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Natalia Rossingol

Connect the Dots with Project Master Schedules

Are project timings are a source of confusion and conflict for your team? Shine a light on the plans and demystify deadlines with a project master schedule.

We're all familiar with the phrase "fail to plan, plan to fail". And without thorough planning, it's true that work on projects can be exceptionally - indeed, needlessly - challenging.

Poor planning causes miscommunication, improperly distributed resources, and scattered workflows. This, in turn, leads to delays and sometimes even failure.

If you are a project or resource manager and would like to avoid this outcome, there is a tool that you can try: a master schedule.

By unifying the efforts of all the key stakeholders and putting them on the same page, master schedules can ensure a smooth and successful work process - helping you deliver high quality project outcomes on time. To see how, read on.

What is a master schedule in project management?

A master schedule (or a project master schedule) can be defined as a document that contains all the information about the project activities, deliverables, and key milestones.

In a master schedule, all work is broken down into structural components, and these components are presented along their start and end dates. This way, master schedules reflect individual smaller schedules, combining them into a single unified picture.   

The purpose of master scheduling as a project scheduling technique is to ensure that projects are delivered on time and within the budget. This is achieved by creating a logical order of activities, effective resource management, and maintaining effective communication.

What are the benefits of using a master schedule?

Master scheduling can significantly drive a project’s success thanks to the following:  

  1. Clarity and order. A master schedule provides a bird-eye view of a project, clearly determining all the vital aspects and showing correlation among them. In particular, clearly organized information can be useful for new team members, letting them get integrated in the teamwork much quicker.   
  2. Simplicity. It divides projects into actionable work breakdown structure components, simplifying the work.
  3. Transparency. It allows you to track the work of all the team members, this way helping you easily spot issues and potential bottlenecks.

What are the disadvantages of following a master schedule?

Despite its benefits for production planning, a project master schedule is still not a perfect tool as it does have a couple of limitations:

  1. It’s not always necessary. For small projects that do not involve many participants or resources, master schedules can be unnecessary. In this case, a project schedule, which identifies activities along with their start and end dates, will be enough.
  2. It might be inflexible. As the work on the project unfolds, it might be necessary to update your master schedule, reflecting various changes, like delays or changes in scope. With rigid master schedules, it’s more complicated.

How to create a master schedule

Here is a sequence of steps for you as a project manager to create a master production schedule:

1. Identify project objectives

Project objectives must contain a desired outcome that reflects the customer’s request. It must be achievable, measurable, and time-constrained. By stating an objective, you set a clear direction for your team to follow.

2. Specify the elements within the project

First of all, break down the project into its structural components – tasks and the associated activities. This way, you will make sure that no part of the work process will be omitted.

Then, add the other important elements - project milestones and deliverables.

3. Allocate resources

Point out the resources needed to complete a project. In particular, create a budget (finances) and decide who will be in charge of what activity (human resources).

4. Estimate duration

For each activity, estimate time duration, determining their due dates.

5. Align the activities

In a project, cross-functional dependencies are inevitable as the work of one person directly affects the work of another one. To prevent bottlenecks, make sure that all activities are performed in the correct order, so that no one has to waste time waiting for their colleagues to complete their part and let them proceed with theirs.   

To make the process even smoother, it sounds like a good idea to point out the time delay between the predecessor and successor activities.

6. Review the schedule

After the master schedule has been finished, you should double-check it to see if anything needs to be changed. For example, you might find out that your activity time calculation needs to be revised, or that your resource allocation is not perfect. Reconsider your decisions and include the changes on the schedule.

This is the basics of making a master schedule. However, to create an effective project schedule, you could also use the following advice:

Collect input from various stakeholders

  • The indispensable condition for a successful project completion is cohesive teamwork and mutual understanding. To achieve these, it’s important to hear opinions and concerns of everyone involved, factoring in all the perspectives.
  • Not only does it improve psychological safety and increases motivation but also helps avoid overlooking any dependencies, which would potentially slow the work down.

Use software 

  • Modern technologies make our lives easier, so why not use them for creating project schedules? By automating this process, you both free up more time and make sure no changes will go unnoticed. 
  • With scheduling software, everyone can track the progress of project stages and continuously get updated. This synchronized the team efforts, reconciling activities and facilitating management. 

Regularly update the master schedule

  • As the project moves forward, there might happen some unexpected changes that would have to be reflected in the master schedule. Make sure to incorporate any updates so that the master schedule stays relevant.
  • Alternatively, you could also update your master schedule regularly – for example, weekly or monthly.
  • When it comes to updates, it’s important to timely inform all the stakeholders, by sending out a report or giving a brief.   

Assign a responsible person

  • Sometimes, master schedules will not be updated on time merely because of human error – your team members might get so deeply involved in work that they’ll forget to add the updates to the project schedule.

That’s why it makes sense to assign a person who would have this process under their control.

Master schedule examples

As a bare minimum, we recommend that you include the following information in your master schedule:

  • Project phases
  • Details about your project tasks - including task name, the project phase it belongs to, and task status
  • Project task owners
  • Details around timings: estimated time to complete tasks and phases, start dates for these milestones, and end dates (actual and estimated)

Here is an example of how you could lay out your master schedule:

How to handle risks and changes to the master schedule

Changes can cause a lot of stress but they are inevitable in any project. Improper change and risk management, which often result from poor planning, can lead to delays – and, consequently, to customer’s dissatisfaction. 

Let’s take a look at the most common risks one might face while making a master schedule:

  1. Scope change. Suddenly, a client may want to add new features or functions to a product. Naturally, this will mean that the amount of time and resources allocated to the project will change, too. You will need to reassess the whole master schedule.
  2. Complexity of projects. The more complex the project, the higher the probability that you will oversee something while planning, and then will have to reschedule your activities.
  3. Besides, errors also need some rework, and that will lead to delays, too.
  4. A lack of communication. Poor or insufficient communication is often the root of evil in teamwork. Misinterpretation of expectations, no buy-in, and, as a consequence, project failure can all be caused by the disability of stakeholders to be clear with each other.
  5. Unexpected costs. You might find out that you will need more materials, and that will expand your schedule.

So how can you solve all these potential problems? Here are some effective practices you could use to mitigate risks and handle changes while making a master schedule:

1. Use scheduling software

Like we mentioned earlier, software planning tools make it easier to manage the master schedule. By creating a unified picture of the project to which everybody has access, you can make changes without confusion and keep everyone on the same page.

For example, Runn can make resource management (which is an essential component of project scheduling) a piece of cake: it allows you to assign the right people to the right tasks based on their skills, keep track of the project, and even predict possible scenarios.

Runn's Project Planner interface

2. Complement master schedules with other project scheduling techniques

For example, in addition to a master schedule, you could also create a separate milestone chart or a project management calendar to keep important information in a written form.

3. Remember to include extra time in the schedule

While making a master schedule, stick to the principle “better safe than sorry.” By giving yourself some extra time, you prevent possible delays caused by various factors. 

The same, by the way, can also apply to financial resources.

4. Maintain effective communication

Uninterrupted and open communication among different stakeholders ensures project smoothness. Constant updates on the project status, transparency around the risks, and exchange of input make a big difference in the project’s success and help deal with challenges.

By creating a master schedule, project managers can make a big step to your project’s progress and success. Your team will not have to struggle with multiple schedules that are not compatible with each other. You will not run out of resources all of a sudden.

Instead, you will be able to track each and every stage of your project, successfully perform project control, and focus on delivering a product that would satisfy your customer.

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