Wednesday 2 February 2022

Scheduling should not become an obsolete science

Many may have noticed a surprising trend during the economic crisis: although the number of approved and sponsored large projects with capital expenditures has decreased, the need for help with schedule analysis and risk assessments provided by third parties has increased significantly. 


We came to a certain conclusion: sensible project schedules risk becoming an extinct science, and we, as project managers, must do everything to prevent this from happening.

The available software tools available to planners, forecasters, etc. are more powerful than they were before – they provide the ability to work together, are based on Internet technology, support multi-user functions. 


But with all this, we still struggle to successfully complete projects, under the pressure of three main constraints - funds, time and scale. Sensible project plans risk disappearing, and their subsequent existence depends on the efforts of project managers.

Studies show that 57% of projects fail due to inadequate communication and 39% due to poor schedules. Similarly, there are other studies that show many more reasons for the collapse of projects, and the results are more pessimistic.

From a project management perspective, our theory is, to some extent, more immediate. It seems to us that there are only two reasons for this:

  • The project plan set by the project team was not realistic from the start.
  • The implementation of the project was not possible to provide everything that was expected of him.
  • While all this seems very obvious, in reality it is difficult to dispute them. It's all about successfully planning the work in order to successfully complete the planned.

Let's take a look at how we can deal with the first cause of this problem.

Key Steps to Successful Planning

Critical Path Scheduling (CPM) is the de facto standard for project planning. Estimating deadlines, setting the sequence of work, and assigning resources are all standard steps in creating a critical path plan. But ultimately, in most cases, the plan is either unrealistic or impossible.

Top-down planning

One of the pitfalls in creating a project plan is a sharp jump directly to the development of the planned product (actions), instead of adopting a more formal top-down approach, which turns out to be more successful in defining the goals of the project, drawing up its scale, expanding the structure of the work breakdown (WBS), and after, and only after all this, a more detailed deepening into the work (actions and resources), necessary to achieve the set goals.

A well-designed plan should be painted through a work breakdown structure in order to reflect the full scope of the project with all the implied work presented as actions. Often, project plans omit the formal structure, leading to inevitable changes in plans.

A certain "may be..."

Based on history, we can say that scheduling is a deterministic science where actions have been predicted regarding aspects such as duration, cost estimates, and so on. With the advent of risk analysis, this approach has been replaced by more non-deterministic estimates, which, in combination with the risk analysis method, can predict not only the estimated completion dates, but also give more confidence in how realistic these dates are.

The concept of "risk analysis" contains the influence of risk cases, such as weather, mechanical error, etc. However, in reality regarding the success of the project, most risks are based on a weakly defined scale. From experience, we can infer that 75% of the identified risks in a project actually come from ambiguity about the scope, and not from individual cases collected in the risk log. Despite the fact that the percentage is too high, from the planning side everything is not so bad, since the definition of scale is often easier to process and reduce than to work with external risks. This again serves as proof that a robust project plan should be closely linked to scoping.

Such confidence-based planning not only helps in identifying problematic areas in a project, but it also gives the team working on the project a boundary of the dates within which they can work, rather than a single deadline for the completion of the project.

How to See the Forest for the Trees

In the life of projects, there are cases when at a meeting regarding the project, the manager may ask for a copy of the project plan, to which the main project planner will provide him with 5,000 or more work schedules (Gantt charts) in one PDF file. The manager, most likely, wants to respond by saying that he needs one plan that the whole team understands and realizes. It's a sign that shows how tedious planning can be for project teams.

Project plans are developed in order to capture as much information as possible, but at the same time they quickly grow to inexplicable proportions, becoming more complex and incomprehensible. Someone who has been trying to identify paths between two checkpoints in a plan can tell you right away how challenging this can be. To supplement Gantt charts, you need a way to summarize or group key actions while retaining the underlying planned actions.

Similarly, when analyzing a project relative to budget, schedule, risk, and performance, you will do so with greater value by selecting project groups. These teams can be disciplines, locations, and types of work, as well as different stages of the project. Examining the scale and appropriate performance of a project relative to the time phase and discipline can be much more valuable than learning average metrics at the project-wide level. This type of matrix-based project analysis is an area that is gaining popularity and is very valuable in the project team.

Paralysis from analysis

The final goal of developing a project plan is to obtain a goal for which performance will be further observed. Over the years, many analysis methods have been developed to determine the performance of a project. However, we will still return to the two main reasons for the collapse of the project. Wouldn't it be more useful if we could establish a balance between the fact that poor performance in a particular area of the project was observed due to an unrealistic plan? In other words, note the weaknesses of planning in order to truly work on them.

Analyzing project metrics is more than just applying formulas and calculations, such as "total overruns" or "number of actions with missing logic." Instead, metric analysis combines formulas with thresholds that give more value and context to the results of these formulas. Would anything be clear to you if you found out that you had "fifteen unfinished actions" or "five missed deadlines"? Wouldn't it be more useful to learn about the impact of incomplete actions or losses on budget and schedule in the case of missed deadlines? What if those five actions that missed deadlines were one-day tasks in a three-year project? This example clearly shows whether this is worth reporting or not.

Companies similar to the Military Contracts Management Agency (DCMA) now publish such metrics as a means to standardize quality checks on schedules and plans, and to set standards for contractors to look up to. Such initiatives are always welcome and we expect more such initiatives in the future.

Deadlines are always approaching

Keeping plans new is not an easy task during the planning phase of a project, but it becomes even more difficult during project execution.

During the planning phase of the project, the scale tends to be more unstable, which in turn means that the work itself will also have a certain nature of uncertainty. At runtime, even in an ideal world with a precisely defined scale, monitoring real performance and reflecting the remaining work in the plan can be a daunting task, and makes the whole picture of how well the project is going.

To overcome this obstacle, project trend analysis can provide more useful performance information by simply showing a single snapshot. Knowing that a project is 10 weeks behind schedule doesn't tell us anything about performance improving to return on schedule, but even worse is that if our productivity deteriorates further, how much will we miss the deadline? With the right use of a comprehensive metrics analysis tool, all of this can be easily overcome.

A lot of projects did a good job of monitoring performance trends at run time, but not many of them track trends during the planning phase. Returning to the first reason for the collapse of projects, we note that project planning is often an interactive process and, in fact, there is a significant benefit in conducting trend analyses in relation to the quality of the plan during the planning phase.

Trying to plan the execution of work in order to successfully complete the planned

The second definite reason for the collapse of projects was the impossibility of implementing projects according to plan. It seems to us that the solution to the second cause of the collapse of projects has more to do with the solution of the first problem we have identified! If we can successfully plan and predict the work that is needed to complete the project, and this plan accurately reflects the inaccuracies, complexities and risks that may arise during the implementation of the project, then the collapse of the project will be yesterday.

Such a case, of course, is ideal, but by adopting the practices discussed above, you can be much closer to success than to the collapse of the project.

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