Tuesday, July 31, 2007

July 31, 2007 – Cultivating a healthy Project Schedule

About a month ago my wife and I went out and purchased some plants, dug up one of the flower beds and replanted it. All the weeds and crabgrass were pulled and all the dead or dying plants removed. We followed the directions and placed the plants the recommended distance apart. We even added topsoil! The results were favorable. The new flowers filled in nicely.

When I walked by it this morning I realized that I have neglected it. Weeds have started sneaking in among the plants and the crabgrass is back. Some of the grass is even taller than the plants. It reminded me of project schedules I have attempted to revive. Neglect resulted in over allocations, missed deadlines and busted budgets. They were all things that should have been taken care of when the weeds first appeared instead of ignoring them.

When I review a schedule there are 5 questions that help verify its health.

1. When was the last time it was updated?

Weekly works the best. The Actual hours expended by the resources should be entered at the task level and a new Estimate to Complete (ETC) given for each task. Ideally this information should come from your team through the time reporting tool but I’ve had to do it by hand from printed individual timesheets, too. Finding out that the most recent schedule is three weeks old flashes a red light immediately.

2. Does the Estimate at Completion equal the Baseline?

The Estimate at Completion (EAC) is the sum of the Actual hours expended plus the ETC. In MS Project it is Planned Work. By comparing the EAC to the Baseline values for each task you can tell if any effort is being put into realistic forecasting.

The temptation is to add Actual hours to the task and allow the tool to subtract it from the original estimate. For a common example assume I worked 15 hours on a 20 hour task. I have 5 hours to go, right? Probably not. I could be done with the task or I might need another 20 hours.

If an individual is reporting that she needs 20 additional hours for a task that ought to be complete, ask questions. Why is it taking longer than anticipated? Do you need assistance? Are you the right person for the task? Do you need more training? Has the scope changed? Get to the root cause of the problem and solve it.

3. Is the remaining effort appropriately distributed?

For this I flip to a resource allocation view and check to see if everyone has just enough work to fill their timesheet for at least the next month or so. This should take into account holidays, vacations, training and other out-of-office factors.

Then I make sure there aren’t any major hills or valleys beyond that. The effort should average across the weeks to their maximum allocation throughout the remainder of the project. Beyond a month it can alternate a little low or high and be adjusted as the tasks get closer. If there are several resources that are over allocated, you may need to add more people in order to meet your deadlines.

4. Are you hitting the milestones?

A schedule that shows a history of missed deadlines is in trouble. Check to see if the misses are getting further apart or staying constant. Usually a project will miss the first on by 1 week, the second by 2, the third by 4 and before long all hope is lost. If they are staying fairly constant there was probably just one deliverable that threw it off.

If predecessors are established that link tasks based on order of completion you can see the impact of missed dates on the remainder of the effort. This is valuable information because you can see where to take corrective actions to bring things back into line.

5. Is the project projecting to be in budget?

With the updated ETC for the tasks and resources added to stay within schedule, odds are the budget has taken a hit. If it isn’t within reasonable tolerances you need to identify areas to reduce costs. Look for activities that can be combined. Consider juggling resources to different tasks. Perhaps a more senior resource can cut the development time in half, offsetting the per hour cost difference. Reassign lower cost resources to perform the testing. Moving work forward to fill in down time (ex. System documentation) may allow individuals to roll off to another project earlier. Get creative.

The answers to these five questions will help you find the weeds in your schedule and keep them from choking out a perfectly good project.

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