The project deadlines are firm but the resources are occupied. The deadlines have been tightened but the quality must stay the same. The customer wants the highest quality product at the lowest cost. These are some of the many issues a project manager must deal with on a daily basis. On a foundational level, the project manager must balance the cost-quality-time equilibrium to ensure all stakeholders are satisfied.
Schedule Management Plan
According to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, a Schedule Management Plan is created prior to the creation of the project schedule itself. For small projects, this is simply a section of the project management plan. It contains the overall direction and strategy regarding the project schedule. It can contain the schedule itself, but in practice the schedule usually works better in an appendix.
The best template for a schedule management plan is a previous project, especially a similar or related one. If your project is unique, or if you need a checklist, here are a few questions that you can answer when developing your schedule management plan:
- How will the schedule be developed?
The type of software that will be used can be identified as well as the person creating the schedule. Any other methodology such as estimating techniques or resource sharing methods.
- How aggressive will it be?
The strategy for contingencies and reserves can be specified, as well as what would constitute a situation in which the reserves will be tapped.
- Who will be notified?
Unique stakeholders to the schedule can be identified, as well as their communication needs. A distribution list for the final schedule and/or revisions can be determined. Regular schedule performance reporting needs can be established.
- When and how will the schedule performance be measured?
Generally, earned value analysis will produce a schedule variance (SV) and Schedule Performance Index (SPI), as well as a few other numbers which give the project manager insight into how far ahead or behind the project it. Weekly (or other) progress meetings ensure the project team is up to speed with the project schedule and identifies progress to be achieved within the forthcoming progress period.
- When (not if!) the project is behind schedule, what actions will be taken to rectify it?
There are a few options. The highest to lowest priority can be specified in the schedule management plan.
- Crashing the schedule means adding more resources.
- Fast tracking means performing tasks in parallel that would otherwise be done in sequence.
- Changing the scope of the work to eliminate unnecessary tasks.
- Updating the schedule, which requires the approval of the project sponsor.
- What resources are required, and how will their schedules be managed?
Often projects are constrained by one or several major resources, like a pile driver for a building foundation. Maybe these major resources need some extra contingencies since the whole project moves ahead or behind with their availability.
- What are the assumptions embedded within the schedule?
Every project schedule contains assumptions, from the underlying conditions to the external requirements. If these are not laid out in the plan, the project stakeholders will assume they haven’t been considered which does not bode well when project changes are encountered.
Creating a Project Schedule
Project scheduling is one of the foundational parts of project management, and for that reason the Project Time Management knowledge area is probably the most important of the ten knowledge areas in the PMBOK. To put it another way, a project management plan without a professionally built, resource levelled, project schedule is not that effective in ensuring a positive outcome for the project.
There are six steps to creating a professional project schedule:
- Dividing the project into tasks
- Determining the task sequencing and relationships between tasks
- Estimating task resources
- Estimating task durations
- Building the initial schedule
- Resource levelling and final schedule
Steps 1-5 each contain their own processes within the PMBOK, sequentially in the Time Management knowledge area. Resource levelling is part of schedule development (the step before it) but I include it separately because in practice it is a distinct step.
Creating a professional, resource levelled schedule is the first step in ensuring the project deadlines are met. It creates the expectations. But an amazing schedule collecting dust on the shelf is of no benefit to anyone. Fortunately, project management theory is extensive in the area of schedule control and the well travelled methods will make meeting deadlines almost effortless. The project deadlines can meet themselves if you perform the right sequence of tasks. The secret is called Earned Value Analysis.
Firstly, the project manager must set up a status period length. I recommend one week, because for almost any size project a one week progress meeting is achievable without being too onerous.
The content of the weekly status meetings depends on what works for the project and the project manager. It can be a full project team meeting, or simply the project manager updating the project stats. But it must be done. Books have been written about the inefficiency of meetings, and I don’t disagree with them. But effective project teams require collaboration between people and that means they must communicate, both sideways to other team members and upwards to the project manager. A regular status meeting is a necessity.
In order to use professional project controls to ensure deadlines are met, the process goes something like this:
- The project schedule must be achievable and resource levelled. See above.
- Near the end of each status period, the project manager determines the percent complete of each task via educated guesses or one-on-one consultations with project team members.
- Prior to the status meeting, the project manager uses the percent complete estimates to calculate the Schedule Variance (SV) and Schedule Performance Index (SPI). There are equivalent items in the project cost knowledge area (Cost Variance and Cost Performance Index) but we are focused on schedule here. Earned value analysis contains several other values which you might be interested in, but these two (plus the two cost items) are the minimum.
- At the end of the status period, the status meeting contains the following agenda items:
- Schedule and cost variances. Communicate the SV and SPI, and discuss why is the project ahead or behind schedule and/or cost.
- Tasks achieved last week (or whatever status period length). The project schedule is displayed or distributed and discussed.
- Tasks to be performed this week. This also keeps project team members accountable.
- A look forward to the end of the project. This is to keep the big picture in everyone’s mind and help motivate people by reminding them why they are doing what they’re doing.
- The above four agenda items are summarized into a project status form, which is distributed to the relevant parties and filed into the project management plan.
For most projects the project manager can spend 1 hour per week determining the SV, SPI, CV, and CPI, and then distribute them to the project team in a project status meeting. Everyone will be up to speed with where they should be and what they should be doing. Any potential issues that come up and can be addressed via the methods outlined in the schedule management plan (see above). Believe me, the deadlines really will manage themselves.
Project Management Software
As you can imagine, the proper planning and control of project schedules is made much easier with software. Software is heavily dependent on the industry and the preference of the individual project manager. In the technical and engineering fields, Microsoft Project is prominent. In construction, Primavera Project Planner is the standard. In the I.T. industry, web based project management is the norm.
Whatever you choose, learn it well. Make sure it has a strong project control element, because it is easy to sink into a routine where the software is used mostly as a data tool, which tells you all the metrics but doesn’t give you any help to get the project back on track.