Project scheduling in large organizations
shifting the culture
Quality scheduling and resource leveling is complicated. Add to the mix a complex scheduling system such as Microsoft Project Server and most project managers do not have the skill, patience or desire to be successful. Despite the barriers, quality schedules are critical to efficient resource utilization and schedule forecasting. But how do you implement an advanced scheduling tool and ingrain quality schedule management into your organization's culture? This paper will focus on the key findings as Intel Information Technology (IT) deployed a successful schedule management system and practice across the very large 6,000-person organization.
Project schedules are important. The details of who does what and when enables project success. Yet, many project managers fail to deliver the necessary details resulting in missed scope, unclear expectations, incorrect timelines, incomplete budgets, resource overruns, unhappy teams and, ultimately, a poorly executed project. The expectations of detailed schedules are high, and raising the bar in any organization will not come easy. However, the risk of not doing so just engenders too many project inefficiencies. To get there requires training, metrics and a technical solution driven by an experienced program management office.
Scheduling: The Expectation
Advanced scheduling is tough work. Taking an idea and figuring who does what and when they do it cannot be accomplished by the unskilled. That's why there are professional project managers that get paid top dollar to derive complex schedules and deliver large projects. But what are the key components of an advanced project schedule? Exhibit 1 shows a few.
Exhibit 1 – Core Schedule Elements
This is not meant to be a comprehensive list but rather some of the core components of a sound schedule. As shown, ignoring these core items can add huge risk to the project. Of course, the importance of some of these core elements might shift with the project methodology used. For example, projects using the Agile or Scrum methodology would focus much less on resource and schedule (which are typically fixed) and more on a detailed list of tasks or “stories.”
Completing all the key elements of a sound schedule can be a daunting task, especially when one takes into account the additional core project management functions (i.e., stakeholders, requirements, change control), not to mention the stress that often comes with managing a large team.
Fortunately, there are several scheduling tools in the industry that can help in a tremendous way. Some of these include Primavera, Microsoft Project and PlanView. At Intel in the IT organization, we use Microsoft Project with the addition of the server component known as Microsoft Project Server 2007 (MSPS, 2007).
Having a scheduling tool is critical. It's much like the financial calculator to the CPA, the oscilloscope to the electrical engineer or the John Deere tractor to the farmer. Although one can do much of the required work by hand, a correctly used tool will yield better results in less time, saving money and stress. This is a major paradigm shift for most project managers. In fact, in our company we found the following to be the most common tools used for scheduling:
- Microsoft Excel
- Microsoft PowerPoint (basic drawings with timelines)
- Microsoft Word
Exhibit 2 — Paper Napkin Moon Project
These tools (including the napkin!) are not bad when used for their intended function, none of which include scheduling. (See Exhibit 2.) There is a reason Microsoft created a separate application for project management called Microsoft Project instead of simply adding this functionality to an existing application (i.e., Microsoft Project Excel)! However, using Microsoft Project (not to mention Project Server) is very difficult and not for the faint of heart. It takes focus, some technical prowess, training and constant vigilance to work correctly. At Intel, the change from other “scheduling tools” (such as Excel or PowerPoint) to MS Project was like moving our project managers from operating a bicycle to operating a jet aircraft. (See Exhibit 3.)
This is a very valid analogy. Creating a detailed schedule using MS Project takes a large amount of skill and knowledge. Much like the jet aircraft, there are certain switches and dials that must be correctly set prior to takeoff. And landing successfully takes even more skill and a decent amount of training hours.
Exhibit 3 –Bicycle to Jet
Worth the Cost?
Is advanced scheduling worth the cost? If you refer back to Exhibit 1, you should come to the conclusion that not adopting some form of formal scheduling comes at an even higher price. By not trying to determine detailed costs, dependencies, scope, risks and resource feasibility, we're really just setting ourselves up for failure or worse, a culture that pads schedules to ensure high confidence of completion in spite of lacking details. This results in huge inefficiencies team members “sitting around” with nothing to do and a fog of depression and lack of value quickly setting in. No one wants to work in this environment. In fact, most are more than happy to have value-added work to do with a realistic goal to achieve. Sounds nice, doesn't it?
Making It Happen
So how do you go from bicycle to jet airplane and reap the benefits of efficiency? How do you take a project manager unfamiliar with the nuances of an advanced tool like MS Project, show him the value and help him log the “flight hours” necessary to run successful projects?
The approach Intel IT adopted had several main thrusts (see Exhibit 4):
- Focused Training: Use the right training program to excite PMs and raise competency.
- Simplified Tools: Configure and deploy the scheduling tools to simplify usage for the end user.
- Track Correct Usage: Teach the PMs how to use the tools correctly then monitor and report their usage to management.
- Metrics that Matter: Report all the wonderful metrics derived from generating advanced schedules. When management sees the value the metrics can provide, advanced scheduling will begin to run itself.
Exhibit 4 – Intel IT Approach
One of the first things you can do is get project managers and management excited about the benefits of advanced scheduling. This includes rolling out a training program that requires experienced and engaging trainers and top-notch content. (See Exhibit 5.) Key components of the training program include the following:
- Get out to the masses: Rub shoulders with PMs and management. They should know who you are and understand your scheduling passion.
- Convince the PMs and Management: Demonstrate the benefits of the extra work required to create detailed schedules. Make the case for moving off the bicycle and into the jet!
- Demonstrate Expertise: Know your stuff! Be able to show end users real-time examples of ways to generate schedules, metrics and key reports that will make projects
- Focus on Value: Challenge every process proposal and make sure it is adding value to the PM and management. If it doesn't add value, remove it or your users will lash out and derail your efforts calling it overhead.
–Exhibit 5 Focused Training
In a way, the training proposed here is a marketing exercise. If you are able to gain the trust of your stakeholders and ensure that they see the value of advanced scheduling, you will be well on your way to implementing a solution that adds real value to your company.
When deploying a complex tool like Microsoft Project Server, some configuration to help simplify the tool will greatly help the project managers to feel at ease. (See Exhibit 6.) The use of a technical group in your company, or perhaps a consulting firm, might be needed to implement some basic configuration changes based on needs or your project management processes. Following are just a few of the technical solutions or configurations Intel IT made to MS Project Server to add value:
- Quick buttons to access IT specific help, training and consulting
- Automatic baselining
- Ability to quickly look a the schedule in quarterly, monthly or weekly views
- Team Vacation Report
- Critical Path Analysis
- Budget Variance
- Gantt Troubleshooting (finding missing baselines, dependencies or resources)
- Multiple Gantt templates to handle various methodologies, such as Waterfall, Agile, Iterative and Spiral
- Multiple custom views and filters (integrated with training) for common Gantt activities:
- Gantt creation
- Resource leveling by week or month
- Earned Value analysis including tasks that negatively impact schedule or dost performance indexes
- Baseline tracking and variance
- Late/upcoming Tasks
- PERT estimation
- Map Day Creation Automation
Exhibit 6: A Simplified Tool
There was a lot of work that went into making MS Project Server simpler to use in the context we do project management. Really, Intel IT just focused on the key aspects of schedule management that were critical and created quick access to those features that were already built into the tool. Advanced tools like MS Project and Primavera can usually do a lot more than you need. Thus, it's critical to do some form of mild configuration and template creation to help the PM focus on what's required and not get distracted by the many other features that your company may choose to exclude.
Database Design–A Technical Side Note
If your company is like most, you have data in different applications throughout the company. HR, finance and other groups all have useful data that usually is locked away in some database. Trying to create interfaces from all of these applications directly to/from your scheduling tool likely won't make sense, and doing so make be an uphill battle.
Intel IT took the following approach in designing system integration. (See Exhibit 7.) This approach basically requires a one-way data feed from all applications into a reporting database. From the reporting database, we can generate a myriad of reports that integrate data from all of our systems. This approach has been great for IT, for it greatly increased our ability to measure success across all activities from project management to training plans.
Exhibit 7 – Reporting Database Design
Track Correct Usage
Once training is well underway and configuration/deployment is complete, it's time to start tracking. Now is when you start to discover if the PMs are really putting the training into practice or just going through the motions. Intel IT utilized Microsoft Reporting Services to generate detailed compliance reports. These reports were communicated weekly to management and measured correct usage of MS Project Server by each of the organizations within IT.
Exhibit 8 – Compliance Report
As shown in the Exhibit 8, each organization would receive a “percent schedule compliant” indicator. This indicator tracked key components of MS Project usage, such as the following:
- Is the project baselined?
- Is it tracking costs?
- Has it been updated in the last two weeks?
- Is progress being reported?
- Are earned value metrics being generated?
The compliance criteria tightened as the project progressed through the various phases of the project life cycle. For example, a project in an early phase like “explore” was not required to track earned value metrics, and so forth.
Tracking compliance is absolutely critical in reinforcing training and scheduling standards that PMs and management agree upon. The weekly reports hold users accountable for doing some of the core scheduling elements previously mentioned and moving expert scheduling from theory to habit.
Metrics That Matter
Finally, after all the hard work of training, configuring and tracking usage, you should be ready to start tracking real value-add metrics. This is where the true benefits to management start to present themselves. After all, tracking detailed schedules adds little value if we don't use the data to improve estimates, forecast schedule or resource issues and truly understand project execution excellence in our organization. Some of the key metrics utilized in IT include the following:
- Earned Value - Schedule Performance Index: Management quickly learned that an SPI or CPI value of “1.0” was good. Anything grossly above or below meant schedule/cost overruns or extreme padding. Utilizing these earned value metrics allows PMs and management to make course corrections along the way. For example, an SPI of “.80” means the project is only able to complete timelines at roughly 80% efficiency. Thus, a planned 10-day task will take 10/.8 = 12.5 days instead. If this happens early in the project, the PM and management may decide to reset the schedule and inform their customers early in the project rather than wait until the eleventh hour to discover that the timeline will not be hit.
- Earned Value - Cost Performance Index: Similar to SPI, CPI measures the resource and cost efficiency. For example, a CPI of 1.2 means that the effort required for tasks is less than planned. As such, a 40-hour task would, on average, only take 40/1.2 = 33.3 hours. If this trend continues on a project after significant effort, it may indicate poor or padded estimates. In addition, it could signal that resources are being underutilized. (See Exhibit 9.)
- Resource Allocation: With detailed schedules, it's easy for management and PMs to understand where key resource constraints exist and better predict the resource feasibility of a project.
- Trend Charts and Graphs: When plotted over time, it's easy to see the trend of a particular project. If things get progressively worse, management can take action to help or dig deeper into the project to uncover the root cause of a delay or overrun.
Exhibit 9 – Earned Value over Time
In the end, the reports generated for management and PMs have enabled greater transparency and data-driven discussions that have ultimately resulted in better project performance. IT customers experience better expectation setting up front in the project and are not caught off guard as often when detailed scheduling is successfully implemented.
Conclusion and Key Learnings
In 2004, the external consulting company Gartner came to Intel IT and did an assessment of the PMO and project management practices. (See Exhibit 10.) At that time, we were just starting the journey to roll out advanced scheduling practices across IT. As you can see, we received relatively low marks in the project management and PMO category. However, when Gartner was invited back to IT in 2008, our score drastically improved. In addition, the rollout of MS Project Server in the IT environment received a sparkling review. Gartner said the following:
“Very robust implementation. Provides great visibility into projects, especially schedule, CPI and SPI.”
In addition, IT was able to increase proper schedule usage from 70% to 95%, reduce project throughput time to 26 weeks and improve performance to committed release dates.
What does all this mean? Advanced scheduling IS worth the effort. There is great value to be achieved, and it is possible. Good schedule management is HARD. Extensive training and vetting is required to help project managers raise their competency and see the value. Measuring progress and compliance with frequent reports and metrics is critical. Simplifying the tools you deploy for schedule management also is required to avoid PM overload. A central PMO is a must to execute and deploy all of these initiatives. And, last of all, we're still learning!
With a closer look, corporations will see the value of professional schedule management and see value in taking the difficult steps to make it a reality. Although it's a work in process, advanced scheduling is truly adding value, reliability and efficiencies to the IT projects run at Intel. Good luck in your endeavors to make it happen in your company!
Exhibit 10 – Gartner Assessment
© 2009, Spencer Lamoreaux
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida
Earning a scheduling certification helped three project professionals deliver more precise estimates — and become better leaders.