Fundamentals of Project Planning and Scheduling
By Atul Gaur
One of my smooth progressing engineering project was suddenly jolted by numerous emails and phone calls from the project sponsor asking the Management to expedite activities at site. The project was going on quite smoothly as it had the best plan to back it up and we all hoped that things would go as planned but eventually it did not work out that way. The project sponsors demanded an unexpected change in the project completion date in order to meet their financial goals. The complete project schedule had to be reworked in order to meet the client expectations. Important milestones like site mobilization had to be advanced in order to commence construction activities and complete the project as per the new deadlines. The subsequent paragraphs describes some fundamental steps followed to develop and implement a new project schedule.
As the site team got mobilized we were bombarded with myriad of problems some of them so mundane that we were at times amazed dealing with the slew of such problems. These unexpected and unforeseen problems at site were a serious road blocks to smooth execution of the project and timely completion of project activities. We first tried to ensure that the existing plan be put to maximum use however the way events had unfolded at the construction site a complete new plan had to be worked out in order to meet the challenging deadline set by the project sponsor.
The Project Manager was now expected to turn around things as the Management was under tremendous pressure to show considerable progress at site. The project sponsor was keeping a very close tab on the daily activities and also the overall project schedule. The new plan had to address the lost time and also consider the challenges put forward in terms of reporting the daily and weekly progress and the overall constrained project completion schedule.
The established activity schedule with a defined sequence of activities had to be kept aside as this was written down for normal delivery schedules. Since the activities had to be now completed on a war footing a completely new activity schedule was developed. While developing a new schedule the following was ensured.
- Involved all the individuals participating in the execution, enlisted the project activities once again and worked out the correct sequence of activities. Under the heat of the moment it is a tendency to avoid consensus and impose diktats, most of the times schedule developed individually fail and those schedule which are a result of a team work succeed.
Kept the schedule logic simple, easy to comprehend and tried to capture the exact sequence in which the activities are likely to be executed. As the construction progresses there are events which force deviation from the agreed sequence of activities, however I believe if the schedule is worked out by taking on board all those involved in the execution, the deviation as a result of external or unforeseen circumstances are likely to be fairly limited.
Activities listed in the project schedule were action oriented, specific and measurable quantities were assigned to all activities where ever possible.
Distinguished between project activities and scheduled activities. There is a difference between Schedule activities and project activities. As per the definition Schedule activities are decomposed from work break down structure and have an estimated cost, duration and resource requirement. Schedule activities are connected to other schedule activities through a logical relationship. If this distinction is not there the project schedule the PM as well as the project team ends up diverting their energies to project activities which has less significance on the project completion. This hampers project progress and eventually affects project cost as well as stake holder satisfaction.
Included critical activities pertaining to project sponsor in the activity schedule as this helps in better coordination with the project sponsor and gives a complete overview of the project. This also allows project sponsor to undertake planning of important milestones like trials, joint inspections etc.
Clearly highlighted activities that fall on Critical Path. This obviates the need to continuously scroll the Gantt chart to hunt for critical activities or navigate through various menu options to get a list of critical activities. This facilitates project manager to continuously monitor and control the critical activities and be in control of important project activities.
Use customized tracking view. In addition to feeding actual start and actual finish dates I believe that the three important variances viz; duration, start and finish variances are equally important in monitoring and controlling the project. These numbers provide a multitude of information which has a deep impact on the project success. I firmly believe that in order to take complete control of the project it is not only important that the scheduled activities finish on time but also that the planned activities start as per the scheduled dates.
Made the tracking view visually appealing by inserting graphical indicators in the three variances column. In order to simplify things made use of simple formulae available in Microsoft Project itself. There are innumerable sites on the internet that offer several ways by which graphical indicators can be assigned to columns. However here again I used basic formulae available in the software and tried not to complicate matters further. Graphic Indicators also helped a great deal in reporting the project health to the top management as it gave a clear picture of the present status of the project. The project team had to be made aware of the discipline required in updating the project plan.
Did not forget to baseline the plan. No one can list all activities of a construction project and more often than not new activities get added in the project schedule. Creating a baseline helps in tracking the project it also helps in predicting the accuracy of the planning activities and can help in highlighting those activities which were not part of the original project scope. Moreover tracking the project through variances works only when the plan has a baseline.
The resources in terms of men, material and equipment were captured in the schedule. Resources in order to complete a particular activity were mobilized well in advance. A weekly look ahead schedule with well defined resource requirement provided much required insight to the project team members as well as resource managers responsible to ensure availability of resources at site.
Established a seamless communication loop with the site, suppliers, process engineers so that information can be ascertained in a real time basis. Communication and feed back regarding commencement of planned activities and bottle necks if any is of great importance in having a complete control on the project. With out a well defined communication and feed back loop Project Manager and his other team members will face considerable difficulties in addressing the situation and if these issues that surface on a daily basis are not resolved in time will eventually become a serious situation hampering the project progress. A routine exchange of information among various stake holders facilitated in speedy execution of the project well with in the project sponsors expectations.
Once the new schedule was in place activities were tracked on a daily basis, due to relentless monitoring and control finally resulted in a Negative Finish Variance. This turnaround was not easily accepted by the project sponsor as the sponsor’s believed that the challenge put forward was too difficult for anyone to overcome. However, after observing the schedule closely and comparing the actual progress at site repeatedly the project sponsor had to admit that the project is ahead of schedule without any compromise in quality and safety standards.
The crux of the matter is that if the fundamentals of planning and scheduling are applied without any compromise the chances that the project schedule would slip is fairly limited and to very large extent predictable. The bottom line is that the slippages in the schedule can be recovered with a systematic approach to scheduling and planning. However the ability to do so rests obviously with the Project Manager and his leadership capabilities.
Atul Gaur has aggregated over twelve years of professional experience and devoted more than ten years in the field of Project Management. He’s a Mechanical Engineering graduate from Manipal Institute of Technology (Manipal) and has Operations Management qualification from Management development Institute in Gurgaon. You can read more from Atul on his blog.