Tips for Making Your Project Schedule Work

A project manager’s job is difficult enough and it’s even tougher if the project manager doesn’t have a solid schedule. Good schedules allow each team member to know what needs to be done, by when, and who’s responsible for making it happen. Occasionally teams achieve acceptable results without a schedule but they never really excel without one. Most teams get easily sidetracked if they don’t have a schedule reminding them when they must finish. This article examines several ways project managers can use schedules to guide their teams to successful delivery.

What Makes a Good Schedule?

A good schedule identifies what the team should be focused on immediately, informs them of what’s coming, and indicates whether they are on track. The ideal schedule coordinates activities with the availability of resources. It differentiates between the amount of labor required to perform work and the length of time it will take to complete the work. It also indicates the desired sequence of activities and highlights which tasks must complete before others can begin. Finally the ideal schedule should identify the critical path and be baselined for future reference.

Key Scheduling Concepts

Here are a few key concepts to consider when you think about creating a schedule.

Work (or labor) vs. Duration: Work, or labor, is the amount of effort required to complete an activity. It is normally expressed in hours. Duration is the amount of time it will take to complete an activity. Some tasks require time beyond the labor hours to complete. One example is baking. If a baker is making a cake, it may take 2 labor hours but that doesn’t mean if she starts at 10 AM the cake will be ready at noon. It may take an hour to combine all of the ingredients, 1 hour to bake the cake, 1 hour for the cake to cool and another hour to decorate it. In this example there are 2 hours of labor but the task duration is 4 hours.

Critical Path: The critical path is the longest sequence of events required to finish the project. Tasks that are “on the critical path” determine the schedule end date. As a result if they finish late the entire project will finish late unless something is done to accelerate other critical path tasks. Tasks which are not on the critical path have some freedom to move around on the schedule without affecting the end date of the project. Understanding which tasks are critical path tasks allows a project manager to focus on those dates that really matter.

Baselining: The process of baselining a schedule simply means the planned dates are recorded so the performance of the project team can be compared to the baselined plan at a later date. Without a baseline it is impossible to know whether a project team is ahead, behind, or right on schedule.

Tips for Building Useful Schedules

Here are some tips for developing useful schedules that will help your project team stay on track.

1. Define predecessor tasks rather than setting artificial start dates.

Too many schedules are just a series of activities with start and end dates that are not linked together. If you’re using MS Project or another scheduling tool, make sure the start dates for most of your tasks are driven by the finish dates of prerequisite tasks. By doing this, the schedule will automatically expand and contract as tasks are updated with their actual start and finish dates.

2. Assign a single owner to every task

Many tasks require work from multiple people. Make sure that a single individual is clearly identified as the person responsible for completing the task. This eliminates the possibility of everybody thinking somebody else was going to lead a given task.

3. Break up long tasks

It’s amazing how many tasks are regularly reported as 80% complete. Invariably it’s those same tasks that end up running over schedule. Don’t allow tasks in your schedule to exceed two weeks in duration or 80 hours of effort. Large tasks can almost always be broken into smaller sub-tasks. Forcing the team to report the actual completion of smaller tasks enhances accountability and reduces schedule risk.

4. Conduct a team review of the schedule before baselining

Before baselining your schedule, have the people responsible for performing the work review it. They will bring another perspective to your plan and provide a “reality check”. Additionally when they buy-into the schedule they will be more committed to getting it done.

5. Keep the schedule up-to-date

Its sad how many teams spend days or weeks developing a schedule and never look at it again. A schedule should be a living document that is regularly updated. A mentor of mine used to say “no schedule is 100% correct until the project is complete” and he was absolutely right. At a minimum your schedules should be updated weekly.

6. Track schedule performance

Once your schedule is baselined you can track performance against it. Conducting regular performance reviews informs you whether you are ahead, behind, or right-on schedule. Without up-to-date performance data you won’t know whether your team is falling behind until it’s too late.

7. Regularly share your schedule

Keeping your team regularly apprised of what’s coming up on the schedule will focus them on the right activities. Try providing your project team with a weekly, six-week look ahead. Doing so allows the team to see what they should work on if they finish a task early. It also alerts them to up-coming activities with enough time to prepare.

Conclusion

Schedule management is a fundamental part of the project manager’s role. The project manager who produces a baselined schedule and tracks progress against it knows well ahead of anybody else when their project is in trouble. As simple as it sounds, providing your team with a good schedule that’s updated regularly has the added benefit of improving their ability to delivery and boosting their morale.

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