As project manager, you are responsible for making sure your projects are completed successfully without stretching the resources too thin. Resource management is an important skill in this regard: overloading your resources not only lowers productivity but also impacts the quality of the project deliverables.
The vast majority of employees who are forced to work overtime experience burnout, which shows in their performance. Even the most efficient worker will fail to meet deadlines or deliver poor quality outputs when overworked. Heavy workload impacts the physical, mental, and social health of employees.
Project managers use several techniques to handle these kinds of resource constraints and come up with more feasible resource schedules, and resource leveling is one of them. But what is resource leveling? How does it differ from resource allocation and resource smoothing? And most importantly, how do you do it?
In this article, we discuss everything you need to know about resource leveling and how it can help you plan your projects efficiently.
A key part of project management is ensuring a project can be completed successfully without over-allocating resources. Resource leveling is one of resource optimization techniques that contributes to that aim by matching the demand of project resources with the supply.
When parallel projects rely on different resource bases, things are straightforward. The process becomes tricky when the same resource is used across multiple projects which are all active at the same time!
A resource leveling technique is most commonly used when resource limitation is the primary constraint, and getting more resources isn't an option. If your resources are finite (as they often are), the resource leveling process may require you to make some changes in the project schedule. You may elect to delay the project finish date to make the time-frame more manageable for the allocated resources.
However, if the deadline is non-negotiable then you may have to make additional resources available to get the project completed on time. Depending on the situation, project managers make the call on which way to go.
Before we go further down the resource leveling rabbit hole, we should take a moment to check in on our terminology. Resource leveling is often used in conjunction with another resource optimization technique known as resource smoothing. But what's the difference between these two techniques?
The Project Management Body of Knowledge (regarded as the Bible of project management!), defines the two terms as follows:
So the objective of resource leveling is to create a balance between resource demand and resource availability. It aims to complete a project with the available resources without overburdening them, which often involves extending the project duration.
The main goal of resource smoothing, on the other hand, is to utilize resources uniformly to complete the project within the stipulated time. This makes sure that you don't have times when all your staff are overworked, and other times when they are under-utilized! Resource smoothing is sometimes referred to as time-limited resource scheduling.
Resource leveling is more appropriate when the resource is the primary constraint, whereas resource smoothing is used to deal with time constraints. However, to deal with time constraints and limited resource availability, you may need to implement both techniques to optimize your project plan. In practice, in most cases, resource smoothing is implemented after resource leveling.
Resource leveling and resource allocation are also different, although the processes are closely related.
Resource allocation is done in the resource planning phase. It determines who will do a job and what material resources will be at their disposal. It assigns different tasks to different team members according to their skill sets and availability to complete the project successfully. Resource leveling ensures there is no resource conflict at the project implementation stage.
The project manager first identifies the resource needs at different stages of the project. Then they allocate resources to accomplish specific tasks. Resource allocation is done based on the availability, skill, and competency of the resources. Resource leveling comes into play later, to resolve the issue of over-allocation or resource conflict. In a perfect world, these conflicts would be identified in the planning stages as well, but resource leveling can also be used as a crisis management method when needed.
To illustrate the difference between the two techniques, let's take an example of producing a brochure. At the project planning phase, you identify that you need an editor for a 7-hour task. You allocate the job to an editor.
At a later stage, you find that the same editor is booked for two 7-hour jobs on the same day. In such a situation, you will need to adjust the project timeline so that they can complete both tasks over a longer period. This is resource leveling.
Resource leveling ensures that workloads are divided fairly among the available resources without overburdening them. It is an integral part of the project management process, and it's important for many reasons:
The aim of resource leveling is to ensure that the resources are not over-allocated, and it also prevents under-allocation.
By leveling the resources, you make sure that no-one is overbooked. That means, if you find that a person is allocated to do more work than is practically possible, you reallocate the task or adjust the timeline. In the process, you eliminate the chance of resource conflict.
One of the main objectives of resource leveling is to allocate the resources so that no one is over-burdened. Efficient resource leveling ensures no one in the team is working overtime to complete the project on time.
Optimized resources not only improves staff well-being, it also has a positive impact on your project costs. You can prevent unexpected budget overruns by eliminating overtime costs.
When resources are not overworked, the quality of their performance is enhanced. It also minimizes the chances of error and the need to rework jobs. Your project staff can concentrate fully on the task at hand, confident that they have enough time to complete it properly.
Here are some resource leveling examples based on real-life scenarios, that will help illustrate how resource leveling techniques help in project management.
Suppose two field surveys are required for two different projects. According to the requirement of your organization, a field survey team should consist of three people, but you have only five employees at your disposal who have the required skills. What do you do?
You could make the decision to conduct one of the surveys with a field team of two. However, this option could lead to overburdening the team, and that may impact their productivity in the field.
Another option is to change the dates so that a third person can go to both fields. If the deadlines are flexible, you can postpone the project start date for one of the surveys. If both need to be complete by a specific date, you could do the opposite: work to an early finish date, by setting an early start date for one of the surveys.
Your organization is going to launch a new website for a particular project, and the web developer is busy building the website. In the meantime, you notice some bugs in your existing website that need to be fixed immediately. The web developer works 8 hours a day, and it is not possible for them to do both within that time.
You could request that the web developer work overtime to ensure they fix the bugs in your current website, whilst also staying on track with the new website. However, your web developer is likely to be physically and mentally tired from the extra work, which may affect their output.
By applying resource leveling, you can delay the launch date of the new website, in order to provide enough time for the existing bugs to be fixed first.
Suppose you need to deliver a design to your client on a stipulated date, but all your designers are booked with other tasks. You ask the client for an extension, but they refuse.
To work with your existing resources, you will need to either reschedule some of the other tasks, or ask your team to work overtime to complete both tasks.
In this case, by identifying the resource conflict, you may decide to bring in a consultant or freelance designer to complete the project within the time frame.
Project managers use various methods for leveling the available resources. Here we discuss five of the most effective techniques you should consider while planning resources across your projects.
The critical path method is a project scheduling method used by project managers for efficient project scheduling. The technique was first introduced in the 1950s to address the issue of increasing the cost of project execution due to the lack of proper scheduling.
In the critical path technique, you break down a complex project into smaller individual tasks to get a clearer understanding. The critical path of a project is the most extended sequence of activities that must be done to complete the project.
Project managers use this method to schedule the project and estimate the total duration, but it doesn't take resource limits into account.
To apply the critical path method, first list the tasks that must be done to complete the project, and how long each will take. As certain tasks are dependent on each other, you need to perform them in a specific order to complete the project successfully. These tasks are known as sequential activities. Note which of your project's tasks are sequential activities.
The other key elements of critical path analysis are:
Creating a critical path analysis diagram helps you identify the critical activities with zero floats. Based on this analysis, you can prioritize tasks and allocate your resources accordingly. It also allows you to monitor project progress, and you can decide whether to allocate more resources to the task to complete it on time.
The critical path was updated to the critical chain method to schedule projects more realistically. In this method, the resource constraint is taken into account while preparing the project schedule.
The critical chain is the most extended sequence of tasks from start to completion, taking into account both the activities and the resource dependencies.
In this method, taking stock of the tasks at hand is not enough. You will also need to list the required resources for all those tasks. You will also need to assess whether those resources are available at the time the task is scheduled.
Although the critical chain method is more complex than the critical path, it allows project managers to plan the project more efficiently based on the available resources and time.
One important difference is that the critical chain method uses a buffer period instead of a float to get a more realistic time estimate. You add the buffer time after the last task. If there is a delay in completing any critical activity, it will eat up the buffer time and thus will not affect the project end date. If a task is completed early, the gain is added to the buffer period.
There are two techniques that can be applied while the project progresses to make sure deadlines are met: these are called fast tracking and crashing.
Fast tracking speeds up project completion by running tasks from the critical path in parallel.
To implement this method, the project manager first needs to identify tasks on the critical path that can be done simultaneously. By allowing tasks to be done in parallel, they condense the project timeline.
Fast-tracking can only work when task overlapping is possible, at least to some extent. For instance, if you are to publish a magazine, the content creation and design can overlap to a degree. The design team can prepare the layout while the content team writes the content. However, the design can be only finalized when the content team handover the content.
Although fast-tracking is an effective method to speed up a project, it has some risks too. Firstly, if you decide to apply fast tracking to an ongoing project, you may have to rework the project schedule entirely, and communicate these changes to everyone involved in the project. This can lead to confusion and further delays the tasks. Implementation of this project schedule compression technique may encourage people to multitask, which can negatively impact productivity and lead to mistakes.
Project crashing involves allocating additional resources to speed up the process. It is often a final resort because it involves additional cost.
To implement this method, project managers either reassign resources from other projects or hire additional resources. In either case, it represents a significant change to the project, and may require higher approval, especially if it exceeds the budget.
It's worth noting that fast tracking and crashing may not be possible in all cases, even if the budget is available. Sometimes tasks simply can't overlap. Sometimes the project duration makes it impractical to hire a new member of staff. Other times, specific knowledge or high standards in your organization limit the usefulness of bringing in someone from outside.
To initiate the process of resource leveling, you need to consider two key elements: resources required and resources available. In most cases, you will need to plan your strategy with limited resources in terms of numbers, work hours, and skill sets.
The planning process for resource leveling includes the following steps:
1. Figure out when the project can be completed. Consider the best and worst-case scenarios and aim for something in between.
2. Identify the critical tasks that need to be done to complete the project successfully. Usually the float value is used to determine which tasks should be considered critical.
3. Use the critical path method to create a task schedule, based on the shortest time duration paths that you identified.
4. Estimate the resources the project requires for each task.
5. Identify the gaps in resources: where what's available is not enough for what is needed.
6. Look at ways to manage the resource gap.
Negotiation is key in this final step of the resource leveling process. Leveling often results in delaying project completion, but if the deadline is fixed, you will need to find other ways to complete the project on time. In that case, you may negotiate for additional resources, modify the scope of the project, or apply a combination of approaches to manage the resource gap.
Resource leveling requires you to review your resource allocation to see if any team members are overbooked. You need to distribute the work equally to make sure that no one is burdened with too much work.
Traditionally, project managers used to plan projects on a spreadsheet. This method makes it difficult to understand the status of the available resources. Project management tools allow you to examine and monitor your staff and their tasks. These tools mean you don't have to manually calculate your team's availability when working out resource conflict.
Runn offers a range of free tools for resource planning. With the help of these tools, you can see resource capacity and resource availability, including skills and available hours. You can also see how resources are distributed across multiple projects, and identify potential resource conflicts. This not only helps you in allocating resources but also in resource leveling.
Resource leveling is a helpful technique to keep projects on track without overburdening resources. There are several different techniques, all aiming to balance resource demand and resource availability. While many techniques result in extending the finish dates, it is also possible to use a resource leveling technique that involves increasing staff allocation or reorganizing priorities to adhere to a deadline.
Project management software can be a huge asset when it comes to resource leveling. These tools show you at a glance how resources are allocated, who is overloaded, and who has time to work on other tasks.
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Among other benefits, having a project log will help you record your project history and understand any changes made to the project.