Using the right scheduling software is key to consistently finishing your projects on time and within budget. Project scheduling software lets you do the critical steps more efficiently than using ineffective options like scheduling in Excel or on a yellow notepad. Those waste too much of your time and don’t help you complete these critical steps:
- Spotting problems early so you can fix them before it’s too late
- Optimizing the use of resources so you can finish as early as possible
- Updating the project schedule in a few minutes each week so you know where you are
- Updating everyone’s schedule in mere minutes when things change.
There are many more benefits that scheduling software can provide when you’re building a project schedule. But those four items are the minimum tools that every project manager needs. Managing a schedule in Excel or on a yellow notepad give you none of those items. Let’s explore what a you need in a software tool. The best option depends on the scale of the projects you manage. Shorten the Project Duration
Scheduling Software Capabilities
Small Project – Done within your organization for the manager or your boss
Medium Project – Affects multiple departments within your organization or done for customers/clients
Strategic Project – Organization-wide projects with long term effects
Scheduling Software Capability #1: Draw visual project charts like Gantt and PERT
Small Project – These visual charts are useful for communicating with the sponsor and your team.
Medium Project – As the scale of the project increases, you want visuals that compare actual performance to the baseline schedule and cost. You also want to display slack and delay for optimizing the schedule and resources. Earned value reporting is also a tool for this level of reporting.
Strategic Project – At this scale, you require sophisticated reporting by task, major deliverable, resources and the lending department. Earned value, cost and time variance reports are also required. Buying Project Software
Scheduling Software Capability #2: Calculate duration based on resource availability and work required
Small Project – Basing the schedule on work and availability, not just start/finish dates, is a best practice. Skip it if finishing on time is not critical.
Medium Project – Resource-driven schedules are a must at this level. So is automatic resource leveling which ensures that no resource is assigned more work than they can do.
Strategic Project – You need resource-driven schedules and software that can allocate people’s time based on the priority of the task or project to which they are assigned. Project Portfolio Management
Scheduling Software Capability #3: Schedule using predecessor relationships
Small Project – This is not needed on small projects with 2-3 people.
Medium & Strategic Projects – This links tasks and establishes their sequence. When matched with resource-driven scheduling, it saves you substantial time. It also gives you tools to quickly quantify the impact of changes the project sponsor wants to make. This can be a life saver for guarding against silly ideas that don’t support the projects’ scope.
Scheduling Software Capability #4: Schedule people for a portfolio of projects based on project priorities
Small Project – Not needed
Medium & Strategic Projects – Helps the organization complete a large volume of projects by ensuring that people work on the most important projects.
Scheduling Software Concepts
Scheduling software will provide you with time-saving scheduling and analysis tools. It will also archive data for use on future projects. These tools include analysis of the critical path using slack and delay data. This lets you optimize the use of your resources to finish as early as possible. The critical path should also be used to identify problems early and quickly model alternative solutions. Critical Path Technique
The value of an archive is that it makes future project estimates easier and more accurate. With the appropriate project scheduling software, tracking actual performance in terms of hours of work and completion dates builds a database for estimating on the next projects. Even a small project can waste a lot of a project manager’s time if these tasks are done manually.
Scheduling Software: The Reality
Too many project managers don’t have the tools or the training to track actual performance versus plan, optimize their schedule or make efficient use of their resources. They are regularly surprised by problems that a bit of data would have helped them anticipate. They are unable to provide decision-making data to executives on ways to finish the project early. They also can’t tell executives the cost of changes they want to make. As a result, the project is guided by guesses so the company’s financial and human resources are used inefficiently and project failure rates are high. Keys to Successful Project Scheduling
Scheduling Software: “Best Practices” In the Real World
Project managers routinely deal with sponsors who are several organizational levels above them or who sign their paychecks. In this situation, a project manager can’t really argue with the sponsor about the best way to do the project. What a project manager needs is data from scheduling software that quantifies the impact of changes and models alternative ways of solving problems. Having that data gives the project manager more credibility with the sponsor and executives. It also gives executives solid data on which to base their decisions. They can stop plucking project due dates and budgets out of the air.
Scheduling Software Overview
Scheduling software comes in many different levels of sophistication with prices ranging from $50 to $20,000 or more. The software itself doesn’t make you more effective; it just makes you more efficient. Scheduling software doesn’t teach you how to define the scope, communicate with the project sponsor or make clear assignments to your team members. It just lets you accomplish these and many other tasks more efficiently. So before we look at the different kinds of scheduling software, let’s talk about the kinds of projects to manage and the levels of PM skills. This will enable you to pick a scheduling software tool that’s appropriate for you and the organization in which you work. You can decide which of the following three categories of project manager fits you best.
Managing Smaller Projects
PMs in this category often plan and schedule with only durations rather than work estimates and resource capacity. Many times these PMs have no need to develop or track a project budget because status reports are limited to tracking the completion date. At this level, the organization usually does not consolidate or “roll-up” all of the projects into a portfolio. And it doesn’t manage the overall utilization of the people who work on projects.
In this situation, there is a very broad range of scheduling software choices and many packages will provide Gantt and PERT charts. For project managers who want to automate the process of building plans, preparing occasional status reports and producing some simple Gantt and PERT charts, the low end scheduling software tools are fine. There are plenty of packages that will automate the basics for you. There are also a host of web-based products that operate at this capability level. For under $100 there are products like: Gantter or ZOHO Projects and others.
Managing Larger Cross-functional Projects for Executives or Clients
As the scale of projects grows and their impact reaches beyond one functional unit, the demands on the project management techniques grow. So does the required capability of the scheduling software tool. Software that is a static representation of start and finish dates isn’t enough. You need software tools that simulate the project and optimize the schedule every time you make a change. The budget is an important issue in planning and tracking. So you must build project plans based on the estimated hours of work required and the sequence of tasks, not start and finish dates. You need scheduling software that gives you the capability to budget and schedule internal employees as well as external consultants, vendors, equipment and travel expenses. The scheduling software should provide more sophisticated earned value reporting, slack and delay reports for fine tuning as well as the critical path and resource leveling capability.
The software cost jumps in price to the $300-$700 level and the learning curve for these software tools is much steeper than the first level. The big market shares belong to Microsoft Project and Quickbase (Quicken).
Managing in a Multi-project Environment
At the high-end are PMs managing multiple projects or operating in a mature project organization where resource utilization is managed across all projects. Executives are accountable for portfolios of projects. In this environment, you need project management processes to bring consistency to project planning and tracking. While scheduling software never ensures a consistent project management process (despite all the people who think it can), this environment adds to the software requirements. You now need to consolidate (roll-up) multiple projects and provide consistent information. This allows decision-makers to prioritize projects, allocate resources and schedule and track a pool of people working on multiple projects.
This process is a lot more complicated than it sounds. It requires organization processes for portfolio management and scheduling software that can identify conflicting demands for the same resources. The data it provides will allow the executives to set priorities among projects that require the same resources. They usually want detailed project budgets and have the software come close to mimicking the company’s cost accounting system. But they want actual cost data a lot sooner than the accounting department provides it. Project managers often need sophisticated risk assessment tools and resource loading features as well as detailed performance tracking.
If you want a lot, you’ve got to spend a lot. Scheduling software for these multi-project users runs from $4,000-$20,000 with network versions to run on your LAN and lots of team communication capabilities. There are dozens of products in this range and some of the packages from the second level also provide the needed capabilities. They include: Microsoft Project, Primavera, and other products.
Scheduling Software Training
You can learn how to use scheduling software in our basic and advanced project management software courses. At the beginning of your course, you and Dick Billows, PMP, will have a video conference to design your program and what you want to learn. The two of you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage: business, or marketing, or construction, or healthcare, or consulting. That way your case studies and project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your desired specialty.