Good Project Plan Schedules

I had a great conversation this week about one of my earlier posts on creating effective and predictive project schedules.  It appears this subject is one of the common topics used in the maturity models being utilized these days.  So I thought I would give another perspective on creating a good project schedule.

Project schedules are essential tools to manage a project effectively – and when constructed correctly they also provide a predictive view of that schedule. Creating a schedule requires the PM to breakdown tasks into manageable parts, establish relationships among tasks, ensure that deadlines can be met, and assign sufficient resources to tasks. Here are some guidelines about project plan schedules from authoritative project management sources.

According to the Project Management Institute (PMI) in the accepted Body of Knowledge for Project management (PMBOK)

Project plan development uses the outputs of the other planning processes, including strategic planning, to create a consistent, coherent document that can be used to guide both project execution and project control. This process is almost always iterated several times. (PMBOK 4.1.3, pg. 44)

The PMBOK further states:

The project plan is a document or collection of documents that should be expected to change over time as more information becomes available about the project. (IBID)

Also, according to the Software Engineering Institute’s (SEI) Capability Maturity Model® Integration (CMMI), Version 1.1, Project Management is a key part of the maturity process and has two key areas for project plans considered areas for achieving the higher levels of maturity: 

  • Project Planning – Goal 1: Establishing Estimates, Goal 2: Developing a project plan.
  • Project Monitoring and Control – Goal 1: Monitoring the Project against Plan

To create a Project Plan schedule that meets all of the standards of a mature project schedule, both as defined in the PMBOK, the CMMI v1.1, and as widely accepted by Professional, certified project managers, should contain at a minimum these 10 items:

  1. Sufficient level of detail (Work breakdown and task sizes)
  2. Defined resources (Named)
  3. A complete network of dependencies (Adequate hard logic)
  4. Specific assignments (Resources against tasks)
  5. Sufficient use of milestones (Includes all Deliverables)
  6. Plan baselines (A static copy of the “plan” against which measures can be taken)
  7. Few constraints on tasks (Constraints are fixed and not predictive – like “Must finish on”)
  8. Actual work being recorded in the plans ( Actual work done on a period by period basis)
  9. Accurate metrics being calculated (Earned Value)
  10. Integration of all project schedules to provide a dynamic forecast and predictive outcome of impacts (“Workplans” or tasks for each team which form the complete schedule)

SEI summarized the use of project plans as:
“A project’s documented plan is the basis for monitoring activities, communicating status, and taking corrective action. Progress is primarily determined by comparing actual work product and task attributes, effort, cost, and schedule to the plan at prescribed milestones or control levels within the project schedule or work breakdown structure. Appropriate visibility enables timely corrective action to be taken when performance deviates significantly from the plan. A deviation is significant if, when left unresolved, it precludes the project from meeting its objectives.”  (CMMI V1.1, pg 219)

One other bit of advice about schedules based on my observations and experience:

A dangerous time in the life of a project is in the middle of the schedule. After the excitement of beginning the project and before the end of project—everything has to be done by when?there is the sometimes abandoned middle. In the middle of a complex project execution, it is easy to assume that “there is plenty of time left”. One forgets the logic and experience used to build the original schedule.  Remember that a project schedule is not a “wall chart” to be placed on the wall and admired!

Bad idea! Bad practice!

Project managers need the discipline to monitor schedule and plan compliance every week. During project execution, project schedules should be monitored by actual work recorded against the plan.  This means tracking time against tasks.  This allows metrics to be used in the project processes necessary on large projects.  Using staff estimates of percentage complete rather than actual work performed and estimates to complete, is not an accurate method of monitoring progress on a large, multi-project program.  Additionally, without documented, supportable statistics, managers have no credible evidence to support resource demands during the execution of the project.

Following these basic principles gives you a better than average chance that your project schedule is a useful, predictive schedule and not just a static wall chart.

How project managers should work with support organizations

Inside the nether regions of large companies lurk individuals and offices that are part of executing a project but reside organizationally outside of the project’s chain of command. Placed within the somewhat amorphous group of support organizations are specialists in IT, travel, legal, facilities, HR and many more. A project manager rarely interacts with these individuals, but when their support is needed, there are ways to gain quick efficient help and methods that ensure your request is at the bottom of their to-do list.

Do your homework
If you are new to being a project manager or new to an organization, find out what support organizations are available and what their authority is. A few corporate documents that help are organization charts and the P&P (policy and procedure) or SOP (standard operating procedures) manuals. I know that reading the SOP manuals is no one’s idea of pleasure reading, but at least skim the titles in the table of contents to get an idea of what’s available.  And who knows— they may even be online for reference!

Look at the signatures required on routine forms like travel requests, conference room reservations, document releases, network access requests and presentations. Introduce yourself and your project to the people in those areas.

Before you have to work with the support organization to get something done that has a deadline, find out what information they need from you and their typical processing timeline. Build that into your project schedule.

If in doubt, check with a secretary or admin. You might have thought I was going to say, “see your supervisor or manager”. However, in my experience, the people who best understand how things get done are not higher in your management chain, but rather the office and administration staff.  They are the ones that have to “get it done.”

What to do
Put sufficient time into preparing support service requests and allow them time to respond. Remember the secretary’s motto:

“Your failure to adequately plan does not constitute an emergency for me.”

If possible, walk the papers or send the email yourself. I try to make sure that my dealings with support staff are good and friendly so that they remember me.  Make sure you provide everything the support service needs to do their job. After a reasonable amount of time (an hour or a day, depending), check back. Ask if they need any additional information. Offer to pick up the document or materials rather than wait for the inter-office delivery system. Use both opportunities to get to know the support personnel as people and not functions. In addition, let them get to know you.

When the task is completed—especially if the task was complicated or outside normal business operations—thank them personally for their work on behalf of your project. If the effort was particularly noteworthy, provide a more formal “thank you” to their manager (see organization chart) emphasizing how they helped meet broader organization goals. This not only makes them feel good and part of the team, it will establish a warmer reception for your next support request.  I have been known to drop off a box of doughnuts or candy after someone has really gone the extra mile to help me out.

If something goes wrong—late, incorrect, rejected—leave your ego at the door and try to understand. Offer to help, if possible, or learn from the experience. A Mind Tools article on “Conflict Resolution” suggests the best way to solve a conflict is to keep good relationships a top priority, separate people from problems, and explore options together.

What NOT to do

  • Act as if your project is the only one they have to support.
  • Be an anonymous voice demanding action—see “get to know the support service people”.
  • Try to bully them into cooperating. No matter how high on the org chart you may be or how important your project is to the organization, you do not want the support organizations as enemies.
  • Cop an attitude.
  • Fail to confirm the facts.

Support organizations can help you do your project management job or they can make your life miserable. The ball is in your court. Share your experiences and recommendations on working cooperatively with support organizations in your company via comments.



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