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).

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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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