PM Foundations – Creating a Strong Project Schedule

While teaching Time Management at the PMP Certification Class for the past two years, I often receive feedback about my passion on the topic of Time Management. This passion stems from my belief that without a good schedule that directly supports the project objectives (scope, time, and cost), the project manager will struggle to effectively deliver on customer expectations.

What does a good project schedule look like? Below are a few questions that help you test your schedule.

  • Are the deliverables and activities broken down to a level that can be estimated and tracked?
  • Has accountability / responsibility been established for deliverables and activities?
  • Can you easily follow the flow of the project work?
  • Do the milestones appear to be reasonable and achievable?
  • Does the resource usage link appropriately to the project budget?

Although these steps are not completed in an entirely sequential manner, I do believe that a project schedule is created most effectively and efficiently based upon a very specific approach and sequence of processes:

1. Activity Definition – Starting with the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) that defines and organizes the project deliverables into a logic manner, activity definition adds the detail work to be performed to create the deliverables. This process adds 1-3 levels of detail to the WBS, and provides the basis for estimating, identifying resource requirements, and tracking progress.

2.  Activity Sequencing – Activity sequencing establishes the relationship between deliverables and activities. This process defines both “hard” and “soft” logic in the schedule, that establishes the flow of the work to be completed throughout the project life cycle.

3.  Duration Estimating – Duration Estimating establishes the number of work periods required to complete schedule activities (reflected in work days). This process is utilized to create the first cut of the project timeline. At this point in the process the project manager is assessing the schedule for reasonableness, not perfection.

4. Resource Loading & Leveling – Resource requirements for specific activities are loaded based upon a percent allocation for resources, or “bottoms-up” estimates of work effort. Resource leveling is utilized to resolve resource usage conflicts and over allocation of specific resources.

5. Schedule Analysis – Schedule analysis is utilized to finalize the project schedule and create the baseline project schedule. The goal of this process is to ensure that the team can deliver on customer expectations with the schedule that has been created, and that the project schedule is fully documented and well understood by key stakeholders.

Leveraging best practices, the project manager ensures that a project schedule is efficiently created and is proactively utilized to successfully deliver on the project objectives:

  • Ensure that the appropriate schedule related defaults have been set-up within the scheduling tool. These defaults define work hours, holidays, and other key behaviors within the scheduling tool. A good example of set-up data that drives behaviors in the project schedule is the task type field (I recommend using fixed duration as the default task type)..

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  • Schedule related risks should be appropriately mitigated within the project schedule in the form of schedule reserves or contingencies. I find it most effective to explicitly document the schedule reserves in the project schedule.

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  • Leverage dependencies in the project schedule to create a logical “flow” of the project deliverables and activities. Conversely, avoid arbitrary constraints (e.g., “must start on” or “must finish no earlier than”). As things change (and they inevitably will change) with regards to how the work is actually completed, these arbitrary date constraints quickly become inaccurate.

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  • Before the first cut of the timeline is complete, milestones should be inserted into the appropriate points in the schedule. How do the milestones in the timeline compare to target dates that were established up-front (potentially committed dates from the project sponsors)? Are there actions that can be taken to close gaps between milestones and target dates?
  • There are several techniques that represent best practices during the final schedule review. Each of these techniques will help uncover opportunities to improve the schedule or reduce the risk, but can drive undesirable results if used improperly (see the chart below).

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PM Foundations – The Project Management Plan

As you read through the integration section of the PMBOK, the key deliverable that connects the project management activities throughout the project life cycle is the project management plan. Once you get beyond the conversation that deals with, “What you are referring to is the project schedule, not the project plan”, many colleagues and clients seem to have a wide range of perspectives that relate to the value (or lack of value) associated with this deliverable. Some of these comments include:

“I complete the project management plan so I can check it off on the SDLC Checklist. No one really reads it.”

“If you have seen one project management plan, you have seen them all. They read like a cookbook.”

“In reality, the project management plan is out of date before the ink is dry on it.”

“It is really only required for big projects. It is overkill for a small to medium size project”.

I am often accused of drinking the PMI/PMBOK Kool-Aid, but my sincere belief on this topic is that the comments above relate to a gap in execution of effective best practices, not a case of theory vs. reality.

Below are some examples of key elements of the project management plan that ensure that this deliverable provides tangible value to the project team as it seeks to meet or exceed customer expectations:

Project Definition – The project definition provides the “big picture” about the project. This section demonstrates to the stakeholders that the team clearly understands the problem they have been tasked with solving. It is important that the assumptions and constraints identified up-front are reviewed and managed throughout the project life cycle.

Scope Management – The scope management plan provides a high level description of the project, and the process utilized to define and manage this scope. Make sure the deliverables are described at the level that will remove ambiguity across different stakeholder perspectives.

Schedule Management – The schedule management plan highlights the major project milestones, and describes important components of the schedule. Which portions of the schedule are built based upon time (duration) vs. effort (work)? Where have planning components been included in the schedule? What criteria were utilized to test the level of granularity in the schedule?

Cost Management – Cost estimation and control are vital to a project’s success. This section describes the costs associated with the project, how they were estimated, and how they will be tracked and reported. This section also describes any gaps between the cost baseline and the project funding sources.

Change Management – The change management plan provides a definition of change in the context of the project, and when the change management processes will be utilized. Defining and managing change can be a contentious area, and the best practice is to ensure stakeholders clearly understand and agree how it will be defined and managed well before it occurs.

Roles & Responsibilities – Defining roles at the beginning of the project is crucial for a smooth project launch. One of the chief causes of project “churn” is related to people not being clear about their role on the project.

Leveraging best practices, the project manager ensures that a project management plan is efficiently created and is proactively utilized to successfully deliver on the project objectives:

  • Make sure the content of the plan is focused on the information that is relevant to the project. Describe the processes and tools that represent the critical success factors for the project team. Standard processes and tools should be referenced, not included in the plan. This also ensures that the content of the plan is “sized” appropriately to the scope of the project.
  • Present the plan to stakeholders in a manner that clearly articulates the key messages. Do not be afraid to use charts, tables, and graphics to illustrate key points. In addition, consider preparing summary documents that are utilized to brief key stakeholders on the project.
  • Personally reference the plan on a regular basis, to ensure that the team is effectively executing the plan in a manner that will meet or exceed customer expectations.
  • Take deliberate actions to ensure that the plan remains current throughout the project life cycle. It is worth the time investment to ensure that there is a “single version of the truth” about the project, in the form of the project management plan.

Project Management Foundations

From my experience and perspective, despite the maturity and completeness of the PMBOK and other project management related resources, companies still struggle with effective application of the basic project management concepts, processes and tools. Consistent and effective application of these concepts, processes and tools is generally demonstrated in the form of “best practices”. Establishing, implementing, and re-enforcing best practices around the “critical few” project management competency areas will often represent the difference between a successful and challenged project. The more ingrained these best practices are in the project management culture, the lower the dependency on the talents and heroic efforts of individual project managers.

To help better articulate what I mean by focusing on fundamentals, here are a few examples of best practices that you will find interwoven into the fabric of a solid project management culture and/or service offering:

The Project Management Plan – The project management plan is the key deliverable that confirms the high level scope of the project, and defines how the project will be managed in the context of the client’s organizational assets (people, methodologies, processes, and supporting tools). The project management plan appropriately “fills the gaps” in the client’s process and tools, while maintaining the integrity of the established methodology. The temptation of many project managers is to create a “cookbook” type project management plan that is seldom referenced to help drive the success of the project.

A Well-Structured WBS – The WBS provides a very useful hierarchical view of the project deliverables. A well organized WBS, decomposed to the appropriate level of detail, creates a foundation for effectively estimating durations and work effort, establishing responsibilities and work assignments, and tracking progress.

A Resource Loaded and Leveled Project Schedule – Resources are loaded into the schedule activities, either based upon “top down” assignments to specific activities, or “bottom up” work effort estimates for these activities. After the resources are accurately reflected in the schedule, the schedule is not complete (and baselined) until resource leveling is performed based upon “real” availability of resources throughout the project.

Targeted Project Communications and Performance Reporting – During the planning and execution phases of the project it is important to establish verbal and written communications that validate the quality of deliverables, provide updates on the project, and facilitate escalation and resolution of project change requests and issues. Communications that are performed on a regular basis create a certain rhythm that carries on throughout the project (e.g., weekly status reports, weekly core team meetings, monthly steering committee meetings).

Project Closure – The tendency in many organizations is to rush onto the next project, as soon as the current project is released. Project closure provides the transition from project activities to operational functions, communicates fact based information about the performance metrics accumulated throughout the project life cycle, and most importantly establishes the action plans to drive improvements in future projects based upon “lessons learned”.

A thoughtful implementation and diligent application of best practices will drive tangible benefits realized immediately within individual projects, but more importantly by creating a project management culture and competency that consistently meets or exceeds customer expectations:

  • Provides a consistent approach for key project management functions that enhances the ability to effectively initiate and plan the project, and on-board the project team members and other stakeholders.
  • Develops project managers that are significantly more productive, ramping-up quickly on the project and providing the ability to take on a greater level of responsibility.
  • Establishes a common sense understanding of the appropriate application of best practices, and creates an environment that promotes continuous improvement (further enhancing project management performance and productivity).