or discretionary. For example, two weeks of required software testing is an internal mandatory dependency, while three weeks based on best practice is an internal discretionary dependency.
  5. Refine the process of collecting estimates. Estimates can be difficult to obtain for many reasons, including fluidity of requirements and unfamiliarity with the work being done. Project managers should be familiar with the different ways of estimating (analogous, parametric, and PERT) and develop skill to break down requirements in order to get more accurate estimates on smaller chunks.
  6. Consider the resource availability. Resource allocation and schedule management need to be closely related. If a schedule makes assumptions about resources that do not turn out to be true, such as that a resource is available full-time when the resource is only part-time, then the schedule will be distorted. In addition, as best as possible, resources need to be allocated that are a good skill match, or in other words, the right person on the bus at the right time.Before project managers can finalize a schedule, resources need to be identified and allocated realistically. A good rule of thumb for resource allocation is 80 percent maximum. This allocation takes into account meetings and other operational work.
  7. Develop familiarity with scheduling tools. If project managers are not familiar with their scheduling tools (for example, MS Project) they will struggle with keeping a tight schedule. They may make mistakes and have to redo files, losing work and valuable time. They may also not be aware of features that they can use to their advantage, such as report generation to help speed up the process of collecting updates. If project managers need to use powerful scheduling tools such as MS Project, they should seek training on the tools so they can use them effectively.
  8. Automate as much as possible. Ideally, project managers will be able to communicate one-on-one with project team members and collect status updates on a weekly basis to update the schedule. In practice, this is often not the case. Project managers who work with large teams, large / complex projects, or multiple projects, may find the process of updating project schedules to be cumbersome and time-consuming. They might benefit from ways to automate parts of the process; for example, posting schedules for team members to fill with progress instead of emailing one at a time, or installing a tool that lets team members fill their task updates as they work on tasks. Tools like Asana or Basecamp can be used to manage schedules in order to take some burden off project managers so they can focus on strategic goals. By building a strong foundation with effective scope management, schedule management planning, and familiarity with tools, project managers can create schedules that can be tightly controlled and revised to reflect evolving needs on their projects. Building this foundation helps project managers better prepare for the inevitable changes on their projects.

Developing a tight project schedule requires a lot of foundational work because the schedule is so heavily integrated with other parts of the project and is one of the most visible deliverables. Project managers need to understand and practice strong scope management and build an effective schedule management plan to get stakeholders on board. They need to be able to leverage key techniques, such as rolling wave planning and collecting estimates, and fully understand different types of dependencies as well as resource allocation. Finally, they need a solid grasp of the scheduling tools they use and should be able to leverage their knowledge to find ways to automate their processes to save valuable time. By mastering these tips, project managers will be prepared to manage their schedules successfully.

Still looking for more guidance with runaway project schedules? The project schedule is one of eight crucial project management processes described in RefineM’s toolkit, Essential Gear For Project Managers. Learn more about the toolkit today.

What tips do you have for tighter schedule management? Please let us know in the comments.

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