The Schedule Trio: Tasks, Resources and Durations

SchedulePublished in the Project Post-Gazette, February, 2014

by Paul Lohnes, MBA, PMP

February Project Post-Gazette

In an era where schedulers and scheduling has become its own project management specialty, and the cornucopia of desktop and web-based project scheduling tools is filled with new offerings almost weekly, it is not a wonder why the schedule has become the central focal point of projects regardless of the type of deliverables. The schedule is now the artifact that many consider the quintessential embodiment of the project itself – ‘I have a schedule, therefore, I have a project.’ This overdependence and over-extension of this once model of the project’s planning and progress has now taken the spotlight away from most every other planning and reporting document.

We remember a particular project, yes we are about to tell a story, where we were assigned to the project as the project manager (PM) and business analyst (BA) dealing with a healthcare information technology (IT) problem that had its roots in a US Government regulation – in other words, the organization hiring us did not have a choice about the project’s existence. Anyway, the project had only been instantiated a mere 3 days when the assigned project scheduler (we did have one of those) brought us a copy of the ‘draft project schedule’ with the broadest and somewhat cheesiest smile on his face. He opened the schedule and it contained over 12,000 tasks and activities for a single year’s worth of execution. When we queried him about how he had developed the schedule so quickly and so detailed, he replied, “Shhhh, it was a bunch of cut-and-pastes’ from the last project with updated times and names. Looks pretty good, eh?” When we began to review the schedule it was replete with every kind or manner of meeting, telephone conference call, and even some communications activities such as emails, texts, etc. Even if the project was an exact duplicate of the previous project (which does happen in some circles – operations masquerading as projects), no two projects are ever alike, and once the clock started ticking, this scheduler was going to be kept very busy tweaking, modifying, and updating the schedule to match the execution realities. In short, the schedule was fairly useless as a PM planning or organizational implement.

Another issue that has arisen mainly due to the ever-growing capabilities and features of the desktop project software application which compounds every release since the vendors of these formidable software entities feel they have to continue to make their products more appealing by adding more coverage of project components well beyond the simple scheduling tool of the 1990s. While we are not suggesting that these features and functions lack value, or that they will offer little in the way of providing additional project management progress monitoring, we are suggesting that these ever expanding tools are making the project schedule unduly complex and difficult to implement. As the complexity increases with any human endeavor there comes several factors that can reduce the effectiveness that a simpler less overwhelming solution might provide. We believe that the current crop of scheduling tools available to PM and BA is if not already in abject opposition to Occam’s Razor which states:

‘All things being equal, the simplest solution is usually the best.’

So as we stated in our editorial, the PPG this year, 2014, is dedicating itself to bring back both effectiveness and simplicity to the project management and business analysis disciplines. The Schedule Dispatch begins a series of articles that will attempt to do this for the scheduling function. In this series, called the Schedule Trio, we will formulate an idea that for a schedule to be both effective and powerful while being simple it needs to concentrate on the three major ingredients that make a schedule of value to the project:

  • Tasks,
  • Resources, and
  • Durations

These three components also include their related characteristics for example, tasks include their interdependences while resources include their availability which impacts the tasks’ durations as well as the overall project’s final completion date. If a PM can design, maintain, and execute a schedule that brings these three components of a project together without all the other complexity that a current scheduling tool offers, he/she can cut through the chaos that usually follows the project’s performance when it does not exactly match the schedule. Remember, a schedule is only a model; it is not reality or a prophetic divining tool that must be followed precisely or worse, modified to match actuals.

The first component of a simple yet efficacious project schedule is the list of project tasks which is the byproduct of the project’s Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) that delineates all the work necessary to produce the project’s deliverables ‘fit-for-use’ (FFU) without any superfluous work effort. We know that that is quite a thought-full, but we want ensure that our readers are familiar with both the need of and steps required to produce an accurate and complete WBS as the necessary precedent to a valuable schedule product. In our related articles on project whispering, we have shown how one of the common factors of failing or failed project is the lack of a well-designed and articulate WBS. It is one of the components that a good scheduler will demand or assist in its creation BEFORE attempting a project schedule.

Tasks are those action parts of a work package (the lowest level of a WBS deconstruction process) that are necessary for the execution of the work package. In other words, the task list will illustrate how a competent and available resource or group of resources can produce the work package to a FFU level of quality without the details of task durations or interdependences with other project work packages. This last point is very important. The task list should be created without worrying about durations or interdependences – for the moment. This scheduling enhancement will come later once the task list is accurate, complete, and lean – the last term means that the task list does not contain any activities beyond those needed to meet the FFU criteria of the work package business owner

As the scheduler/PM if your project does not rate a scheduler, you may or may not have the necessary expertise in how to produce the designed WBS work packages to a FFU level of quality. This is where you must seek the advice of a subject matter expert (SME) in helping you determine the appropriate list of tasks. Do not be afraid of asking for help in this very crucial activity. None expects the scheduler/PM to be experts in all things concerning the project. The scheduler/PM bring a different set of skills, knowledge, and experiences than those that are going to accomplish or be responsible for the task completion. These SME are the ones that will be invaluable to you the scheduler/PM since they have the experience in actual work completion that you may lack. Take advantage of this expertise – do not alienate them or dismiss them as the ‘worker bees.’

Once you have the draft task lists, find other projects that are similar and see if they compare (reasonability – not exactly) to those that your SME have provided you with for this particular task. The act of comparison is a form of gap analysis whereby you may possibly uncover steps the SME forgot, or find steps that are added to your project and did not appear in the other. This may be appropriate, but it gives you some questions to ensure the task list is of sufficient coverage to allow you the schedule/PM to take the next step of looking for resources for these tasks. The task list is only the first of the three components, but the one that must begin the schedule design. A resource manager is not going to agree to simply turn over their resources to the project without some knowledge of the extent and demand for their time. This is where the interdependencies, durations, and priority of the tasks will have to be determined. Again, let us be somewhat of broken record – please do not attempt to co-mingle the design of your task lists with that of figuring their interdependences, resource requirements or durations. If you get confused or miss a task then all the interdependences, quantitative analysis or resource management is not going to sway the fact that all the tasks were not identified, and therefore the deliverable, or in this case the work package’s sub-deliverable is not going to meet the FFU quality requirements for customer acceptance or integration into the larger deliverable.

The final activity of the task lists is to design a DRAFT or initial interdependency network of the ordering the tasks should take, according to your SME, to complete their assigned objective of producing the required project outcome or sub-deliverable. Again, your SME will be of the most help in this endeavor since with their experience they will be able to spot the network solution much faster and with greater accuracy than you since they have participated in the work effort previously – the reason they are your SME in the first place. As an aside, the most important advantage a SME brings to the problem set is their experience of having ‘been there, done that,’ not just their superior book knowledge or training. We value SME first on experience then on knowledge. This draft network is subject to change (the reason for labelling it DRAFT) once your resource, their availabilities, and their skills are applied to the tasks so do not get welded to the network which may begin to look like a schedule’s Gantt chart yet. In fact, we do not turn on the Gantt chart feature of our MS Project 2013 toolset until much later. It will only get in your way at this junction

Our next column in March 2014 will take on the next important component of the schedule trio: the resources along with all their baggage of availabilities, skills, knowledge, and experience. But you now know at least the accurate, complete, and lean task list which will make the next two activities much easier and, must we say, simpler. See you in March, and might we suggest that you practice these ideas in this article on your next task list creation. Find your own ‘best practices.’

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