Projects are complex, and can have a lot of moving parts. As a project manager, keeping on top of all of those parts can be a constant juggle. Project scheduling is how you keep all those juggling balls in the air, and not drop one.
Project schedules align the timeline of your project and the scope of the work involved with the availability of the resources you need. Your schedule lays out how these three work together to get you to the result at the end.
There are a wide range of project scheduling techniques you can use. Your preference as a project manager, or the exact nature of your project, will lend itself towards a particular technique.
Imagine there are five phases of work that goes into your project. Within those five phases, there are five different teams who’ll contribute to the work that’s needed.
Each of those five different teams have their own separate work schedules that they have to align in order to work on your project in the right sequence. Then, throw in the additional equipment they need, which are booked by other areas of the business for their own uses.
There are many other factors that can come into play depending on what your project is. You can see how it’s important to have good project management scheduling to come up with a smooth plan to bring all those elements of your project together harmoniously.
The critical path method is commonly used in the construction sector, and involves identifying the longest sequence of dependent tasks within a project.
Dependent tasks are those that must be completed in order to progress the project to the next stage. For example, in building a house, you can’t put the roof on until the frames are up. The reason you look for the longest sequence is because this is essentially the largest block of work that can only be done once something else has been finished.
There are often many other tasks that can be done at various times, and these are called float tasks.
To find the critical path, list all individual tasks in order, identify the dependent tasks, and design a project schedule with these as your starting point.
The program evaluation and review technique is another scheduling method that’s often seen in construction.
It involves making a visual timeline of all the pieces of work that goes into your project. This is your PERT chart.
From there, calculate three things:
You can calculate an informed timeline using the formula (O+4M+P)/6.
Calculating O, P, and M may be hard, but other techniques such as Gantt charts (see below) can help you.
Gantt charts bring a whole new level of visibility to your project tracking as it’s rolled out. They allow you to see real time data on how your project is unfolding against your expectations, both in terms of time and expense.
The Gantt chart technique is a spreadsheet that has lines for specific tasks, blocks for specific stages, a plan for the resources you require and more. It’s particularly useful for being able to see the flow of work that goes into your project from beginning to end.
You can build your Gantt chart manually in a standard spreadsheet, or you can purchase templates with built-in automation that require less manual input.
Duration compression is a way of completing your project quicker. You can implement this technique from the very beginning, or mid-way through your project if you realize it’s taking longer than you’d hoped.
A common duration compression method is called fast tracking, where you overlap two tasks that can be done simultaneously.
For example, to take the house building example from earlier, your plan may be to paint the interior of the house before you install the kitchen. However, you can fast track the build by painting the kitchen first, then installing the kitchen hardware while you paint the rest of the house.
Crashing is another method of duration compression that essentially involves putting more resource into a task to get it done faster. A side effect of crashing is it often comes with extra costs.
For example, let’s say you’ve allowed for one week for the interior of your house to be painted. If you decide you need to get it done faster, you can get additional painters in to speed the job up.
This may not always be possible, as some tasks can only be done by a set number of people at one time. Having 10 people install that kitchen instead of five isn’t likely to make much difference, as they’d get in each other’s way.
Of all the project scheduling methods, simulation is best used when you need to make assumptions. For example, you want to have a water well at your house, but you aren’t sure how deep you need to dig.
Simulation allows you to create a project schedule that accommodates estimates. You can create multiple schedules that account for different outcomes, and then adjust it as things progress.
You may have a simulation for if it takes one day of digging to hit water, another one if it takes four days, and a third if it takes a week.
The advantage of simulation is it allows for flexibility in creating a detailed project schedule despite not knowing all the details.
Resource leveling is an effective technique for ensuring resources are being used as efficiently as possible. You can use it alongside other project scheduling methods to reduce costs.
The idea behind it is ensuring resources are being consistently utilized, instead of having busy peaks and periods of inactivity.
Consider the example of painting your house again. Your painters may need to wait for your builder to finish putting up all the drywall before they can paint it. That means they have a day when they can only work four hours, but you still have to pay them for the hours when they’re waiting. Then they have to work 12 hours the following day to meet their deadline.
You can employ resource-leveling to ensure your painters can work consistently over those two days, instead of being idle one day and overworked the next.
Having a detailed calendar is a must for project managers, and you can also use this along with other scheduling techniques. Calendars are extremely useful in giving visibility and transparency of your project to both yourself and other stakeholders.
There are a range of project management software options that come with ready-made calendar templates to match all sorts of project needs.
Runn resourcing and scheduling calendars make it easy to see timelines for entire projects and the individual tasks that contribute to it. They can be shared with contributors to foster collaboration and communication, and ensure cohesion across the entire project team.
There is no one correct approach to scheduling, and you can see the advantages and disadvantages that come with all of these different project scheduling techniques.
For project managers looking to align timelines and resources, it’s best to develop proficiency in all of these methods. That way, you’ll be able to adopt the one that best suits the specific needs of different projects. You’ll also learn which techniques work well together, and which don’t.
You may have a preferred method that you use more often than others, but it’s important to still have other ways of working that you can employ when you need to.
Find out about project change and how to stay on top of it in this second part of our blog post series on project control.