Project Scheduling: Strategies for On Time, On Budget and On Plan.

Project scheduling is not easy.  The goal is obvious - to be on time, on plan, and on budget - but the steps to get there are anything but.  Before you can get down to the business of creating and implementing a workable schedule, relevant strategic approaches must be selected and applied.  That's the best way to pave a clear path to the intended goal.  Read on for more.

What is "On Time, On Plan, On Budget"?

This established phrase expresses an obvious goal for every project - to be completed on time, according to plan and within the allocated budget.  Of course, there's a lot that goes into realizing that goal.  Even the best plans change and there is no guarantee that the "project" you start with is the "project" you will end up with.  That's why it's so important to have a scheduling strategy that is appropriately comprehensive, consistent and flexible.  That's what strategic project scheduling is all about.

Depending upon the nature of the project, and related management directives, different approaches can be taken to project sizing and scheduling.  Scheduling strategies are driven by the scheduling trigger (the circumstance driving the scheduling approach). Based on individual needs and circumstances, scheduling triggers demand either a forwards or backwards planning approach. Let’s examine the differences.

Working with Scheduling Strategies

Forwards Planning:  "How long will it take you to complete this project?"

Forwards planning strategies are used when no specific project deadline is set, and the tasks are used to determine the schedule, and related completion deadlines. In this case, you start at the beginning of the project and work forward. The project timeline is determined by the total estimated duration of all anticipated tasks. Factoring in dependencies and prerequisites, these durations are added together to form an overall project schedule. 

When you are involved in the forward planning scenario, it is a good idea to look at each task at multiple timing levels, based on  known, realistic planning assumptions:

  1. Shortest Completion Time (assuming everything else goes as planned).
  2. Likely Completion Time (assuming that some problems and changes will occur).
  3. Longest Completion Time (assuming that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong).

Backwards Planning: "We need this project done by a date certain."

Backwards planning strategies are used when the completion deadline is pre-determined and the project must be managed and scheduled to meet that deadline. In this case, planning starts with the completion date and works backwards, analyzing and organizing tasks and events by their individual end dates in an "if - then" fashion, until a start date is identified.   (Also Read:  Managing Project Milestones)

Key Variables for Schedule Estimating

The first step in the schedule estimating process is to identify your scheduling trigger. In all likelihood, projects will require both approaches based on organizational structure (phases) and task complexity. Regardless of the scheduling trigger, you will need to factor the following elements into your timing estimate:

  • Task Durations: The estimated length of time that it will take to complete a task using available resources.
  • Parallel Tasks: The tasks that can be completed concurrently.
  • Predecessor Tasks: The tasks that must be completed before other, dependent tasks can begin.
  • Dependent Tasks:  The tasks that cannot begin until predecessor tasks are complete.
  • Slack/Float Time: The slack or float exists whenever task completion can extend beyond initial completion dates without delaying the start of subsequent tasks.
  • Critical Path:  The series of tasks that must occur as scheduled for a project to be completed on time. There is no slack or float time along the critical path ....if any tasks on the critical path are delayed, the project will be delayed.

Schedule planning and estimating occurs throughout the project lifecycle. The project will begin with a defined approach to scheduling, and that approach will likely change as the project unfolds and changes occur. The key is remain informed and flexible, and to communicate all scheduling issues as quickly as possible.  

Continue with more on this subject in our featured articles Critical Path Concepts for Strategic Scheduling, Fast Tracking the Project Schedule and How to Manage Unexpected Project Delays.

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Featured Management Topic: Project Fast Tracking

Strategic fast tracking is a streamlined project management process, used to level the playing field when "project problems" get in the way of on-time success. Our informative "fast tracking" article series explains more:

Part 1: What is Strategic Fast Tracking?

Part 2: Evaluating Projects for Fast-Track-Ability

Part 3: Pinpointing Project Priorities

Get an illustrated view of the fast tracking process in the "Step-by-Step to a Fast Tracked Project" infographic.

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