8 Bad Habits – Creating and Maintaining Your Project Schedule

I have always believed that you can learn as much or more from challenges and problems on projects as you do from successes. It is amazing how much you as a project manager contribute to the project’s challenges (in a bad way). The project schedule is a good example of where a project manager can have the best intentions in the world, and yet they create a schedule that is difficult to understand and nearly impossible to maintain. The bad thing about a poorly constructed project schedule is that it is something you have to live with the entire project life cycle. I have been on more than one project where we decided it was best to have a “do over” on the schedule than continue to struggle along with the one we were using.

There are a handful of traps that project managers fall into when creating a project schedule, either because at the time it seems like their approach is a “shortcut”, or they don’t understand the scheduling tool well enough to know any better. These bad habits make the schedule difficult keep up to date to reflect progress on the project, as well as changes in the work to be performed. In addition, these bad habits make the schedule difficult to understand by key stakeholders (sponsors and team members), which usually results in the need to create additional tools and reports to communicate work assignments and provide project status updates. Below are the 8 bad habits that I most frequently encounter.

The 8 Bad Habits

1. Failure to Use MS Project – This first habit seems obvious, but it is amazing how many project managers use tools other than MS Project to create and maintain their project schedule. Many project managers create visuals of the project timeline using tools like PowerPoint or Visio for stakeholder presentations and believe this same visual can be used effectively to manage progress/work on the project. In addition, some project managers feel that MS Project represents “overkill” for their project, so they use tools like Excel or SharePoint Task Lists to maintain project tasks and work assignments. These tools are fine until you need to understand things like task dependencies, resource utilization, or overall progress (% complete).

2. Poorly Structured WBS – Many project managers start entering tasks into the project schedule without taking time to think about how the tasks should be organized in the context of a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). The Work Breakdown Structure is what provides you with the ability to roll-up activities and track/report effort and progress by major project components. It is a good practice to ensure that the WBS is organized based upon the way work is planned to be completed throughout the project life cycle. A strong WBS allows you to closeout large segments of the schedule as your move through the project life cycle.

3. Unnecessary Constraints – Inexperienced MS Project users will often insert unnecessary constraint dates into the project schedule. Their logic is that they should just enter the date the task will start or finish. The problem with this logic is that when dependent tasks change, the task with the constraint will not move as well. There are times when a constraint is appropriate (e.g., external dependencies), however overuse of arbitrary constraints results in a lot of manual intervention when maintaining the schedule (or worse – incorrect reporting of task start/end dates).

 


 

4. Dependencies Tied to Summary Tasks – One of the “shortcuts” that project managers will use is tying a dependency to a summary task. This approach eliminates the need to maintain dependencies for each of the individual tasks in the group of tasks. The problem with this “shortcut” is as soon as one of the tasks in the group has a different dependency, the dates for the individual task will be incorrect because the summary task dependency takes precedence over the individual task dependency. In addition, it is difficult to understand where the actual dependency exists when there are dependencies tied to summary tasks.

5. Lack of Clearly Defined Milestones – Milestones represent events or points in time that are critical to the success of the project. A milestone is established in the project schedule automatically by creating a task in the schedule with “0 days” duration. It is a good practice to focus on milestone status in executive sponsor project reviews. It is difficult to understand significant planned project accomplishments without clearly defined project milestones in the project schedule.

 


 

6. Incorrect Resource Loading – Many project managers load resources into the project schedule to assign resources to tasks, with no attention paid to the work effort established for the task. Loading resources at 100% utilization for the planned duration for each task results in significantly overstating the overall work effort for the project. The work effort can be adjusted by entering the estimated work hours for the task or the allocation % for the resource.

7. Improper Set-up of Schedule Options – The Options maintained in the project schedule establish the default behaviors of the project schedule. Many project managers do not understand why certain information does or does not change when other fields are updated in the schedule. In most cases, the update behaviors are tied back to the default Options that have been established for the project schedule.

 


 

8. Poorly Organized Views – MS Project provides the ability to define views that are used to track different information maintained in the project schedule. In addition, these views can be defined in MS project templates to ensure that projects are reported in a consistent manner across the project office. Unfortunately this is functionality that most project managers do not use very effectively. Project managers attempt to overcome poorly constructed views by creating visuals of the timeline and resource utilization in tools such as PowerPoint.

Benefits of Good Practices

Applying good practices to create and maintain your project schedule will save you time and ensure that you are presenting the right information in an accurate manner to your stakeholders. The following are the specific benefits associated with good schedule management practices.

  • On-Going Schedule Maintenance – You will spend less time updating a project schedule that has been well constructed.
  • Presentations to Stakeholders – You will have the ability to present information to stakeholders as a byproduct of maintaining the project schedule (without using separate visuals of the schedule in other tools).
  • Understanding & Communicating Resource Requirements – Resource utilization information is available to understand and manage over or under allocation of critical project resources.
  • Enterprise Enablement – Use of good schedule management practices is a prerequisite of successful implementation of enterprise project management tools (e.g., Project Server).

Note from the Author:

First of all, I apologize to my readers for not posting new content on my blog for a little over a year. I don’t really have an excuse, other than you tend to go through “seasons” where you are more passionate and motivated to write about the things you see and do as a project manager. Writing a blog is like cutting your grass or cleaning your house. If you keep up with it on a regular basis the work is not too difficult, but as soon as you let it slip a bit it becomes much harder to get motivated to take on the bigger task at hand. I have recently been exposed to some new project management approaches and tools, so I am hopeful to keep up the momentum and post more regularly.

Secondly, my good friend, Tom Hoffmann, and I frequently joke about his less conventional approach to project management. In fact he takes great pride in frequently practicing bad habit #1. It is with a smile on my face that I dedicate this post to Tom’s Worst Practices (TWP).

Advertisements

Using MS Project to Manage Dependencies

The strength and integrity of your project schedule is built based upon the definition of deliverables and activities, the estimation of durations and effort, as well as the organization and sequencing of the work efforts. All three elements are important, but the one that I think project managers’ struggle with the most is organizing the deliverables and activities in a manner that reflects the way in which the work will actually be performed / completed. Organizing the work involves developing a work breakdown structure (WBS) that is arranged and decomposed in a structured manner, and sequencing the deliverables and activities based upon logical relationships (dependencies) between the deliverables and activities. This blog focuses on establishing and managing dependencies that are understandable and create a reasonable workflow. This discussion includes using project management tools like MS Project to efficiently define and managing dependencies within your project schedule.

Type of Dependencies

Understanding the types of dependencies inherent in the work that needs to be completed is one of the most important elements of creating a strong project schedule. There are 3 primary types of dependencies:

  • Mandatory Dependencies – These are dependencies that create firm relationships between two activities. Examples of this logic include:

    These two activities must be performed at the same time (starting and/or finishing at the same time).

    This activity cannot start until another activity finishes.

  • Discretionary Dependencies – These are “soft” dependencies that reflect how the team anticipates the work will be completed, or how the team “would like” the work to be completed. These types of dependencies enable the team to optimize the flow of work throughout the project life cycle. Most importantly, “soft” dependencies represent the tool that the project manager utilizes to create “float” in the schedule. This is a much more effective manner to drive the timeline than “hard coding” dates (artificial constraints) into the schedule. Examples of this logic includes:

    This activity will happen at the same time as another group of activities.

    This activity will start up a couple weeks after another activity is completed.

  • External Dependencies – These are dependencies that are outside the control of the project team, but nonetheless must be reflected in the project schedule. Examples of external dependencies include:

    Approval from an external organization must be received prior to starting an activity.

    Completion of a project milestone is linked to the completion of a milestone within another project.

Creating external dependencies within your project schedule can be accomplished in a couple different ways:

Insert a milestone that reflects the completion of the external dependency.

Insert a planning component (placeholder type task) that reflects the timing of the external dependency.

Link specific activities to activities in other project schedules (requires utilization of enterprise scheduling tools).

Dependency Relationships

Dependency relationships are utilized to link two tasks in the most logical manner possible. As in the case of dependency types, this relationship may represent a “hard” relationship (must happen in a certain manner) –or- a “soft” relationship (a relationship set up by the PM to establish a logical flow of the project activities). The valid relationships in MS Project are:

  • Finish-to-Start (FS) – This represents the default relationship in MS Project. If you do not specify the relationship, FS is assumed. This relationship is utilized to establish a sequential flow of work – this activity can start when the previous activity is completed.


  • Start-to-Start (SS) – This relationship is utilized when two activities will be launched at the same time. They may end at different times (depending on the duration of each activity), but they can start at the same time.


  • Finish-to-Finish (FF) – This relationship is utilized when the completion of two activities should be linked together. The two activities may start at different times (again, depending on the duration of each activity), but the completion of the two activities is coordinated.
  • Start-to-Finish (SF) – This relationship is seldom utilized (in 20+ years of using MS Project, I have never used a SF relationship).

In addition to establishing the relationship, predecessors and successors can be utilized to create leads (acceleration or overlap) and lags (delays or gaps) between schedule activities. Here are a couple examples of the appropriate use of lags and leads in the project schedule:

  • Lead: The technical design can be started after 75% of the requirements definition effort is completed. If the requirements represents a dedicated effort that will be completed over a 20 day period. The predecessor in MS Project for the start of the technical design would be reflected as: (n)FS-5D (where (n) represents the task number associated with the requirements definition effort).
  • Lag: The UAT test plans will be completed a week after the completion of the system test plans. The predecessor in MS Project for the UAT test plan would be reflected as: (n)FF+5D (where (n) represents the task number of the completion of the requirements effort).

Using MS Project to Establish Predecessors and Successors

Dependencies are created in MS Project using the Predecessor and Successor fields. The Predecessor is the task completed “prior to” the current task, and the Successor is the task completed “after” the current task. The dependency is entered with the ID of the Predecessor or Successor task, the Type of Dependency Relationship (FS, SS, FF, SF), and the Lag(+)/Lead(-) between the two tasks.

Below is an example of creating Predecessors and Successors within the MS project schedule.

Using the Predecessors & Successors Split view provides a good picture of the dependencies established for each task.

 

4 Tips for Effective Use of MS Project to Manage Dependencies

  1. Using Date Constraints – The most important take-away from this discussion is that establishing dependencies is the key to creating a logical flow (organization) of work within the project schedule. A “worst” practice is to hard wire dates (e.g., must start on, or must finish on date constraints) within the project schedule. As things change (and they inevitably will change) with regards to how the work is actually completed, these arbitrary date constraints quickly become inaccurate and difficult to maintain. They will impact not only the accuracy of the specific schedule activity, but also the accuracy of any subsequent dependent schedule activities.
  2. Using Summary Tasks for Dependencies – Another thing to avoid is linking dependencies to the summary tasks. During the first cut of creating the schedule, it may seem like a good shortcut if multiple activities are tied to the same set of activities, but ultimately this practice results in a schedule that is difficult to understand and maintain. All activities should be linked to specific activities, and not to summary tasks.
  3. Look for Activities without Predecessors or Successors – Activities should have both a predecessor and a successor, unless they truly represent the beginning or end of a project (or string of standalone activities within the project).
  4. Fully Leverage Dependency Relationship Capabilities – Dependency relationships (and leads/lags) are an aspect of creating a project schedule that should be well understood by the PM, and fully utilized. A project schedule that contains all FS relationships, and no leads/lags, is generally an indication that not a lot of effort has been put into understanding the activity dependencies, or the flow of the project work.

Using MS Project to Improve Project Performance

People often ask me what I find to be the most useful tool to perform my job as a project manager. I pause when responding to this question, because I prepare my share of presentations in MS PowerPoint, create many project deliverables in MS Word, manage my budget using Excel, and I have expressed in many blogs how to improve your project environment using SharePoint. However, because I view the project schedule to be at the core of good project management (my bias as a Time Management instructor shines through), I generally respond that MS Project is the tool that I rely on the most to do my job as a project manager.

In the enterprise project management space, MS Project Server has a lot of competition, but in the project management tool space it is my opinion that MS Project is by far best in terms of features, flexibility, and ease of use. The focus of this blog is how project management tools, specifically MS Project, can be used to improve your ability to manage project performance, from the perspective of becoming both more efficient and effective as a project manager.

Common Myths about using MS Project and Other Project Management Tools

  • I am too busy managing the project to deal with maintaining a project schedule – My response to this myth is that you are too busy managing a project to NOT create and maintain a project schedule. I have seen plenty of situations where the team has invested time and effort in a very extensive project schedule, and then they do nothing with it once they start progressing through project execution. This generally happens because the project manager does not know how to use MS Project to effectively progress and update the project schedule. The time required to create and maintain the project schedule pays for itself over and over throughout the project life cycle with the information required to understand and communicate what needs to be done when, and by whom.
  • It is just as effective and much easier to use Excel to manage the project schedule – I will admit that if you are creating a list of activities/tasks and assignments, Excel does the trick just fine. However, once you need to sequence that tasks, estimate durations and work, and load resource requirements, you quickly get beyond the capabilities of Excel. The time to required to set-up these capabilities in Excel would be much better invested in leveraging the robust out-of-the-box scheduling features of MS Project.
  • Non-project managers cannot understand MS Project – I agree that most non-project managers have a hard time relating to the details maintained within MS Project. Predecessors, durations, WBS are foreign terms to most non-project managers. However, MS Project provides the ability to tailor views of the schedule in ways that non-project management stakeholders find easy to understand and use. From my perspective, it is much more productive to create useful views in MS Project (one time), than spend the time to reenter schedule information into other tools for presentation purposes.
  • Does not work with iterative delivery approaches, only waterfall – Having been the project manager on plenty of Agile projects, I understand that there are additional tools utilized heavily to manage scope and measure progress (the product backlog and burn down charts). However, as a project manager you still need a project schedule to establish and manage overall timing related expectations. The schedule will not contain the details of the sprint, but it is utilized to put the sprints in the context of the other project related activities (e.g., product releases, training, and knowledge transfer).
  • MS Project has a mind of its own – I was mentoring a project manager one time who told me, “his tool had been compromised”. Admittedly, a certain level of complexity is a by-product of the features and flexibility of MS Project. Therefore if you are not familiar with how to create a schedule that can be easily progressed and updated throughout project execution, the project schedule becomes an enigma rather than an enabler. If you are not well versed in MS Project and/or the construct of your project schedule, the impact of updates to the schedule become difficult to understand and communicate. The simple answer to this myth is to get the training and mentoring required to be proficient using MS Project.

6 Ways MS Project Helps Manage Project Performance

1. Breaking down the work: MS Project provides the ability to easily capture and organize the WBS (Work Breakdown Structure). The use of indentation makes it easy to decompose the work from the highest level (project phases) to the lowest levels (tasks) of the project. In addition, the ability to collapse specific sections of the schedule allows you to focus on specific areas of the work breakdown. Some project teams prefer a graphical representation of the work breakdown. The tasks can be easily be imported/exported from MS Project to tools like Visio to support the desire to review a graphical depiction of the WBS.

2. Sequencing Activities: Dependency relationships are utilized to link two tasks in the most logical manner possible. The default in MS Project is Finish-to-Start (FS), but this may not be the relationship that most accurately defines the linkage between two tasks. This relationship may represent a “hard” dependency (this must happen in a certain manner), or a “soft” dependency (a relationship set up to establish a logical flow of the project activities). In addition to establishing the relationship, predecessors and successors can be utilized to create leads (acceleration or overlap) and lags (delays or gaps) between schedule activities. MS Project provides a lot of flexibility to ensure the Project Manager has the ability to sequence the work in a manner that reflects the way the work will be executed.

3. Creating the timeline: After the project activities, durations and dependencies are loaded, the schedule is starting to take on some shape and form. The Gantt view is one of the most effective tools for communicating the timeline associated with key summary tasks and milestones. Use the MS project filters to limit the tasks to those that convey the appropriate message.

4. Managing resource loading / utilization: The mechanics of loading resources into the project schedule is very straightforward. MS Project provides the ability to either load effort based upon estimated hours to complete or percent the resource is allocated to the tasks. In addition, the resource utilization view displays the effort planned for each team member and the ability to make the appropriate adjustments to “level” the resource utilization.

5. Progressing the project: Maintaining the project schedule throughout project execution is referred to in project manager speak as “progressing the schedule”. In MS Project the project manager has the ability to update the % complete, estimated to complete, and the actual effort worked. In addition, the project manager will make updates to duration & work estimates, dependencies, and tasks to ensure the schedule continues to reflect the way planned work will be completed.

6. Understanding project impacts: Upon completion of the planning process, a baseline “snapshot” of the project schedule is saved in MS Project. This baseline provides the ability to measure current schedule performance against the original plan to understand and communicate actual and planned impacts to the project schedule. These impacts are reflected in the schedule as variances that are captured for the start and finish dates of individual activities, summary tasks (i.e., project phases), and project milestones.