6 posts categorized "Scheduling"


Key Steps to Achieve Accurate Resource Utilization Reporting in Your Project Management Software Tool: Part 3

IStock_000009248870X_web This is another post in a discussion on how to achieve accurate resource utilization reporting, and thus good resource management, in your project management software tool.

In part 1, we discussed the key of capturing all of the work to be performed by your resources (people for the purposes of this series).

In part 2, we discussed the key of accurately capturing when the work will be performed.

In this post, I want to discuss what may seem like a nuance, but is actually very important.  That is the importance of estimating the effort that will be expended on a task / project.  Many organizations simply collect the duration.  The duration is the amount of calendar time that is required to complete a particular task or project.  The effort is the amount of actual, dedicated work that is needed to complete the task or project within the duration period.  For example, "Creating a Design Document" may take 5 days (the duration) to complete, but John has other things he will be doing during those 5 days.  Over the course of those 5 days, John will be working for 12 hours (the effort) on "Creating a Design Document".

Why is this important?  Because when it comes to resource utilization, the effort is all important.  That is a fundamental building block.  How much time will a resource need to expend on the task?  The duration will not cut it.  You have to know the effort.  And there is no magic shortcut.  It is not as simple as saying "ok, let's start tracking effort."  It takes time and discipline to produce good estimates.

For some tips on how produce good effort estimates, let me turn to an old blog post by Tom Mochal in TechRepublic.  Included in his recommended steps are the following:

  • Create the initial estimate for each activity (task) in the project (this implies that you need to break down your project into these activities / tasks.
  • Add specialist hours (hours from experts, specialists, indispensable folks that will inevitably be needed).
  • Consider adding rework hours (most likely the task will not be 100% correct the first time).
  • Add project management time (time to do the project management).
  • Add contingency hours (to factor in the uncertainty of your estimate).

I would also add that you need to start tracking historical records of how long things actually take.  That allows you over time to gradually improve your effort estimates and assumptions.

It may be a big step to perform these steps right away.  In that case, start small and gradually add more maturity to your estimating process as people become more comfortable.

Of course, it can be difficult to follow the steps above all the time.  We are bombarded by imposed deadlines from stakeholders, management, clients, and others.  But as I said, there is no magic shortcut.  If you indeed want accurate resource utilization, you will have to go through the "effort".



Key Steps to Achieve Accurate Resource Utilization Reporting in Your Project Management Software Tool: Part 2

IStock_000004563504X_web In part 1, we discussed the key of capturing all of the work to be performed by your resources (people for the purposes of this series).  This includes project and non-project work.

The second key step is to predict as accurately as possible when that work will be done.  In other words, you need to schedule it.  How you schedule it is another matter.  It could be a typical Gantt chart schedule (aka waterfall).  It could be an agile iteration or a sprint.  But you cannot get away from the fact that if you want to know how your resources are going to be utilized in a given time period, then in your project management software tool, whatever that is, you have to have accurate predictions of when work will be done.  How else could you look at the month of July and have any idea what and how much your resources will be working on?

Does this mean that you need to schedule down to the nitty-gritty detail level?  Not necessarily.  Again, it depends on the level of utilization reporting you want to get out on the back end.  That is the level of detail that you need to put in on the front end.

In other words, you can draw a fine line so that you do not get too carried away with 100% accurate schedules.  What are the time frames for which you want to look at resource utilization?  By week?  By month?  Let's take by month as an example.  If you are mostly interested in the figures for the month as a whole, then what do you need to make sure of in your schedules?  You need to make absolutely sure that the work that will be done in July is properly scheduled for the month of July.  It does not mean that you need to be as concerned with the day it will be done.

Similarly, if you want to look at things by week, then you need to be sure the work scheduled for each week is accurate.  Again, it may not be necessary to have the exact days 100% accurate.

There is not a magic button or tool.  If you want truly accurate resource reporting you need to continually do the work to capture the necessary up front data.


3 Things Every Person Should Know

IStock_000004021750XSmall We strive to make project management software easy to use, even if the person using the software is not a certified, fancy-titled project manager.  However, I believe there are certain things that everyone who is using project management software for scheduling should know in order to use these tools effectively.  Here are three things that I think everyone should know.

1.  Dependencies

There are many people that have used a tool like Microsoft Project and understand how to setup a dependency.  There are also many people that do not have a clue what a dependency is or (more so) how to properly use them.  This is essential to make a project management software scheduling tool, such as a Gantt chart, work for you and not the other way around.  A fair number of people open up a tool like that and start manually entering start and finish dates.  If you want your project management software implementation to be successful, and for people to gain value out of it instead of being frustrated by it, provide some basic training on dependencies and scheduling.

2.  Work Breakdown Structures

Work breakdown structures (wbs) are so fundamental to planning a project that it is essential for everyone to understand them.  You may not actually go out there and go through a work breakdown structure phase in your project planning, but your schedule will still be built on one.  You need to understand how to breakout work, the difference between summary and detail tasks (or parent / child tasks), and their implications.  This will make it far easier for you to understand what is going on.

3.  Duration and Effort

You should also know the difference between duration and effort (sometimes referred to as work).  I would not say that everyone needs to be an expert at this, but everyone needs to at least have a fundamental understanding of these.  If you do not, there is no way that you can do effective resource assignments and resource planning of any kind.

Make sure that you have at least a basic understanding of these.  If you are tasking people with using project management software tools (at least anything that tracks a schedule), make sure they understand these as well.  You will not get the value out of it unless they do.

What else would you add to this list?


2 Major Reasons to Start Tracking both Duration and Effort

Many of us come to project management software to achieve a particular objective, and that objective is many times related to somehow managing resources better.  There is a fundamental data point that needs to be understood in order for that to happen, and that is the entry of duration and effort.  For some of you, this is elementary.  For many of us, it is not, and it is essential to understand this.  These two terms are used when performing scheduling or estimating in a project tool.  Effort is sometimes called work (such as in MS Project).  What is the difference between these and why should you start to track both?  Here are two major reasons.

First, what is the difference?  Duration is the amount of calendar time that is required before a task or project will be completed. For example, the task will take 5 days to complete.  Effort is the amount of work that resources on a task or a project will actually do. For example, a person may work 10 hours on a particular task over the 5 day duration of the task (because they are also doing other things during that time).

Here is a screenshot of a sample project in MS Project showing the difference in entries (remember MS Project uses the term Work for Effort).


Why is this so important?  Here are the two primary reasons to start tracking both of these.

1.  You cannot do resource management without doing both.

Many organizations come to us wanting to manage their resources better, but they only think in terms of duration - how much calendar time will it take to complete tasks and projects.  An organization can implement project management software, load up all their projects, and start using it as a part of their process.  But if they are only tracking duration, they have no information or data to understand their resource loads and utilization.  They only have schedule information.  Only effort provides information as to the actual workload of the resource.  And only entering effort for every single task will provide the overall views and data needed to manage resources better (or manage them period).

You have to be able to add both duration and effort as part of your process.  Then you can begin to pull data such as the following (out of EnterPlicity) and really look at your resources.


2.  You cannot have a truly accurate schedule without doing both.

Think about it.  If I simply enter duration with no thought to effort, do I really have an accurate schedule for that task / project?  You need to know how many hours it is going to take for a person to complete the task (effort).  You also need to know what else that resource is working on and, given that, factor that into how much calendar time it will take before they can put in that many hours and get it done (duration).  Otherwise, you have a guess at best.

There are several ways to do this, such as simply entering the values for duration and effort per task, or using a percentage of time a resource is available to work on it.  Depending on your project management software, you have some options.  It does not need to be complicated.  But these are a couple of really good reasons to start tracking both of these values.


Tips on Scheduling, Part 2

Last past we discussed organizational aspects of project management software scheduling. Now let's talk about a few technical aspects.

The most common form of scheduling I see is "spreadsheet scheduling", meaning that one could just as easily schedule in a spreadsheet. A manager will simply make a list of tasks and manually enter the start and finish dates for each of those tasks. No need for project management software here even though that is what is technically used. That is not to say that there is not a place for this. Some organizations may be small enough, their projects may be simple enough, and there may not be enough projects to go any further than this. For the rest (most) of us, let's talk.

What are the issues with this common form of scheduling? First, you are utilizing a labor-intensive process and not utilizing the strength of project management software. It takes a while to enter these dates individually, but even more time to change the dates when the project schedule needs to change two weeks down the road. Second, it becomes entirely subjective. There is no feedback from the software as to whether a schedule is even realistic or not. It is simply the user's best guess as to what the schedule is, or what they want it to be.

There can be tremendous value in using the scheduling features of project management software if they are used correctly. Now we can take that too far. In fact one of the common complaints about certain project management software packages is that they are too complex. But let me point out some basic concepts and functions that when employed correctly provide great value:

A dependency is simply a relationship between two tasks. The most common type of dependency is called a Finish-to-Start dependency, meaning that Task B will be scheduled to start after Task A finishes. Simply creating these dependencies between tasks does two things: it lets the software figure out all of the dates instead of the user thus saving time, and it provides a more realistic end date. There are more advanced dependency types such as Start-to-Start and Finish-to-Finish and using lead and lag times, but just getting that Finish-to-Start dependency can go a long ways.

A constraint means that the schedule for a particular task is constrained. Most commonly, it cannot start before a certain date. Again, there are more advanced constraints out there, but utilizing a "Cannot Start Before" constraint provides the user with flexibility to manage exceptions to the "perfect" dependency world.

Effort Based Scheduling
Sometimes you need a true realistic picture of what the schedule will be. Effort based scheduling comes into play here. Effort refers to the amount of effort or work that a person will need to put in to complete a task. This is separate from the duration of a task, which is the amount of calendar time before the task is done. For example, Susan may need to spend 20 hours of her time to complete a task, while it may take her a whole week to get those 20 hours in and actually get the task done. If you can master effort based scheduling you can get a better handle on realistic schedules (durations tend to be wishes), and resource allocation (because you are being more specific for how much work your people need to do).

There are more features / tools that could be employed, but if you can master these three you will have taken your scheduling to a new level.

How does one go about learning and employing these tools? Use the help and training materials provided with the tools. Take a Microsoft Project training class. Even if you don't use this tool, it will help you understand the principles as many project management software systems are based on the same principles. Read a book. Go to a PMI chapter event and learn about training opportunities, such as with the new PMI scheduling credential. Check out the PMI College of Scheduling. Start using the tool yourself and figuring out how to use these functions.

If you become more proficient at these things, your scheduling will no longer be frustrating but more practical, insightful, quicker, and value-added.


Tips on Scheduling, Part 1

Scheduling is often times at the heart of project management software. The project schedule drives so many other things such as task assignments, resource loading, reporting, status, etc., etc. Often times the fundamental processing of scheduling is difficult for organizations to adapt successfully. I see three primary reasons for this: 1) the wrong people are scheduling; 2) people are not adequately trained; and 3) there is not a clear process to follow.

Let me hit on these one at a time.

First, I have often seen organizations that want everyone to schedule projects. I have rarely seen this work effectively (not never, just rarely). Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Some people "get it" in regards to scheduling. Others have a hard time just with the concept of scheduling. In addition, some people are analytical enough to create a good project schedule while others try to get by with the bare minimum or do not want to do it at all. Some people keep them up to date while others have no problem letting them stagnate or changing them too much (in other words they don't manage them). The bottom line? Unless you have a lot of people that understand project management and are analytical and disciplined, don't have everyone schedule your projects. There will be a wide disparity of project quality out there. Instead, select a few people that understand the principles and will manage them correctly.

Second, people cannot simply be thrown in front of a computer and start scheduling. Especially if they have not had a lot of project management software experience before. There are concepts in play to schedule effectively that must be understood regardless of what software is being used. These include dependencies and dependency types, constraints, predecessors and successors, and duration vs. effort (work). These must be understood. After that, they can be trained how to incorporate those ideas using the actual software.

Also, training is not a one time deal. Train them in the beginning, let them use the software, then hold another session to reinforce the principles and answer questions. Repeat this process. That will be far more effectively.

Third, make sure there is a clear process to follow. Don't simply turn people lose without a process. Even those with experience in project tools will schedule and do things differently. Do you want them to use a template? Do you want them to use dependencies? What do you want them to do when changes occur? Etc. Etc. Document the scheduling process and communicate that effectively so that everyone is on the same page. You want to be sure that scheduling is done in a way that will drive value and will cause you to achieve your objectives.

I am not saying that you can't effectively get people to schedule, it just takes the right kind of work and preparation like anything else of value.

In our next post, I'll offer tips more on the technical side of scheduling...



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