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Eight Powerful Project Management Processes Part 5: Project Schedule

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Eight Powerful Project Management Processes Part 5: Project Schedule

June 20, 2014
Image of a project manager following working on scheduling

This is Part Five in our series on the “Eight Powerful Project Management Processes,” a look at the project management processes that we have found to be most crucial to project success.

These processes are also available in our toolkit, Essential Gear for Project Managers. Last time, we examined resource allocation. Now, we move to the project schedule.

The project schedule aligns project milestones, activities, and deliverables with planned start and end dates, and the process to create it links these items by dependencies and scheduled events. It is arguably the most commonly-used project management process. In our recent survey, over 97 percent of respondents reported using a project schedule on the majority of their projects.

It is easy to see why so many project managers use a schedule. The schedule allows a project manager to align the team around the delivery of key milestones. It is a key part of managing stakeholder expectations, since most stakeholders will expect a schedule. The schedule process also helps ensure that project managers have considered dependencies and constraints as well as resource needs and availability.

Best practices for getting the most out of the project schedule process include:

1. Preparing the format before entering activities.

Even though the schedule depends on having tasks ready, the format for the schedule does not share this dependency. It can save time later to create the format for the schedule and resource assignment and have it reviewed by the team and stakeholders. Having to make changes later on is still doable, but will consume time that could have been saved upfront by finalizing the schedule documentation in advance.

2. Factoring in changing needs over time.

An effective schedule accounts for changes that could happen over the project’s lifespan. For example, if the second phase of the project requires more expense than the others due to material costs unique to that phase, the schedule needs to reflect this condition. Project managers can find out about these changing needs through conversations with team members and stakeholders. The risk register is another place to look for possible project impacts that would require schedule adjustments.

3. Baselining the final schedule.

Baselining the finalized schedule makes it easier to measure the project’s performance. Baselining means setting the planned dates as a benchmark against which to measure the actual dates. At the time of the baseline, planned dates and baseline dates should be the same. Setting this baseline on the plan allows project managers to track the actual performance better.

4. Remembering the basics of predecessor/successor relationships and summary tasks when using a tool.

Many times, it can be easy to get confused with predecessor/successor relationships and summary tasks. To help with this confusion, remember some basic rules of each. All tasks should have a predecessor and a successor, with only a few exceptions. The task that starts the project should be the only one entered without a predecessor, and the project’s end task should be the only one entered without a successor. Summary tasks also should not have predecessor/successor relationships. Another basic rule with summary tasks is that they should not have resources assigned to them or else the scheduling tool may double-count the resource.

Some pitfalls with the project schedule include:

1. Creating and finalizing the schedule before or instead of creating the WBS.

In the project management processes, the WBS is created as part of the scope baseline, which becomes an input to defining activities from the work packages and sequencing these activities. If the schedule is created before or in lieu of the WBS, then it lacks the substantial backing of a schedule created with the WBS as its base. One problem will be obtaining accurate estimates from the team members scheduled to perform the work, but a larger problem is achieving buy-in on a schedule that does not have a solid foundation.

2. Creating estimates that are too optimistic.

Project managers will have a difficult time securing buy-in on a schedule that is too optimistic because it is likely that such a schedule has overlooked key components of a work. For example, an overly optimistic schedule might include the assumption that an activity that takes three days can be done in one day. Unless the people performing that work can figure out a way to fit their work into one day without compromising the quality, it is not a good idea to assume they can do it and base the schedule on that assumption.

3. Failing to conduct review of the schedule.

Like many other documents created as outputs to project management processes, the project schedule needs to be reviewed. Reviewing is part of securing buy-in, and it also helps to refine the schedule and make its boundaries more realistic. Using the above example, in a schedule review meeting, team members can brainstorm ways to perform that activity in two days instead of three days. If they cannot find a way, then it has at least been documented that the team examined whether the activity could be shortened. Without that review, there is no basis for such a claim.

4. Using a scheduling tool like Microsoft Project without proper training.

Scheduling tools, including Microsoft Project, often have many important features that allow project managers a lot of leeway on how to construct their projects and component parts. The downside to all of these options is that there is a lot to learn, and project managers who are uncomfortable with a tool like Microsoft Project should try to get training before using the tool on projects. Learning how to use the tool saves the headaches involved with setting up the schedule; for example, setting the right durations and task types and lining up predecessors and successors correctly.

5. Abandoning the schedule during project execution.

Project managers should expect that the project will not go exactly according to plan. When dates start to slip, abandoning the schedule is a bad idea. The best response for the project manager in this situation is to figure out why the schedule is slipping and make adjustments. For example, if one recurring task is consistently taking more time, this is an opportunity for the project manager to take corrective action and prevent future occurrences. If the project manager abandons the schedule, he or she will either need to make a new one later or proceed without one, both of which are time-consuming and risky.

To get the most out of a project schedule, project managers should make sure the schedule has a strong foundation and adequate peer review, and they should also make sure they are skilled in using any scheduling tools that are necessary. Following these best practices, and avoiding the pitfalls, will help project managers get the most out of this very common and very essential project management process.

What other best practices or pitfalls do you recommend? What are your experiences with the project schedule? Let us know in the comments.

Essential Gear for Project Managers is a toolkit with the eight essential project management processes you need to deliver projects on time, on budget, and exceeding expectations. Delivered to you via intuitive templates and a handbook describing best practices and pitfalls.

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