Pressed for time
Nor Azlinda Abd Rahman, PMI-SP,
Technip MHB Hull Engineering,
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
BY LAURA PEARSON
PORTRAITS BY CHARLES PERTWEE
Even the best-made schedules can change.
A school is being built with every task right on time to meet the immovable start of the academic year—until a storm hits, wreaking havoc on the building site. A new smartphone is slated for an end-of-year release—until the developer learns a major competitor is launching a similar device three months earlier.
“Schedule change during project execution is unavoidable, especially when a project’s components are managed by many different teams and lots of interfacing and coordination is involved,” says Nor Azlinda Abd Rahman, PMI-SP, senior planner, Technip MHB Hull Engineering, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The reasons for such change range from imprecise planning to the unforeseeable. “Sometimes the duration of project activities was estimated optimistically and the reality is a little different,” says Yamanta Raj Niroula, PMI-SP, PMP, planning and project controls manager, International Organization for Migration, Khartoum, Sudan. “Or perhaps an unexpected delay occurred in the project.”
Ideally, when such setbacks occur, the sponsor extends the deadline or pares down the scope. That may be an ideal scenario, but it’s often not the actual one.
“I work in construction, and on every project I’ve managed, we’ve had to compress the schedule on several occasions,” says Ahmed Fouad, PMI-RMP, PMI-SP, PMP, head of planning and risk management coordinator, Consolidated Contractors International Co., Doha, Qatar. Mr. Fouad reels off a list of such occasions: “when we had a rough start, when the main deliverables—drawings and materials—were delayed and when the actual productivity on-site was less than the planned productivity.”
To fit all the activities on the critical path into a shortened timetable, practitioners must decide whether to crash the schedule (shortening the duration time of activities by adding resources to them) or employ fast-tracking (taking tasks that are typically done in sequence and instead doing them in tandem). Either way, Mr. Fouad says, practitioners must be prepared to compress the schedule while mitigating higher costs and greater risks.
Yet schedule compression can also result from an intentional decision to accelerate the project in order to seize an opportunity. For instance, when Weta Digital, a New Zealand-based special effects company, developed many of the visuals for the recent movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the 700-person project team decided early on that compression was necessary. Rather than working mainly in-studio as it had on previous projects, the team took the ambitious tack of working on location. “We had a very compressed schedule,” Joe Letteri, project lead, has said of the decision. “It wasn’t easy to get it done, but we knew what the goal was of what we were shooting for.”
“Sometimes the duration of project activities was estimated optimistically and the reality is a little different. Or perhaps an unexpected delay occurred in the project.”
—Yamanta Raj Niroula, PMI-SP, PMP, International Organization for Migration, Khartoum, Sudan
Crashing, Not Burning
While working on an onshore gas pipeline project in Malaysia, Ms. Abd Rahman encountered a slew of delays related to landowner negotiations, poor weather and a lack of skilled labor. The scope for this initiative—part of an ambitious program to build the country’s first liquefied natural gas import terminal and regasification facilities—could not be reduced. “To stay on track, minimize slippage and avoid project end-date deferment, I added additional resources to activities on the critical or near-critical path,” Ms. Abd Rahman says.
She called in more pipe-jacking crews and placed them at locations along the pipeline route that were experiencing logistical problems and frequent machinery breakdowns. Team members also worked on weekends and public holidays until productivity increased and the project got back on schedule.
“To ensure quality and timely deliverables, we started monitoring at a micro level and brought activities under the direct focus of senior management.…We declared incentives for timely completion to motivate the team.”
—Sangram Dangre, PMP, Reliance Jio Infocomm, Mumbai, India
Crashing worked for that project because Ms. Abd Rahman had access to skilled labor. Rather than scrambling to find resources when the need arises, practitioners should know before their projects launch what resources will be available if needed, she says. “Some projects are limited by resource availability,” she says. They might plan to draw resources from a nearby, related project.
If additional resources aren’t an option—or will balloon the project budget out of bounds—consider reassessing the existing team. Sangram Dangre, PMP, deputy manager, Reliance Jio Infocomm, Mumbai, India, oversaw a project that aimed to provide broadband service to retail customers in 150 sites. It was a high-profile project for the organization—and it was one month behind schedule. He undertook a detailed financial analysis to identify the tasks he could crash with the smallest effect on the budget.
He also intensified his scrutiny of the project activities and the project team. “To ensure quality and timely deliverables, we started monitoring at a micro level and brought activities under the direct focus of senior management,” he says. “We equally ensured all team members were punctual, disciplined and serious about the project.” Mr. Dangre didn’t just push his team members—he also rewarded them. “We declared incentives for timely completion to motivate the team,” he says.
For many project practitioners, fast-tracking trumps crashing because it doesn’t tap into the budget—if done correctly.
Making the Case for Scheduling Sanity
Sometimes the best course of action isn’t compressing the schedule but changing the end date. Project managers offer tips on making the case to sponsors:
“To convince management of the need to re-plan the remaining work into a new schedule—one that exceeds the end date—share the project performance data, the earned value data and the critical path analysis on the current project schedule.”
—Nor Azlinda Abd Rahman, PMI-SP, senior planner, Technip MHB Hull Engineering, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
“Project sponsors look to make and save money, which is why they have invested heavily in the project. Therefore, painting a broader picture of the project—by weighing any saving of money against the slightly later but operational product that will produce more revenue—could sway their decision. Saving money is usually more important than saving time.”
—Sean Lavery, PMI-SP, senior project planner and scheduler, Wor-leyParsons, Johannesburg, South Africa
“A project manager can convince a sponsor that delaying the project will benefit the finished product, such as being able to track down better-quality materials or running more tests on software to reduce bugs.”
—Ahmed Fouad, PMI-RMP, PMI-SP, PMP, head of planning and risk management coordinator, Consolidated Contractors International Co., Doha, Qatar
“I would advise the project sponsor of the negative impacts of compressing the schedule, run through all possible choices and recommend that changing the end date would have the least negative impact on the project.”
—Yamanta Raj Niroula, PMI-SP, PMP, planning and project controls manager, International Organization for Migration, Khartoum, Sudan
Talk the Talk
A technique used to shorten the schedule duration without reducing the project scope
“If we feel we have a reliable design for the main foundation, we can start civil works in a specific area before the whole civil design is finished.”
—Alberto José Monzón Belmonte, PMI-SP, ACS-Cobra, Madrid, Spain
“Normally, we would not start civil works such as building the foundation for a power plant until civil engineering is completed,” says Alberto José Monzón Belmonte, PMI-SP, planning manager, ACS-Cobra, Madrid, Spain. “However, if we feel we have a reliable design for the main foundation, we can start civil works in a specific area before the whole civil design is finished.”
That type of fast-tracking might not seem to carry added costs, but it does come with the risk that overlapping activities might mean having to redo them later—rework that likely would not have happened if the activities had been performed sequentially. “This risk of rework may lead to incremental costs and delay,” Mr. Monzón says. What was supposed to save time could end up taking more of it—and more money.
To avoid that situation, Mr. Monzón recommends fast-tracking activities that, when overlapped, present both lower costs and fewer risks. That could mean fast-tracking only activities that are unlikely to need reworking or whose rework would not break the budget. For example, on a recent project, Mr. Monzón and his team relied on preliminary drawings to begin excavating main foundations in order to reduce delay, but they did not start installing the formwork or pouring concrete until receiving the final version of the drawings. “It’s too risky. The drawings may change, and we didn’t want to face expensive reworks,” he says.
Mr. Niroula, who has overseen large-budget construction projects in Afghanistan, the Maldives, Nepal, Singapore and elsewhere, is also familiar with the repercussions of rework. At the International Organization for Migration, he tends to choose fast-tracking over crashing because of limited resources and budgets. Yet fast-tracking is not a risk-free endeavor, he says. “It has resulted in modifications due to late design changes, as well as expensive changes to orders, neither of which were understood or anticipated when choosing the fast-tracking option.”
A technique used to shorten the schedule duration for the least incremental cost by adding resources
A schedule compression technique in which activities or phases normally done in sequence are performed in parallel for at least a portion of their duration
To combat such risks, Mr. Niroula stresses clear and frequent communication with both the team and stakeholders. From the outset, “project managers should engage in open and flexible relationships with stakeholders to ensure their expectations are in line with reality,” he says.
What can change often does. That makes it all the more important to have a well-thought-out project plan that elaborates a course of action in case the schedule does tighten. Don’t wait for the unexpected—plan for it.
“Preparing a quality project plan is the most useful tool to discuss probable completion dates, additional costs for crashing and what risks are encountered for fast-tracking. Several scenarios can be explored for the combined impact of each strategy,” says Forrest Kovach, PMP, project manager and program management senior adviser, Dell, a PMI Global Executive Council member, Plano, Texas, USA.
Completing a project on a tighter schedule than planned isn’t a dream scenario, but with the right techniques, project managers can prevent it from becoming a nightmare. PM
“Preparing a quality project plan is the most useful tool to discuss probable completion dates, additional costs for crashing and what risks are encountered for fast-tracking.”
—Forrest Kovach, PMP, Dell, Plano, Texas, USA
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