Project Schedule: Best Scheduler Techniques

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Every project manager does project scheduling. For a project that you can do in a day, a yellow note pad is often enough.  When there are others doing some of the work, an Excel spreadsheet may work to plan everyone’s dates and dollars. When the team reaches 4-5 people and the duration is more than a couple of weeks, PC software specifically designed for project scheduling and budget control is most efficient.

Project Schedule: Data

Some project managers have very little data to help them successfully managing their projects, deal with change orders or respond to variances. They may not even know when they have a variance.  The key to identifying problems is getting estimate-to-complete information from your team and vendors.

Project managers who receive that data are able to quickly gather information about problems and opportunities. The key to their success is that they find out about problems early, before the problem causes a due date to slip. Here are the keys. First, you must get information on every  task that is in process. Second, you must know how much work has been completed and how much remains.  This allows you to forecast the project completion date and the total expense on all the tasks. You can control any variances, handle change requests and take corrective action early and easily. You can use project scheduling software to optimize your schedules. In this article we’ll show you how to do all these things.

Project Schedule: Software

Previously, project managers didn’t use project management software because of the high cost and the amount of time required to learn how to use it.  Those two excuses are no longer valid. There are some adequate project management software programs that are free and easy to learn. It only takes 30 to 40 minutes to learn how to use the software through the entire project lifecycle.  Gantter is a free program available with your Gmail account. There are editions for smart phones, tablets and desktops. This software provides all the capabilities you need for small and medium-size projects. The learning curve is short considering the benefit you get. Project Schedule & Software Main Page

More capable software for larger project scheduling includes Microsoft Project®. It is almost $600 but provides more capabilities and a tremendous amount of decision-making data. It includes the ability to do budgeproject schedulingting and cost tracking and also manage multiple projects. These features are adequate for even large projects. You will need to invest a few hours of time to learn it.

Now lets talk about how a project manager using a yellow note pad, an Excel spreadsheet, or project scheduling software would handle three common situations.

Project Schedule: Finish Date, Changes & Status

The project manager doing project scheduling with a yellow note pad can quickly tell the client the finish date by using his or her ability to pick a number out of the sky. There is no basis for this completion date other than a guess about how long the project will take. This “yellow pad project manager” makes a similar guess about the cost. Projects scheduled on yellow pads usually finish late and cost more than anticipated. This means the project manager and their company lose money if they’re doing a project for a customer or client. This project manager uses the same approach when the customer wants to change the project or the deliverable. The project manager guesses about the impact the change will have on the finish date and the cost. And they are usually wrong. The yellow note pad project scheduling technique gives project managers a very limited career future.

The PM doing project scheduling with an Excel spreadsheet does a bit better. He or she enters start and finish dates for all the tasks they can think of. Then they let the program give them an idea of how many days or weeks it will take to complete those tasks. The problem with using Excel spreadsheets for project scheduling is that if the client wants to make a change, the project manager has to redo the entire spreadsheet. The same is true if the client adds a task or alters a finish date. The “Excel spreadsheet project manager” spends endless hours laboring over their PC instead of managing the project.

The project manager who uses project scheduling software does the best of all. If they are using the software correctly and following best practices, they base the project schedule and budget on work estimates. Instead of picking a finish date with a Ouija board, this project manager works with historical data, published estimating information, and the opinions of the project team members. They use this data to build a schedule based on estimates of the amount of work required. When project managers use work estimates, they gain all the benefits of the project scheduling software.  They decide how much work each team member can do and the project scheduling software will assign the work to the team members so the project finishes as soon as possible. These calculations take the software about two seconds. This project manager can work with similar speed on a change request. They merely change the amount of work for the task(s) the client wants to alter. Then a nano second later, the software re-schedules the entire project and gives the project manager a new completion date reflecting the change request. If the project manager has entered hourly rates for the team members and the material costs, the software will also calculate a budget and give the project manager data on the cost of that change request.

Finally, this project manager can give accurate status reports based on the team’s estimates of the amount of work they still have to complete on their tasks. This lets the project manager anticipate problems early, not after getting hit in the face with them. There is a very good reason consistently successful project managers use project scheduling software. It allows them to spend their time managing the team and solving problems. They don’t have to spend their time making guesses or laboring over an Excel spreadsheet or a yellow note pad.

Project Schedule: Optimizing the Schedule

Too many project managers control the sequence of tasks in their projects using the start and finish dates. Instead, they should use project scheduling software with predecessor relationships. For example, these relationships tell the software that Task B can’t start until Task A is finished.  Or that Task A and Task B must finish at the same time. Entering start and finish dates wastes an enormous amount of time during the original creation of the schedule and every week after that. Project managers who don’t use project scheduling software with predecessor relationships spend hours updating their schedules and changing all the start and finish dates.  Even worse, the schedules they create with this fixed date technique almost always have longer durations than they should. However, project managers can experience these problems even if they use project scheduling software like Microsoft Project®. This happens if they use start and finish dates to control the sequence of tasks instead of  using predecessor relationships.

Project Schedule: Increase Efficiency

Predecessor relationships are the key to building dynamic schedules. These are schedules that update themselves whenever you make a change.  As an example, if you discover that Task D is going to finish two weeks early, or two weeks late, you merely enter that fact into your project scheduling software. It will automatically change the start and finish dates for every one of Task D’s successor tasks (the tasks that depend on Task D).  The alternative is to manually change each task’s finish date. Using predecessor relationships saves you hours in the initial project scheduling and significant time every week for the duration of the project.  That is reason enough to use this project scheduling technique.  How To Use Dynamic Project Scheduling

Project Schedule: Finish Earlier

Using dynamic scheduling, you set up our predecessors in the software by identifying the type of relationships that each task has with its predecessors and successors.  There are three types of predecessor relationships:

  • Finish-to-Start predecessor relationship between Tasks A and B is scheduled by the software so that Task B starts after Task A is finished.  You’ll use this type of predecessor 85% of the time. That is why it is the default in project scheduling software.
  • Finish-to-Finish predecessor relationship between Tasks A and B is scheduled by the software so that these two tasks start at the time that’s required for both of them to finish at the same time.
  • Start-to-Start predecessor relationship between asks A and B is scheduled by the software so that these two tasks start at exactly the same time.

You can get fancier with predecessors by using leads and lags.  But these three types are the basics and are a great way to get started.

Project Schedule: Parallelism and Concurrency 

You make a project take less time to finish when you sequence the tasks by building in parallelism. This means you have many things happening at the same time.  It makes sense that if a project has three or four tasks going on at the same time it will finish earlier than a project that has only one task happening at a time.  In other words, you don’t want the whole project to be a long sequence of FinishtoStart relationships.  Instead you want to design the predecessor relationships for each of your major deliverables so as many tasks as possible are occurring at the same time.  The simplest way to create parallelism using the project scheduling software is to give a task multiple successors.  Whenever you can do that, you will shorten the project duration.  A parallel design is always going to take less time than scheduling those three tasks to occur one after another.

There are obvious limits on parallelism, such as limits on how much work a person can do and the technical or physical dependencies between tasks (e.g.: the materials must be delivered before they can be installed).  But using predecessor relationships lets you avoid unnecessarily long task sequences. That makes reporting and updating faster and saves you hours of time.

Take a look at our online Project Management Basics course where you can learn these techniques from an expert PM. In this instructor-led online training you have as many phone calls, e-mails and live video conferences with your instructor as you need.

Earned Value Management

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Earned Value Management data gives you information about “where we are on the project as of today” versus “where we should be as of today.” In that sense, earned value data is much more valuable to a project manager than simple variance information. Earned value management is an integrated set of tools for managing project progress and spotting variances from the plan.  These tools help you identify variances between actual performance and the project’s schedule and variances between actual costs and the project’s budget. Earned value management can also provide forecasts of the likely completion date and final cost of the project. It can provide insights and forecasts on even small projects.  But it is a particularly useful tool on larger projects. Although many project management software programs automatically calculate earned value data for you, it’s worth learning how to do the manual calculations. That’s because the Project Management Institute (PMI®) certification examinations often ask questions about earned value calculations. Yet many people who have passed the PMP® exam don’t have an understanding of how earned value works. So let’s dig into it. Project Tracking Reports Main Page

Earned Value Management Example 

Let’s say an amusement park entrepreneur hires you to manage a project to build 1,000 miles of railway track.  earned value managementThe client wants it done in 10 days for a cost of $10 per mile, or $1,000. Because tracking progress and spotting variances in the project’s cost and duration are important, we’ll review the basics of earned value analysis and the three variables we always use. We always calculate each of the three variables as a dollar amount. That includes the schedule data (which seems unusual at first). Let’s look at the three variables:

Planned value is the “perfect world number.” In our railway track example if everything goes perfectly according to plan, we would lay 100 miles of track every day at a cost of earned value management$10 per mile and would spend $1,000 a day. So the planned value is the “perfect world number” of how many units we should have produced and the cost for those units.

Earned value in our railway example is the number of miles of track we actually laid times the $10 planned cost per mile. So we base the earned value on what we actually delivered at the planned cost for delivering it.

Actual cost is what we actually spent producing what we’ve delivered as of today. It comes from the invoices we pay vendors and the payroll we have to fund.  earned value managementThis table shows each of the 10 days of the project with the daily totals for the miles of track laid per day and the actual dollars we spent for the track we laid that day. Overall, we should have laid 100 miles of track each day and we should have spent $1,000 each day. As we see on day 1, we only laid 80 miles of track, which is under the plan. But we spent $1,200, which is more than we should have spent if we had laid 100 miles of track. The variance is very bad because we only laid 80 miles of track instead of 100 and we were still over budget.

Things got even worse on the second day. We only laid 60 miles of track and we spent $1,400. We’re digging quite a hole for ourselves here.

On the third day, we recovered a little bit. We laid 130 miles of track and we only spent $190. You can follow the ups and downs of a project by looking at this data in any project management variance report.

The table shows the same data on the mileage and the actual costs but we’ve added a calculation for the earned value and the planned value of the project. Let’s go back and look at the unhappy results from the first day of the project. earned value managementWe know we should have laid 100 miles and we should have spent $1,000. So we know that the 80 miles of laid track is bad and so is the $1,200 cost. Now let’s look at it from the earned value perspective. On the first day, our earned value was $800, which is calculated by multiplying the miles of track we actually laid by the planned cost per mile. We see that there’s a $400 difference between the actual cost and the earned value. In fact, that $400 difference is the amount that we’re over budget.

The last row of numbers is the planned value which is the perfect world number. We calculate it by multiplying the planned cost times the planned mileage. And as you can see, the amount is the same every day because we planned to lay the same miles of track each day at the same cost per mile.

So on the first day, the planned value was $1,000 and our earned value was $800. Why? Well on the first day we only laid 80 miles of track when we should have laid 100 miles at a cost of $10 per mile. So we are $200 behind schedule. We have produced $200 less value than we planned to produce. How are we able to express schedule variance in dollar terms? Here’s the way earned value works: it rests on the fact that we have produced less than we should have by quantifying the value (in dollars) of what we didn’t produce. That’s the $200.

We also see that the planned value on day 1 was $1,000 and the actual cost was $1,200. So we spent $200 more than we planned to spend/ But more importantly, we also produced less than we planned. A better way to calculate how much over budget we are is to compare the earned value to the actual cost. We see that the actual cost is $1,200 and the earned value is $800 so we have been much less efficient from a cost point of view. We can measure that inefficiency as the difference between the actual cost and the earned value, which is $400.

So by using the data our project software calculates for us, we can figure out that we’re $200 behind schedule and we’re $400 over budget because we’ve been less efficient than planned.

Everything in earned value is a comparison of what we actually did to what we planned to do.

Let’s Look At Earned Value Management Report Information

I’ve added two more rows at the bottom on this version of our earned value table where
earned value managementwe calculate the project’s schedule variance and the cost variance. We can express the schedule variance as the earned value (EV) minus the planned value (PV).  We can express the cost variance as the earned value (EV) minus the actual cost (AC). Most project software calculates this data for you but you need to know what all of it means.


Forecasts – Let’s Add One More Set of Numbers

The last row of numbers deals with our estimate at completion (EAC), which the earned value table calculates.  We start calculating an estimate of the cost to complete the project based on how things have been going to date. Then we add to that the actual cost to date and come up with our estimate at completion. That’s data the project sponsors always like to see.

If you can remember the information in this brief summary, you can use earned value management to quickly quantify where you are on your project and to estimate how things are going to finish. To master these techniques and the way to present them to the project sponsor, take a look at our advanced techniques courses.

At the beginning, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from 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.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management

Cost-Benefit Analysis in Project Initiation

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Cost-benefit analysis is a simple technique for comparing the business value a project will produce with the cost of producing it. Project managers use cost-benefit analysis in the project initiation phase to show the value of doing a project. During project initiation, the sponsor and project manager must justify the project to get the organization’s approval to spend the money. The cost-benefit analysis compares the project’s costs to the business value it will deliver. Few organizations want to go ahead with projects that will cost more than the value they will produce. So project managers conduct the cost-benefit analysis by gathering data on the value of the benefits and the cost of the project.

Cost-benefit Analysis: Examples

Let’s say you determined that the benefits produced by the project would be worth $15,000. And you calculated the cost of producing those benefits at $10,000. Then you would divide the benefits (15,000) by the costs (10,000) and  calculate the cost-benefit ratio of 1.5.

Many organizations have rules about what cost-benefit relationship the project must produce for gain approval. In some organizations, new projects must have a cost-benefit ratio of 1.2 to be approved. That means the benefits of the project exceed the costs by 20%. From an external point of view, a project that pays back its costs plus 20% of its costs sounds like a pretty good investment. Other organizations use higher or lower cost benefit ratios.

In a cost-benefit analysis, you compare the dollar value of the cost of a project, a deliverable or a change request to the dollar value of the benefits you expect it to produce. Here is another example. You may calculate a project will produce benefits worth $290,000 and will cost $272,500. So it’s benefits exceed its costs by $17,500 or 6%. Cost-benefit analysis on a small project is as simple as dividing the benefits by the costs to calculate the benefit-to-cost ratio: 290,000/272,500 = 1.06.Cost Benefit analysis

You can use cost-benefit analysis to test a particular alternative or compare several alternatives. It is usually a very simple process to come up with the cost of an alternative. You have access to list prices for equipment, materials and labor rates for people’s time. This is not to say there are never disputes about the costs. But the data is usually readily available.

You can also make the cost-benefit analysis more advanced by making comparisons over time and by adding elements such as the net present value of the benefits or the cost of cash flow.

Cost-benefit Analysis: Foundation for Calculations

The cost-benefit analysis is also the foundation for these calculations:

The details of these calculations will be subjects for later discussions.

Cost-benefit Analysis: The Tricky Part

Whatever level of sophistication the organization prefers, the difficult part of a cost-benefit analysis is coming up with quantified measures of the benefit of a project or an alternative.  The computation is simpler when the benefits come from cost savings. But it is much more difficult to put a dollar figure on the benefits when they are in the form of increased customer satisfaction or improved employee satisfaction. In fact, it is usually the benefit part of a cost-benefit analysis that is the source of conflict and disagreement.

More on Decision Making Data,

Consider our online project management courses to learn how to use all the tools and techniques of project management. You’ll work privately with an expert project manager as your instructor and coach. You begin when you wish and control the pace and schedule. You can have as many phone calls and live video conferences with your instructor as you wish. Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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Change Control Video – The Wrong Way & The Right Way

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Change control is a constant challenge for project managers. They have to deal with stakeholders who want to submit scope changes. This occurs daily on some projects.  Project Change Control Main Page

Change Control – The Wrong Way

The project manager in this video faces two aggressive stakeholders who want to make significant additions to the scope of the project. In the first version of the video, the project manager uses a very typical approach to change control. That is, he tries to resist all the changes the stakeholders propose. The stakeholders get angry and criticize the project manager’s original plan because it missed these critical items. The project manager continues to fight the changes so the stakeholders go over his head to senior management.  Senior management then orders the project manager to make the changes without giving him additional budget or time to make the additions. This often happens to project managers who try to resist all changes to the project. The project is then late and over budget due to a lack of funds or time to cover the changes. However, that excuse is usually not accepted and the project manager takes the blame for the project’s failure.

Change Control – The Right Way

The second version of the video replays the same situation where the stakeholders make demands for changes to the project.  But this time the project manager is very accommodating. He presents them with several options for accommodating the impact of their changes on the project’s cost and duration. He also presents trade-offs between reducing the overall project scope and making the changes the stakeholders want. The project manager continues to offer ways to accommodate the changes; all of which keep the project’s feasibility in tact.  You will see how to present trade-offs the correct way to deal with change control.

Project Scope Changes

To learn how to manage change control and design trade-offs, consider our online project management courses. You work privately with an expert project manager as your instructor and coach. You begin when you wish and work according to your schedule and pace. you have as many phone calls and live video conferences with your instructor as you wish.  Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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Project Cost Benefit Analysis

A project’s cost benefit analysis is important in any organization, especially in the banking sector. It always comes down to costs and benefits. The perceived value of a project and the prognosis for approval heavily depend on the ability of the project manager and sponsor to show how it benefits the organization. The tool most often used to justify projects is the Cost Benefit Analysis.  Cost Benefit Analysis Main Pagecost benefit analysis

Now a cost benefit analysis or CBA is meant to be an objective tool, using numbers and math to determine the true potential of a project. However, there is an issue with its total objectivity. The three basic components of every CBA are:

  • assumptions
  • a mathematical analysis of the assumptions with inputs like numbers and volumes
  • the time series.

The last two components are objective. But the selection of assumptions is a mainly subjective process and it leaves plenty of room for creativity.

In organizations that rigorously use CBA’s, one of the tricks project managers often use is to include assumptions on benefits that are hard to measure. Examples are intangible benefits, avoided costs, avoided investment, stronger customer loyalty, stronger brand, etc. Although there is nothing wrong with trying your best to justify a project, I believe there is an issue with basing a case on difficult to measure benefits.

These assumptions often produce estimates that are difficult to prove. They look good on paper, but are easily challenged in a board room. Cost Benefit Analysis with fat numbers based on intangible benefits can be deflated and cause the board of directors to distrust the project manager. These assumptions become weak when faced with simple questions like, “Will these numbers be visible in the P&L?” And when you answer with, “No but….,” the executives most probably stop listening.

Some companies do follow-ups after projects are closed to verify the assumed benefits were realized. If a project with bloated numbers is actually approved, the project manager has a tough time proving the existence of the promised benefits.

For a current example, we can look at what is happening in the IT industry where the disconnect between promised and actual results is often large. There are many suppliers that meet with executives and promise huge savings in implementing IT best practices, such as ITIL or COBIT.

The company ITSMF, for example, makes several outrageously unsubstantiated claims in its An Introductory Overview of ITIL [version 2] . *”Over 70% reduction in service downtime, ROI up by over 1000%, Savings of £100 million per annum, New product cycles reduced by 50%.”*

However, looking at it from the other side, we see different results. *”In a survey carried out by Bruton of 400 sites, about half of the 125 organizations which were found to have adopted ITIL made no measured improvement in terms of their service performance…”*

Finally, I do not really trust nor like an “outsmart them”approach when writing a CBA. My advice: be pragmatic and state strong, measurable and clear assumptions in your figures. If the project is strategic but difficult to argue on paper, then build the case on the strategic part and state that the benefits are difficult to quantify. If there is only a 50% chance that the expected benefits will materialize, this fact should be clearly stated. By being truthful, accurate and straightforward, you can build the trust of your executive team and establish yourself as a trustworthy and effective professional.