Project Managers can proactively manage project schedules by implementing these seven strategies.
1. Build a foundation for success in the contract agreement
This is one of the most challenging strategies to implement, as clients commonly have unrealistic expectations about project schedules. Similarly, clients may have already made a financial commitment in a financing arrangement that is difficult to change. Before negotiations begin, it is important to understand the client's schedule requirements.
The goal is to negotiate achievable milestone dates based on past experience and project requirements. If this is a competitive situation, it is preferable to offer a shorter schedule based on innovative procurement strategies or better than industry average productivity rates. Offering a shorter schedule to win the work with the expectation of negotiating a change order later is a recipe for an unhappy client.
Because changes will occur, define a schedule baseline management process. This section of the contract should describe the steps and responsible parties for preparing, submitting, and approving a change to the schedule baseline. This process should also clarify the difference between the schedule baseline and the active schedule, which will be updated routinely throughout the project to track progress and forecast completion dates. Defining the process up front minimizes confusion and conflict when a change to the schedule baseline is warranted.
Clients will often want to include liquidated damages in the contract for schedule delays, which creates a negative incentive for the contractor. It is recommended that the contract also include positive incentives for delivery before milestone dates. Positive incentives, such as bonuses, increase the likelihood that the project will be completed ahead of schedule.
2. Prepare a detailed project schedule
Preparation of a project schedule begins with the creation of a detailed work breakdown structure (WBS), which expands on the project milestones negotiated in the contract. Oftentimes, the first draft of this detailed schedule is prepared during the contract negotiation process to verify that the contract milestones are achievable. Following the contract negotiation, the schedule is further refined and additional detail is added to plan the project.
After a detailed WBS is prepared, the next step is to estimate task durations using most likely durations. Of the three standard options – worst case, most likely, and best case – most likely durations will best reflect past experience, while allowing for flexibility to balance tasks that finish behind schedule with tasks that finish ahead of schedule. Ideally, the most likely durations represent the statistical mean of prior durations for similar tasks. More commonly, durations are estimated based on the experience of one or more project managers.
Once the durations have been estimated, links are created between tasks (predecessors and successors) to tie the full schedule together. Collectively, these links create the schedule network that enables the project manager to calculate the critical path.
3. Calculate the critical path
The critical path is the sequence of activities that represent the longest path through the project, which determines the shortest possible project duration. The critical path method calculates the early start, early finish, late start, and late finish for all activities, without regard for resource limitations, by performing a forward and backward pass analysis through the schedule network. Although this analysis can be performed manually, it is typically performed using scheduling software.
Any delays or time saved on the critical path will directly impact the project duration. Consequently, the project leaders need to proactively track and manage the critical path.
4. Resource load the schedule
Loading resources into the schedule will help identify resource constraints that could impact the schedule. For instance, if the same crew is assigned to parallel tasks, then either a second crew would need to be assigned or the start of one of the tasks would need to be lagged to start following the completion of the conflicting task. Any modifications to start dates would need to be evaluated in the context of the critical path.
Loading resources into the schedule will also help with identifying when resources are needed on a project. This will help in identifying potential resource conflicts between multiple projects. This will also assist the parties responsible for supplying labor, equipment, and materials to the project to plan delivery of these resources to meet schedule requirements.
5. Update the schedule frequently during project implementation
When there are multiple simultaneous activities on the project, the schedule is a dynamic system, which changes on a daily basis. Make schedule updates daily if feasible, but at a minimum update the schedule on a weekly basis.
The primary updates are to record actual durations and to estimate percentage completions. This enables the project manager to recalculate the critical path to forecast project completion. If some of the actual durations or the estimate at completion exceed the estimated durations, then the project manager can identify problem areas and develop strategies to get the schedule back on track.
Although resources may have been loaded into the schedule during the planning phase, it is often not feasible to update resource usage in the schedule. A decision on whether or not to track resources in the project schedule will depend on the resource management plan and whether resources are tracked in other project management systems.
6. Proactively address potential delays
Utilize the schedule as a project management tool to proactively address slippage on the critical path and develop strategies to get the project back on schedule. On a daily or weekly basis, when an updated project schedule is available, the project manager can review the schedule to identify potential problem areas. Scheduling software can highlight these problem areas using Gantt charts or other views.
Taking action sooner rather than later will maximize the options and minimize the costs for addressing schedule delays. That is why it is recommended that the schedule be updated on daily or weekly basis.
7. Communicate schedule targets
Review the schedule with the project team to raise awareness about potential sources of delay and to get their input on possible solutions. During the planning phase, it is important to get input from the construction manager, supervisors, and foremen on project durations. This helps with verification of the durations and with accountability to complete the tasks on schedule.
Review the schedule with the client to discuss updates and strategies to get the project back on schedule. It is preferable to be transparent with the client on schedule challenges. This will help to create a basis for discussing potential changes to the project baseline, when these are warranted.
Project Managers who follow these 7 strategies for managing project schedules will minimize schedule delays and the associated cost impacts.