A Guide to Creating a Quality Project Schedule

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Successful projects start with a good quality project schedule. Creating a schedule is one of the first tasks you should do when given a project to manage. There is often a temptation to get on with the work and worry about the schedule later, but this is a mistake. You will be left exposed and if challenged, will have no evidence of whether your project is on time or running late.

This article looks at a simple, practical approach to creating project schedules. After reading this article, you will have a sound approach to creating schedules that you can use for future projects.

1. Plan with the Team

Team planning is more effective than planning on your own, and ensures everyone has a stake in the schedule and ownership of the outcome. The project team must account for all the phases, milestones and tasks so the project can reach a successful conclusion.

I like to create a basic high-level schedule to kick things off. Even if it’s wrong, it helps the session start moving. It’s better than sitting in a meeting with your team staring at a blank sheet of paper.

2. Cover the Project Scope

Use the scope statement from your Charter to make sure you include everything the customer expects you to deliver. List all the activities needed to deliver the scope.

Look at the order of activities; often it is best to start with the most difficult tasks. The type of project may dictate the order, clearly, you can’t build a house until the foundations have been laid. Think about the work you can do in parallel and what is dependant on other activities being finished first. Make sure you include the dependencies in your schedule.

3. Group the Tasks into Phases

Projects typically go through phases, starting with an idea all the way to launch and rollout. You should arrange your project schedule in these phases. This is an example I’ve used for software development projects:

  1. Ideas (the first concept, creating the team and everything needed to get the project started)
  2. Feasibility (often development of a prototype, model or proof of concept)
  3. Build (doing the work to create the product or service)
  4. Launch (preparing to go-live with the product or service, often as a pilot first)
  5. Rollout (delivering the product or service to the wider audience following updates from the pilot)
  6. Closure (finishing the project, disbanding the project team and tying up any loose ends)

4. Create Milestones

Adding milestones to your schedule helps the project team stay focussed and motivated. Milestones are the end of certain phases, the point where work needs completing, or sign-off obtained for work carried out. These milestones are how the team sees and measures their progress. Poring over hundreds of tasks each week is daunting. The milestones help put the entire project into perspective and keep everyone on track to a successful finish.

5. Make Time for Time

When adding time estimates (hours or days) against tasks and activities it’s best to use people’s experience. Better still if you can use a database of production rates to give more accurate estimates.

Estimating as a team is effective, because it gives the opportunity for team members to challenge estimates. If an estimate is given by one team member, another may challenge it because he or she has direct experience of similar work.

Make sure everyone agrees with the estimates and signs off during the session. This way there are no arguments later.

6. Plan Your People

Now you have your schedule, it’s time to add your people, either existing or new team members. Try to match your people’s skill-set to the work. Have they done similar work in the past? Do they have a skill that would be useful on a particular aspect of the project? Have they shown an interest in working on a certain area?

A common mistake when new to project scheduling is to use people for 100% of their time. It’s best to assume people will only be productive on the project for 80% of their time. Administration, filling out time sheets, team meetings, support and other unrelated tasks take up the remaining 20%.

Once you have assigned people to the tasks in your schedule, review it for conflicts. Have you got areas where people are working on two work streams simultaneously? Is the work allocated evenly across the team? Be careful not to overload your key people, while under-utilising others.

Finally

Check your schedule thoroughly to make sure there are no errors. Here are a few common problems found in schedules:

  • Not including public holidays in the schedule
  • Not including team member’s holidays in the schedule
  • Missing links to dependencies
  • Creating one continuous block of work with no milestone deliverables along the way
  • Using poor task estimates or guesses instead of people’s experience or production rates
  • Starting with an end date and making the schedule fit it
  • Assigning people for 100% of their time
  • Dividing tasks between more than one person
  • Not building in contingency time in the event things go wrong

Remember to regularly update the schedule with your team to check progress and make adjustments where necessary. A daily 15 minute ‘Scrum’ style meeting or phone call is useful, where each team member says what he or she did yesterday; what they intend to do today and highlights any blockers holding them back. It is your responsibility as project manager to help remove any blockers and smooth the path ahead.

In Summary…

  1. Define the tasks and activities using your scope statement
  2. Sequence the activities identifying any dependencies
  3. Group the tasks and activities into phases
  4. Create milestones
  5. Create time estimates for the tasks and activities
  6. Assign people to the tasks and activities
  7. Review your schedule for errors and correct
  8. Hold daily progress meetings with your team and adjust the schedule

A quality project schedule is the basis of project success, so spend time with your team creating a schedule that is both meaningful and realistic.