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.

What to do when everyone leaves town for the Holiday

There are disruptive technologies that completely throw businesses off track and then there are holidays that can be disruptive to project management. The time from Thanksgiving through New Years is a disruptive time when almost all workers will want time off to be with their families. In my experience, it is also a time when clients have a major must-do before the end of the year and government organizations release RFPs with proposals due the first week in January!

This collision of personal schedules and corporate need creates many project management challenges. Now since you are a seasoned project manager (ha! ha!), I know that you have accounted in your schedule for the planned time-off of your team. However, what is a fair and effective way to handle these unplanned, but have to do, tasks?

First, find out if you have any carrots. Talk with HR and senior management about any options you have to offer comp time, over-time, or personal days off after the rush is over.  Or ask if bonus money is available for having staff not take time off and getting the project done.  You do not have to offer these upfront in the discussion with your team; you just need to know what you can do.

Confirm with the client or management about the new project or must-do. Is there room for negotiation on the schedule? When they said end-of-the year, is it possible that the real deadline is early January rather than December 31? Hard though it may be to believe, sometimes customers exaggerate their due date requirement hoping that you can get close enough to meet the real deadline. If the change is the result of a government RFP, there is usually no negotiating — but I have actually talked to a contracts officer who changed the due date by a week when they were convinced that the holidays were a poor time to make contractors work.

Next, meet with the team, tell them the situation, and explain what is at stake for the company. If you make the team part of the solution planning rather than the problem, you may be amazed at their willingness to pitch in to accomplish the tasks. Look for creative ways to get the job done including sharing hours, work-from-home, and even contracting out small pieces of the work—although with little planning time available this option is unlikely to really help and may cost you more time and effort than it is worth.

If you still need resources to get the job done, meet individually with the key players and see what compromises you can negotiate. This is where the carrots come in.

As a last resort, make assignments and require compliance—the stick part of “carrot and stick” management. Be scrupulously fair here!! Do not play favorites. Have a valid, programmatic reason that “John” has to work through the holidays and “Mary” does not. To the extent possible, you can consider unique individual circumstances as secondary criteria to fulfill project needs. This is fraught with potential problems however, so tread very carefully.

Do not ask your staff or employees to make sacrifices that you are unwilling to make yourself. Long after the project is put to bed or the proposal submitted, workers remember that they worked over the holidays and you were nowhere to be seen.

Meanwhile, enjoy your holidays with friends and family and hope that this end-of-year brings no surprises!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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