How to Use Resource Leveling for Project Planning and Scheduling

Project constraints are never welcome, particularly when staff resources are the source of the limitation. Staffing constraints can have a serious impact on the project schedule, and must be addressed to prevent permanent damage (from which there may be no recovery).  Resource leveling is a management techique used to overcome staff level constraints.  Read on to learn how it works.

In the case of project scheduling, the key challenge is to maintain schedule optimization in the face of resource dependencies and constraints. Resource leveling is an approach to project scheduling whereby task start and end dates are determined by the availability of internal and external resources. There are two sides to this process. The technical side of resource leveling is the formulaic manipulation of the project schedule to avoid resource over-allocation. Over-allocation occurs when one or more resources are assigned to more work than they can complete in their available work hours. Resource leveling will resolve over-allocations by moving task start and end dates, or extending task durations in order to suit resource availability.

Project constraints are a management challenge that must be addressed if projects are to be finished on time, on budget and on plan.  For an illustrated view of this issue, see our informative infographic Meeting the Challenge of the Project Constraint.

Making the Most of Available Resources

Except for the simplest projects, resource leveling is far too complicated for manual processing, and is best aided by computer software. Leveling formulas must be able to examine the entire schedule from multiple perspectives, considering task relationships and dependencies, dynamically setting start and end dates according to identified resource levels.  But that is only a partial picture.

Resource leveling goes beyond numbers and calculations, beginning before the first task is even 'put to paper'. In the technical sense, resource leveling is a tool, working the numbers to physically create a realistic, workable schedule. But, there has to be a strategic basis for these scheduling decisions.

Resource Leveling Strategies and Project Initiation Planning

In all likelihood, the basis for resource leveling will be set during the project initiation phase, when key project variables are defined, and project management strategies are established. At this point, you will have to answer the following questions:

  • What types of resources will be needed to complete this project?
  • Will you have unlimited access to these required resources (in terms of numbers, hours and skill sets)?
  • If your access is not unlimited, how will you manage the project schedule considering these resource limitations and constraints?

Negotiation is the key element of this process. In most cases, resource leveling will extend the duration of your project. If you have to extend the project schedule, you must have the support of your project sponsors and customers. As you approach your negotiations for resources, you need to communicate the consequences of resource constraints. If the project completion date is fixed in stone, you will need to negotiate for additional resources, or make your case to modify the project in some way to enable completion with available resources.

Planning Steps: Resource Leveling in Action

Unless you are very, very lucky, project resources are rarely unlimited. In most cases, project managers have to compete for resources, and eventually compromise on one or more project elements in response to resource constraints. The question is how? And, as usual, you will be in a stronger position if you lay the proper strategic foundation during the project initiation phase. Left unmanaged, resource constraints can threaten project success. You have to plan appropriately to ensure that constraints are properly defined, communicated and mitigated. Above all, you have to have stakeholder buy-in to any mitigating solutions. This planning process can be summed up in four steps:

  1. Create a realistic estimate of your project resource needs. Project resource needs are defined by several factors. How many resources will you need to complete this project by the requested due date? How many work hours will be required? What types of skills are required? How will these resources be acquired? What will they cost and can you afford them?
  2. Identify your project resource gap (the variance between required resources vs. available resources) according to resource numbers, skills and work hours.
  3. Consider the possibilities for managing the resource gap. Depending upon individual circumstances, you can take one or more approaches to resource gap management, including adding more resources, changing the project or elongating the schedule.
  4. Negotiate for your best position. In order to negotiate, you must have a firm grasp on internal project and organizational dynamics. How important is this project to your organization? How does your project rank in value compared to other projects? What are your scheduling flexibilities and how will you convince stakeholders that any resource related scheduling adjustments will not diminish overall project value?

Resource Leveling Brings Scheduling Flexibilities

Assuming resource leveling is required, you will also need to identify your scheduling flexibilities. This is the point at which the strategic and technical elements of resource leveling come together. Resource leveling is a complex process, even with the aid of software tools. Most software packages provide for varied settings for resource leveling, to allow customized leveling parameters based on individual project needs. Before you level resources, you need to have a full understanding of how your software works, and how individualized settings will influence leveling results. And you must select and apply those settings in light of project goals, scheduling needs and related resource constraints. You have to make it work.

In order to properly manage project resource gaps, you must get an early start, long before project work begins. This will give you a tremendous advantage, as you will be able to fully consider, vet and communicate all viable alternatives. And, when the time comes to prepare your schedule, and to make the tough decisions, you will be armed with the information you need, ready to use the tools you have.

Continue with more on this subject in our featured articles Managing with Limited Resources, Fast Tracking the Project Schedule, and Strategies for Project Scheduling.

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