The work breakdown schedule (WBS) is the spine of your project plan. The most important function is to communicate clear performance expectations about the project. For executives, the work breakdown schedule communicates exactly what they’re going to get from the project. That is what the business results will be. The WBS entries, from the scope down to the smallest team member’s task, are measurable deliverables. Each clearly communicates a performance expectation with numbers so it is measurable. As an example, the scope of a customer service project might be, “Less than 5% of customers have to contact customer service a second time about the same problem.” That number is a measurable deliverable, it’s an acceptance criterion. Specifically, the project is successful if fewer than 5% of the customers have to call back about the same problem. When you communicate that expectation to the executives, they know what they’re going to get from the project. As importantly, they know what they’re not going to get. It clearly tells them that the result will not be perfection. They will still have about 5% of the customers calling back about the same problem. Main Work Breakdown Structure Page
Work Breakdown Schedule: Trade-offs
The work breakdown schedule is a tool for project managers to control expectations. It communicates to executives that they cannot change the project’s scope without compensating adjustments, called trade-offs, to the project’s duration and/or cost. Dealing with those trade-offs is a key to managing the expectations of sponsors and other executives. Consistently successful project managers use those trade-offs during the initial planning phase to communicate expectations about the project’s scope, time, cost and risk. The scope and major deliverables must be defined in measurable terms so the trade-offs can be quantified. If the scope isn’t defined in this manner, the project will have overruns and dissatisfied sponsors and executives.
Here’s a conversation with “Less than 5% of customers call back about the same problem” as a measurable scope:
An executive says, ” Oh you can do better than that; make it 3%.”
The project manager smiles and says, “We modeled that earlier. Remember?We have a 75% chance of hitting your 3% but it will cost $150,000 more and take 18 months longer. Do you want to authorize that trade-off?”
The executive replies, “Where did those numbers come from?”
The PM says, “From the computer model we built of the project. Is this what you want?”
The sponsor’s face turns beet red and he sputters “Of course not, I want 3% for the same budget and finish date.”
The PM says, “That’s not possible, sir. We could improve to 4% for much less. Is that of interest? ”
The sponsor demands, “You will deliver 3% for the same budget and finish date, or you will be looking for a job.”
The PM shakes his head sadly and says, “No one could pull off that miracle. So you’d better fire me now.”
The sponsor storms out.
The project manager handled this correctly, refusing to commit to a result he could not deliver but offering two results which he could deliver.
Work Breakdown Schedule: Deliverables
The work breakdown schedule also shows the executives how the project team is going to deliver the result. The project manager and sponsor decompose the overall scope deliverable into 4 to 7 high-level deliverables. They also define each of those with measured acceptance criteria. Those deliverables are the best way to communicate how the project team will deliver the results defined by the scope. It also gives executives unambiguous checkpoints to measure the progress of the project after work begins. The project manager will also decompose the work breakdown schedule down to the level of individual assignments for the project team members.
Those lower level measured deliverables are the foundation for assigning work to the team members and tracking progress. You should define each task in the work breakdown schedule with a metric and link it to the scope through a network of deliverables. As stated above, you create that network by decomposing the scope into 4 – 7 high-level deliverables. You continue to decompose the high-level deliverables into smaller deliverables, down to the level of deliverables that an individual will be accountable for producing. A work breakdown schedule developed this way gives the project sponsor, stakeholders and the project manager objectively defined checkpoints against which to measure progress. That is a powerful tool for keeping the project on track and for communicating to everyone that you, the project manager, know what’s going on. Using this technique, you can avoid the difficulties with defining and tracking team member assignments when the work breakdown schedule is merely a “to do” list.
Work Breakdown Schedule: Team Member Assignments and Estimates
If you do the work breakdown schedule correctly, every team member can look at it and know what a good job on their assignment is before they start work. The work breakdown schedule will also tell them how you will evaluate their deliverable when they finish producing it. Because your expectations are clear, a good work breakdown schedule is an excellent tool for developing accurate estimates with the project team members. That’s because they have less need to pad their estimates since the assignment is very clear. Team members pad their estimates because they are accustomed to receiving vague project assignments that change frequently. The usual process of making changes to their vague assignments doesn’t allow the team member to accurately estimate the required work and duration. So the team member prudently protects themselves by inflating the estimates they provide the project manager.
When the project manager develops a work breakdown schedule with measured deliverables, the problem of padding estimates largely goes away. That is particularly true if the project manager uses work packages and makes an agreement with the team members that when their assignment changes, the PM will reexamine their time and duration estimates. That sounds very simple but operating that way gives team members lots of confidence in the commitment process so the project manager gets better estimates from the team members. Additionally,the work breakdown schedule is the tool the project manager uses to identify the skill set of the people they should assign to each of the entries in the WBS. Work Packages main page
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.
The critical path is the longest sequence of tasks in a project. It determines the project’s duration and completion date and it can change minute to minute. It’s easy to use the project critical path method to cut the duration and optimize your project plans to finish as quickly as possible. Let’s see an example of how to correctly use the critical path method. Schedule & Software Main Page
Chris Pimbock, the Impudent Project Manager, took a vacant seat the crowded passenger boarding area at gate #63. The seat was near to two sullen business travelers waiting to fly home on a Friday evening. They were staring through the big plate glass windows of the terminal at a mechanic standing atop an aluminum ladder working on the jet’s port engine.
The blue-suited professional sitting to Chris’ left muttered, “The gate attendant better wake up. Those dopes have to get another mechanic working on that engine pronto! That’s a critical path task. Without working engines, we won’t go anywhere!”
The thoroughly wrinkled passenger across the aisle growled, “Nah, that captain and his crew sitting near the gate keep looking at their watches. I bet they are about to go off duty. Without a crew, we won’t go anywhere. Getting a new crew is what that gate attendant should work on. That’s the critical path.”
Feigning ignorance, Chris Pimbock asked, “How do you know what’s on the critical path?
With an exasperated sigh, the guy in the blue suit said, “Experience. Hey, I do this stuff for a living and I know a critical path task when I see one.” The other passenger nodded agreement.
Chris casually looked over the boarding area at gate #63 and the tarmac. The fight crew was still sitting in the corner chatting. A food truck was sitting on the tarmac with the driver reading a magazine. A fuel truck waited and that driver was watching the mechanic. The gate attendant had left her station and gone to help at the next gate, #61. She was helping get the passengers for that flight checked-in and on board.
The rumpled guy mumbled to Chris, “Is that stupid gate attendant gonna get more mechanics? Wait, look the food truck just drove off. That gate attendant is an idiot; ignoring us and working at another gate! Now we’ll have to wait even longer for another food truck while she helps her buddy at the next gate.”
Chris said, “Ahh, give the woman some credit, she knows what she is doing.”
“That’s crazy. Look the fuel truck is leaving too!” the wrinkled PM snorted. “All she cares about are the passengers at gate #61!
Chris frowned and asked, “So the gate attendant should assign more mechanics to the critical path task and get another fuel truck. Is that critical too?”
The two PMs sneered at Chris. One muttered, “Duh.” The other nodded sadly and said, “Sure. You’ve got to really watch the project critical path tasks like a hawk. And when you add more people you get the tasks done faster.”
Just then the first PM said, “Look,” and pointed out the window at the mechanic who was waving frantically at the gate attendant and holding up a broken wrench and mouthing the words, “Need a new wrench!”
The gate attendant was too busy at the other gate to look out the window. Failing to catch the attendant’s eye, the mechanic picked up his broken wrench and tried to work with it, shaking his head in frustration.
Chris said, “What happened?”
“Thanks to that moron gate attendant, the flight will be delayed even longer. The mechanic needs a new tool and she couldn’t see him because she has abandoned us and gone to gate #61. I’m gonna tell her what a dope she is!”
As the wrinkled PM rose to walk to the counter, Chris noted that the plane at gate #61 was leaving. He said, “I would give it a minute or two before you make a jerk of yourself.”
The wrinkled PM slumped back down and said. “That gate attendant has really botched this flight. We’re going to be here for hours.”
They settled back into their chairs and in a moment the gate attendant picked up a black microphone and cleared her throat.
The blue suit predicted, “Now, that dope is going to cancel the flight.”
The loud speakers in the waiting room hissed as a new food truck arrived and the attendant said, “Our new airplane will be pulling up to gate #61 momentarily. Please move to that gate now. We will board in 5 minutes, the plane has fuel, the food is on board and we’re ready to go.”
Chris said, “I guess that gate attendant did the calculations and decided that the sequence of tasks involved in fixing the plane, fueling it, loading the food and replacing the crew was longer than getting us a new plane that was ready to go. She used the duration data, not just guesses, about what task was critical. She kept her eye on the right critical path the whole time. Most importantly she focused on the correct scope; getting us home tonight, not just fixing the plane.”
You can learn to identify and optimize the project critical path by taking one of our online, instructor-led courses. You’ll get personal coaching from an expert project manager as you practice applying the best practice techniques to realistic project case studies. You can work at your own pace and fit your schedule.
Project scheduling is not about developing and printing a schedule and then hanging it on the wall. Good project managers use their dynamic schedules daily to model options, assess alternatives and forecast completion dates and costs. Here’s how a project manager who is a good scheduler operates:
A stakeholder stops the project manager at the entrance to the cafeteria and says. “Sorry but I have some bad news for you.”
While listening, the project manager flips open his portable PC and opens the project to which this stakeholder is lending people.
The PM asks, “Oh, what’s happened?” while scrolling to a list of the tasks to which this executive’s people are assigned.
The stakeholder replies, “I have to pull those three engineers off your project to work on something the Marketing VP dumped in my lap. I need them for 4 weeks.”
The PM scrolls down the list, finds the three engineers, changes their availability for the next 4 weeks to zero and clicks enter. On the screen Gantt chart a lot bars turn red and shift to the right (later finishes). The PM says, “As long as you’re talking to the Marketing VP about removing the three engineers from this projects, you can tell her that her tracking system will be 6 weeks latter than currently scheduled.”
“Oh no,” the stakeholder moans.
“That’s the consequence,” the PM replies. “I’ll tell engineering and accounting about the delays this causes on their deliverables. You may hear from them.”
The stakeholder says, “Wait awhile before you do that. Let me see if there is another way.”
The PM smiles.
Dynamic Project Scheduling Techniques
Successful project managers use dynamic project scheduling because it saves them significant amounts of time. It also lets them quickly model the impact of changes to resources, work or costs. Dynamic scheduling automatically recalculates the duration and budget for the project every time you make a change in the resources, hourly rates, hours of work and predecessor relationships.
Many commercial project scheduling software products allow for dynamic scheduling. Here are the critical elements required for the dynamic schedule to work.
Dynamic Project Scheduling Element #1: Predecessors
Your dynamic project schedule must not be based on fixed start and finish dates. It must be based on predecessor relationships between tasks. There are three primary kinds of predecessor relationships and the entire schedule must be built on these relationships.
First is the finish-to-start predecessor relationship between tasks A and B. That tells the software that task B can’t start until task A has finished.
Second is the start-to-start predecessor relationship between tasks A and B. That tells the software that tasks A and B can start at the same time.
Third is the finish-to-finish predecessor relationship between tasks A and B. That tells the software that tasks A and B must finish at the same time, even though they may not start at the same time.
Dynamic Project Scheduling Element #2: Work Durations
Your schedule must be based on work durations that are calculated from resource availability and work estimates. You enter the amount of work required for a task and the availability of the resource assigned to the task. Availability is how many hours a day each resource can work on their task. As an example, say there is 80 hours of work for a team member who works on the project half-time, or four hours a day. The dynamic project scheduling software calculates the task’s duration as 20 working days. That’s because the half-time team member can only complete four hours of work a day.
Dynamic Project Scheduling Element #3: Track Work & Duration
You use dynamic project scheduling with predecessor relationships and work estimates to track progress on the tasks in your project plan. As an example, you may specify a finish-to-finish predecessor relationship. That tells the project management software that you want to schedule two tasks and their resources so both tasks finish at the same time. When you specify all your predecessor relationships, your project plan becomes a network of tasks, linked by the predecessor relationships. The result is often called a PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique) chart. It displays your project plan and its network of tasks.
You link each task bar to the project network. That allows our dynamic project scheduling to control the sequencing of tasks based on the predecessor relationships and the amount of work in each task. It also gives you early warning on problems. When a task is completed late, the software shows the revised completion date(s) of that task’s successor tasks. You have an opportunity to correct a situation that can impact the entire project’s schedule.
You can learn how to use dynamic project scheduling in our online project management courses. You work one-to-one with your instructor at your pace and as your schedule allows.
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 budgeting 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 Finish–to–Start 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.
There are two different techniques you can use when you are making project team assignments. The easiest way to assign work to your project team members is to give them activities to complete, like items on a “To Do” list. That technique doesn’t take much thinking and the assignment is usually a little vague. The more effective technique is to make the team members accountable for producing a specific deliverable. Each deliverable must have a measurable outcome. This technique takes a lot of thinking because you must specify exactly what you want the team member to produce and how you will measure it. Deliverables are always better assignments than a list of To Do’s. That’s because the team member will understand exactly what you expect of them before they start work. People perform at a higher level when they are accountable for deliverables and that is the key to consistent project success. Let’s discuss how to define and assign deliverables. Leading Teams Main Page
There are several components when you assign a deliverable to a team member. You need an estimate of the amount of work the deliverable will take. You also need to identify the risks in producing the deliverable. A team member often needs to receive work products from others to be able to produce their deliverable. All that information should be stated in a work package. The work package is a one-page document that gives clear assignments to team members. It also lets team members participate in defining the approach to the task and estimating the amount of work it will take. But let’s get back to the key element, the performance expectation.
Project Team Assignments: Deliverables versus Activities
There is a clear distinction between project team assignments that are activities and those that are deliverables. Activities are “To Do’s” like “teach the payroll system training class.” Deliverables are end results like, “After the payroll class, 85% of the attendees can enter 30 pay changes per hour.” After receiving each of these assignments, a team member can teach a payroll class. But the content will be different with the deliverable assignment because the trainer is not just conducting a class. They have a measured result they are accountable for delivering. Project managers who design team member assignments as deliverables have significant advantages over those who use activities. Before listing these advantages, let’s make sure you’re clear about the differences between team assignments with activities and those with deliverables. Effective Feedback
Project Team Assignments Example #1: Assignment to a Teenager
The Activity: “Clean up your room.”
The Deliverable: “Put all the empty Pepsi cans and candy wrappers in the garbage can.”
With the activity assignment, the parent have only told the teenager to perform an action. They have not defined the expected outcome. The teenager has to guess what the parent wants. There can be many interpretations of what the “Clean up your room” activity involves. So it is likely that the parent won’t get the end result they’re looking for. The key flaw in this (and any) activity assignment is that there is no clear performance expectation. There is no performance standard to measure the teenager’s actions against. There is only a vague idea of what a “clean room” looks like. As a result, the parent can’t gain the teenager’s commitment to the assignment. And they can’t reasonably deliver consequences for the teen’s good or bad performance. Team building
With the deliverable of “All the empty Pepsi cans and candy wrappers in the garbage can,” the teenager has the potential for better performance and commitment. The expectation is clear and it is possible to get the teen to commit to it. If there are still empty cans and candy wrappers on the floor after the teen says they’re done, they will have to agree that the standard wasn’t met. On the other hand, if they also put their textbooks and computer on the desk, the parent must agree that the teen exceeded the standard. In this example of a deliverable, any rewards and punishments have a better chance of being seen as fair because the standard was clear.
Project Team Assignments Example #2: Assignment to a Team Member
The Activity: “Develop recommendations to reduce turnover.”
The Deliverable: “Get management committee’s approval of policy changes that will cut turnover by 10%.”
With the activity assignment of “Develop recommendations to reduce turnover.”, the project manager must continuously check the team member’s work to guide them. That’s because the team member cannot have a clear idea of what the PM wants. (It’s also possible the PM doesn’t know what the assignment should achieve.) The team member doesn’t know whether to develop 200 recommendations to eliminate all turnover or just a few to bring it down a little. This leads to a game of “Did I get the right answer?” each time the team member thinks they are done. The team member does some work and brings their recommendations to the PM asking, “Is this what you wanted?” The answer to this question is usually “No.” Then the PM blames the team member, saying, “You didn’t understand the assignment.” So the team member goes back to the drawing board, frustrated and irritated.
These problems are solved with the deliverable assignment of “Get management committee’s approval of policy changes that will cut turnover by 10%.” The project team member knows what’s the PM expects them to deliver and doesn’t have to guess. The PM has a better opportunity to gain the team member’s commitment and positive or negative consequences will be clear and fair. Additionally, the team member can get a sense of satisfaction from meeting the expectation.
So why do PMs assign team members activities rather than deliverables? The answer is because it’s much easier and safer than assigning achievements. There are two reasons for this. First, by assigning activities, the PM doesn’t have to think through the situation and commit to exactly what he/she wants. They have some wiggle room to change their mind on what they want. Second, it is difficult for the PM to make a mistake when assigning activities. Only the person doing the work can be wrong. Weak PMs always use activity assignments because it’s safe for them and always leaves them wiggle room.
Now let’s look at some more good and bad assignment examples. The bad ones are more entertaining so we’ll start with them.
Project Team Assignments Example #3: Counting the Wrong Thing
Here are a few examples of counting the wrong thing on a customer service improvement project. The project scope is defined as “Provide World Class Customer Service that Delights the Customer.”
A PM measures the engineers’ performance by the number of lines of code each one writes. The engineer with the highest total gets a lunch with the CEO.
A PM measures the trainers’ performance by the ratings that class attendees give each trainer. The trainer with the highest rating receives a certificate of appreciation.
A PM measures the performance of customer service reps by counting the number of interviews each person conducts with customer service managers. The team member with the most interviews gets publicly recognized at a status meeting.
What performance will the PM get from project team assignments like these? In the first example, the engineers will write a lot of lines of code. Some of it may benefit the customer service division but a lot will not. In the second example, the training class attendees will have a fun time and give the trainer a high rating. But they won’t learn much. In the third example, the team members will conduct a lot of interviews. But much of the information will be gathered in a hurried manner and may be useless.
The project managers in these examples counted the activities being performed and got the results they deserved. These activities produced high volumes of whatever the PM was counting, even if it contributed little value to the project. The PMs probably didn’t know what business value the project needed to deliver. So they created assignments that were activities they could identify without much thought.
Project Team Assignments Example #4: Counting Only Dates
Another form of counting the wrong thing occurs when the project due date or duration is the only measurable result. The due date usually comes from an executive. It doesn’t consider the amount of work required or the availability of the people to do it. Next the project manager picks the due date of each assignment to support the entire project’s due date. In this situation, the team members have no commitment to their assignments’ dates because they were forced upon them. They often recognize that the dates are impossible even before work starts.
At each status meeting the PM asks, “Are you on track to hit your due dates? You committed to them.” Most team members give the PM an optimistic thumbs up. Then one day a truthful person says, “No, that date is impossible. There is no way I can hit it.” The PM gets angry and from them on, everyone is afraid to tell the truth about their assignment. So they report they are on target to meet their dates. They don’t mention that they’re counting on miracles to do so. When the due date draws near, the team members slap together whatever they can and turn it in. It’s poor quality work, but at least it’s on time. The organization then spends months and thousands of dollars to fix the failed project.
Project sponsors drive much of this “due date behavior” when all they focus on is the due dates of the entire project and the team assignments. I don’t mean to imply that the dates are not important; they are. But delivering junk by the due date does not make the project a success. Unfortunately, most project sponsors are used to to having only dates for tracking the project’s progress. Too many project managers don’t report anything else that is measurable. Everything else they report is vague, subjective statements. So it’s not surprising that sponsors like dates because they are objectively measurable and unambiguous.
What project managers need to do is to count the right things. They need to count the end result (the business value) the project produces, the date, the cost and the risk. These techniques take a more time but they yield enormous benefits. Let’s see how you do that.
Project Team Assignments: Assignment Deliverable Hierarchy
To be a successful project manager, you must work with the sponsor to define measured deliverables for the project scope. Then you define the major deliverables that lead to it. This includes the acceptance criteria the sponsor will use to measure the project’s success. Let’s use the customer service project example again. This time the scope definition the sponsor sets is “Complete 95% of customer phone calls within 3 minutes with less than 3% calling back about the same problem.” This is a clear measured outcome. Then you break it down into smaller achievements that support the scope.
As you break down the scope into its IT system deliverables, you come to the GUI (screen display) that an engineer has to develop for the customer service reps to use. That measured achievement could be “Customer service reps see 6 months of customer history within 4 seconds of entering the customer’s name or number.” Please note that this achievement is measured in the users’ business point of view. It is not measured in the IT system engineering department’s business point of view. This is much more supportive of the project’s scope than lines of code (like the PM used in the earlier example).
The trainer has a different achievement, too. Their assignment could be “80% of the class attendees can answer the top 20 customer questions in 120 seconds or less using the new GUI.” Again, what you are counting is more relevant to the project’s scope than whether the attendees enjoyed the class and the trainer.
The team members interviewing the customer service managers could have a measured business outcome like, “Managers reach consensus on the ten most important customer service problems.” This is much more supportive of the project’s scope than counting the number of interviews conducted.
That sounds pretty straightforward but it takes time, thought and planning to create this assignment deliverable hierarchy. You must think about what to count and measure. They must be relevant to achieving the project’s scope. Performance expectations must be clear to the team members before they start work. So you must define team members’ assignments in measureable terms. That encourages their commitment and makes estimating and tracking much more precise. It also lets you spot problems early, when you have a chance to fix them. It plays an important role in managing projects that deliver successful results. When you assign a project team member a deliverable, it is easier to clarify your expectations, gain their commitment and give them rewards that are based on performance. All the techniques in this article are part of our private, training courses and certifications delivered over the Internet or as in-person seminars for organizations.
We use scheduling software for our projects, we teach project managers how to use it and we help our clients pick the scheduling software that’s right for them. The number of choices in project scheduling software has exploded and there are now thousands of packages. Many are free (at least at the beginning), others are crap. They give you the later in exchange for your email and phone number so they can sell you more crap, so be forewarned.
Project Manager Role and Scheduling Software Tools
Our scheduling software review criteria are based on what we teach our clients about the role of project managers in organizations. That role begins with providing management with decision-making data on the alternative costs and duration required to produce the project deliverables. Once management approves the cost, duration and deliverables, the project manager and team begin work. Throughout the project, the project manager reviews progress and reports any changes to the project’s expected cost and duration. They use scheduling software to help them do the analysis and create status reports. It is also a helpful tool for suggesting corrective action to keep the project on track. Management often wants to make additions or deletions to the plan. When that happens, the project manager uses scheduling software to quantify their impact on the planned cost and finish date. Both weekly tracking and managing changes require the project manager to give solid decision-making data to management. And scheduling software provides that data.
Scheduling Software Main Page
Scheduling Software: Required Features
Scheduling software must also have the following capabilities at a minimum:
1. Produce a Gantt chart that clearly communicates the start and finish date for each task and the sequence of tasks
2. Display the name of the person accountable for each task and its duration
3. Allow you to generate graphics and data comparing actual performance to the baseline project schedule.
There are several packages that will give you these three capabilities for $25 or less. You could also spend thousands of dollars for packages that don’t do much more than these three capabilities; they just do it fancier.
To fulfill the project management role I described above, you need a scheduling software tool that allows you to calculate the cost and duration of each task and the project as a whole. This includes the following:
Estimated hours of work for each task
Availability of the team member(s) to do that work (# of hours per week devoted to the project)
Hourly cost of the team member(s) doing the work and materials required to produce the deliverable
Sequence of the tasks in the project
Impact of changes to any of the above.
In addition to the above criteria, even project managers on a small project need the following scheduling software capabilities:
Ability to control task sequencing with predecessor relationships. These relationships eliminate the need to reenter start and finish dates every time something changes in the schedule. An astounding number of the packages we reviewed did provide this. Predecessor relationships will allow you to update your schedule in 10 minutes, rather than hours, a week.
Allow you to enter “estimate to complete” data into the software. This capability lets you gather data from your project team on when they’re going to finish their tasks. Then you can forecast when the project will finish. This makes your status reports and communications much more complete. It also demonstrates to management that you are in control of what’s happening on the project.
The two scheduling software packages we suggest to our students are:
Gantter – it’s free and works within your Gmail account.
Microsoft Project – this software has been the top ranked tool for project managers for years. The standard edition costs $589.
You will learn how to use project management software in our online courses. We offer project management courses for business/marketing, IT, construction, healthcare and consulting. You will work individually with your instructor on case studies and practice making project plans, schedules, reports and presentations that fit your specialty.
This video shows you the entire process for using project tracking software (Microsoft Project®) from start to finish. Reporting project progress is an important part of every project manager’s weekly routine and using software makes your job much easier and efficient. You’ll see how to enter the status reports from your team members, spot variances and plan corrective action. How to Write a Weekly Status Report
Project Tracking Software Video
You’ll see how the software uses the data about the actual work completed and the team’s estimates of the remaining work (work-to-complete). If there are overruns on any tasks, the software adjusts the schedule to show the start and finish dates of the remaining tasks in the plan. It also updates the project budget and the earned value data. You’ll also see click-by-click instructions for analyzing the variances and modeling corrective action to bring the schedule back into line with the approved project plan.
Tracking & Status Reports in MS Project
After the project schedule had been updated with the team members’ status reports, the project manager will analyze the variances and identify those that require corrective action and those variances that do not. Then the project manager will model corrective action for each of the variances and test the impact of that corrective action on the schedule and budget. Finally the project manager will prepare the reports he will distribute to the project sponsor and stakeholders. These reports show what has happened, the consequences if nothing is done about the variances, and the corrective action the project manager proposes. The corrective actions will help bring the project schedule and budget back in line with the baseline of the original project management plan. As you can see, project tracking software is a powerful tool. Project Tracking Reports Main Page
You can learn how to use project tracking software in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with an expert project manager who is your instructor and coach. You begin whenever you wish and control the schedule and pace. You have as many phone calls and live video conferences with them as you wish.
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.
The critical path is the longest sequence of tasks through your network. Therefore, the critical path tasks control the duration of the entire project. One day of slippage on a critical path task means your project will finish one day later. With that definition in mind, I’d like to talk about managing your critical path resources. That is, the people who are assigned to work on your critical path tasks.
We want to assign proven performers to critical path tasks. Other tasks in your project may have slack or float which allows those tasks to finish later than currently scheduled without affecting the duration of the entire project. But as I said before, if a critical path task finishes later, the project finishes later. If you have the flexibility to assign different people to critical path tasks, you should assign trainees to tasks that are not on the critical path. And the best people are your critical path resources. These people should be your early warning system about problems on critical path tasks. You want every team member to report a problem as soon as it comes to light. But on the critical path tasks, you want to be notified as soon as the faintest glimmer of a problem shows up so you can act to fix it.
Accordingly, managing critical path resources efficiently is a key design issue. Here is an example from my experience. I am an IT Project manager and during a planning phase, I was trying to write a perfect plan for a project to upgrade a system. There was a task on the critical path called “Final Upgrading System on the Live Server.” The duration of this task was two days and during that time, users would not be able to work on the system. Project Schedule & Software Main Page
To investigate, I spoke to the upgrading system implementer who said during those two days, we would enable the backup system on the backup server and make it ready for users to enter their daily work. However, he added, users would need to redo their work transactions on the live production once it was ready. Redoing transactions might require users to work more hours to enter the back load. I was thinking about utilizing the weekend to finalize this task so I contacted the Human Resources manager. I explained the issue and asked him for a solution. The HR Manager suggested paying overtime for the implementers. I said over time is a bad idea for managing projects because it increases the budget and the project management methodology does not recommend it. But I continued, I could talk with the implementers and suggest we give them with another two days off that they could add to another weekend. That would give them a long weekend vacation. We would count the business hours they spend during the weekend. The HR manger said it was a good idea. I told him I would also get approval from their direct manager. I got approval and commitment from the critical path resources, the HR Manager, and the functional department manager and documented all those commitments.
Consequently, the project plan was executed successfully within its planned budget, duration, scope and risk. Users did not redo their data entry work load and implementers went for a long weekend vacation. The case was archived as a lesson learned.
Learn how to use the critical path tool to quickly identify problems, efficiently use resources and cut the project duration in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager via live online video conferences, phone calls and e-mails. You control the course schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with your instructor as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty.
People who manage projects, either full-time as a project manager or part-time as a department manager, know that the critical path is the longest path of tasks in a project. It determines the duration of the entire project. They also know which of the tasks in the project are Critical Path Tasks. But knowing the definition and actually using it to finish your projects earlier are two entirely different things.
How to Manage Critical Path Tasks
When you actively manage critical path tasks you can do these important things:
find ways to shorten the duration of the project without increasing costs or risks
quickly identify variances you don’t have to do anything about
spot places where you can decrease the assigned resources and make better use of them elsewhere.
To actively manage the critical path tasks, you need to identify which tasks in your project are on the critical path. You also need to know how much slack (float) the no-critical tasks have. The slack number tells you how many days the task can slip before it becomes a critical path task and increases the project’s duration. You can shift resources off tasks with significant slack and move them onto critical path tasks. That should shorten the duration of the project without adding costs or risks. This fine tuning or optimizing of the project plan takes minutes and can yield important decreases in the project duration.
Identifying the plan variances you have to do something about is as valuable as identifying variances where you don’t have to do anything. Obviously a variance or slippage on a critical path task is going to ripple all the way through the project and affect your finish date. However, if you have a variance of 3 days on a task that has 13 days of slack , you don’t need to be terribly concerned. You want to make sure that the 3 day variance is not symptomatic of a larger problem. But if, for example, it is a minor error in the estimate then you don’t need to take time to solve the problem because you still have 10 days of slack left on that task. This allows you to use under-estimating as a teaching tool with the team member when it occurs on a non-critical path task.
Additionally, you can look at tasks with slack as a pool of available resources. Let’s look at a simple example. If we have a task with 21 days of slack and three team members assigned to it, you might be able to reduce the staffing by one or two team members. If their skill sets are compatible, you can add those people to a critical path task during the weeks when they were scheduled to work on the task with all the slack. Obviously, this kind of fine-tuning depends on staff compatibility. You’re not going to transfer two engineers to a task that requires a graphic artist. But moving available resources gives you the ability to shorten the duration without increasing the project’s risks or costs.
Critical Path Tasks – A Real Example
As an IT project manager in the planning phase of a system upgrade project, I had been trying to write a perfect plan for managing the critical path activities. There was a task in the critical path called “Final Upgrading System on the Live Server.” The duration of this task was two days and users could not work during that task execution. Project Schedule & Software Main Page
I spoke to the upgrading implementer who said during those two days we would enable the backup system on the backup server and have it ready for users to enter their daily work. However, he added, users must redo their work transactions on the live production system once it is ready. Redoing transactions might require users to work more hours to enter the backlog. I was thinking about utilizing the weekend to finalize this task. I contacted the HR manager, explained the issue and asked for a solution. The HR manager suggested paying overtime for the implementers. I said overtime was a bad idea for managing projects because it increases the budget. The PM methodology does not recommend it. But I suggested talking with implementers and asking them to work an additional two days, then letting them add two days to a future weekend so that they could go for long weekend vacation. We would count the business hours they work during the weekend. The HR manger thought it was a good idea. I got approval & commitment from their direct manager, the HR Manager, and the functional Department Manager. I documented all these commitments.
Consequently, the project plan was executed successfully within its planned budget, duration, scope and risk. Users did not redo their data entry work load and implementers went for a long weekend vacation. The case was uploaded as a project lesson learned.
Learn how to use the critical path tool to quickly identify problems, efficiently use resources and cut the project duration in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager via live online video conferences, phone calls and e-mails. You control the course schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with your instructor as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty.