The truth about multiproject scheduling
now it can be told
Concerns of Project Managers
Harvey A. Levine
The purpose of “Concerns of Project Managers” is to share expert knowledge and opinions on topics of general and continuing interest to PMNETwork readers. The opinions expressed in these columns are those of the respective author. They are in no way to be construed as official positions of PMI on an issue or endorsements, either positive or negative, of any product or service mention herein.
It's an old cliché, but still true: You can't judge a book by its cover! This certainly applies to various project management software packages, especially when it comes to the definition of the multiproject scheduling capabilities of these packages. In our last column (October ‘92) we discussed the differences in attributes and design of various project management software packages. In this issue, we expand that discussion to multiproject capabilities.
In many project management software products, it appears that multiproject capabilities were designed as an afterthought. That is somewhat understandable. The emphasis, for the past three decades, has been on stand-alone projects, managed by designated project managers. In those days, businesses had organized to manage significant projects, and established dedicated staffs and project management software systems for these projects.
But the project management environment is changing. Many of the newer users of project management software have not reorganized along classic project or matrix lines, but are still operating primarily as functional organizations. This is common in areas such as manufacturing, process, pharmaceutical, information technology, and facilities. In these organizations, much of the work effort is, indeed, project-oriented, but the management of the work must be coordinated across projects. Among the requirements for support systems is the ability to:
- Assign priorities to projects.
- Link tasks between projects, allowing a task in one project to be a constraint to another project.
- Analyze the scheduled utilization of a common pool of resources across multiple projects.
- Adjust the multiproject schedule to stay within availability resources (automatic leveling or manual adjustment).
- Report on multiproject schedules and resources (and costs), either summarized or by responsible function.
- Enter progress information for multiple projects, by performer (such as timesheet-type data entered by a resource, for all projects being supported).
- Provide security options to:
- Control simultaneous access to files so that two or more users are not trying to perform schedule calculations at once (really a multiuser problem).
- Control individual access so that only selected users can have write access or read/write access to selected projects or even parts of the project database.
While these requirements are almost universal, many of the project management software packages, claiming to have multiproject capabilities, only satisfy some (not all) of them.
There are two basic methods of providing multiproject capabilities: Subprojects and Group. There are subtle differences between these two methods, and a few variations that exhibit characteristics of both. This is why it is so difficult to know just what a product has when it says that it supports multiproject scheduling. In the typical subprojects protocol, a master project is established, which contains one or more subprojects. The subprojects are actually projects in their own right. The master project is essentially a group of projects (I said that the differences were subtle), but may also contain other tasks. In the master project, where you would normally define a task, you can name a “task” that is linked to (is comprised of) another project (subprojects). In some programs, such as the new Project Workbench for Windows, you may use any part of a project (as well as the whole) as a subprojects within the master.
SOME PROBLEMS WITH SUBPROJECT METHODS
A common shortcoming of the subprojects protocol is loss of subprojects detail at the master level. Another is the loss of changes. That is, sometimes the changes or progress entered into the master project are not retained or saved back to the individual projects.
SOME PROBLEMS WITH GROUP METHODS
In the Group protocol, the user can define a group that consists of one or more projects in the database. The method is essentially similar to the subprojects method, in most respects. The user can call up any project, or group of projects. Sometimes (but not in all cases) you may establish links between tasks in the different projects. Here too, we can find situations where changes made to the group project are not saved to the individual projects. In at least one case (Project Workbench for Windows), the relationships between tasks, in the individual projects, are not retained in the group project. With this situation, you could use the group mode for multiproject progressing, analysis, and reporting, but not for multiproject scheduling (unless task relationships are not important).
SUBPROJECT SCHEDULING VARIATIONS
Primavera Project Planner (P3), and Finest Hour (RI), its hourly version, have anew subprojects capability that is a little different. A project can be a master project or a subprojects. The master project lists each subprojects that belongs to it. The user can access the master project or any subprojects, for progressing, analysis, or reporting. There are no differences in the appearance of the data, or in the functions. Although described as a subprojects methodology, it is more typical of the group mode. The one difference is that a subprojects can be part of only one group. Other than that, the subprojects mode, in P3 and FH, can support all of the traditional multiproject capabilities (despite the fact that the system is not clearly touted as a “multiproject” product). Here is a case where looking at the cover surprised me. The use of the term subprojects instead of group, had me thinking that these were not fully functional multiproject products.
ABT‘s recently released Project Workbench for Windows has several strong group and subprojects features. However, in the subprojects mode, changes made in the master project are not saved back to the individual projects. This would negate using a “master” project file as a means of collecting multiproject resource actuals (timesheet data). The group mode does have a two-way data link, permitting changes made in the group file to be transmitted to the individual component files. However, both multiproject modes have a significant limitation. Relationships between tasks (links) are not transferred to the group or master project. Therefore, if you perform scheduling at the group or master level, the effect of the logic constraints is lost and you no longer have a CPM. The group mode does function well for analyzing, reporting and updating.
Artemis Prestige for Windows (Lucas Management Systems) has a group mode, which can be used for multiproject scheduling and reporting only. You cannot add or edit project data in the multiproject mode.
Like so many of the vast features in Microsoft Project for Windows, the multiproject capabilities of this product are not readily apparent to the new user. It seems almost as if the software is hesitant to give up its little secrets. (If this sounds as if I am attributing personality traits to a software package, then I plead guilty….These products do exhibit “personalities” which, of course, reflect on the intent and philosophy of the product designers.) Although not always readily apparent or understandable, MS Project does provide many of the capabilities needed to schedule, analyze and report on multiple projects. There is a limitation of 20 projects for simultaneous scheduling and analysis, a ceiling that is too low for many applications. Inter-project links are not physical logic connections, but rather are dynamic data links between two tasks. For example, to prevent Task 1 in Project B from starting before Task 10 in Project A is complete, you would “Copy” the Finish Date from Task A-10 and “Paste Link” it to Task B-1. This sets a floating “Must Start On” date on Task B-l. Unfortunately, the “Must Start On” dates will override any defined logic constraints, causing a loss of the CPM. To “See” multiple projects, you can open several different project windows, or establish a combined project window. Also, you can save several open projects as a “workspace.” Nevertheless, I found that I could not always get at the multiproject information that I needed for analysis and reporting, and that there were too many ways to “work” with multiproject data, unduly complicating the process.
I much prefer the unambiguous multiproject capabilities in Scitor's Project Scheduler 5. You may open as many individual projects as you want, and may analyze and schedule the “current’ or “all” projects. For combined functions, the group mode allows you to designate a set of projects, which can be prioritized, linked, analyzed, summarized and reported from this combined database. Any changes made in the group can be saved back to the individual projects. Subprojects functions are also available.
Symatec's TimeLine for Windows and Timeline 5.0 (DOS) are essentially one-at-a-time project managers. You can only have one project in memory, at one time. You may link an entire external project to the current project (via the “Consolidate” command) but this becomes one line on the current project. It does not bring in resource impacts from an external project, so it cannot be used for multiproject resource review or leveling. You can define dependencies. But the programs will not show or calculate multiproject resources.
Computer Associates’ SuperProject 2.0 has Link and Combine functions (as in TimeLine). Multiproject reporting is hampered by the lack of a Project ID field, in some views/reports, you cannot tell which project the task belongs to. In other views, the Project ID is placed in the Task ID fields, blocking out the Task ID. I have been told that this ID limitation has been addressed in the latest releases of both the DOS and Windows version of SuperProject, but they were not available for my review at press time.
Space and time limitations preclude discussion of the specific multiproject operations of several products, in this issue. We are conducting ongoing evaluations of several high-end project management software packages, including Open Plan, PARISS Enterprise, Prestige for Windows, PROJECT/2 Series/X (PSDI‘S new P/X), Primavera, and Texim Project, and will report any significant multiproject findings in a future column.
A CHECK LIST OF MULTIPROJECT CAPABILITIES
In the box below is a check list that you can use to review the multiproject capabilities of project management software packages under consideration.
A MULTIPROJECT SCENARIO
I have developed several models that I use to review and test project management software programs. Here is one that I use for validating multiproject effectiveness. It is based on a requirement defined by one of my clients.
Consider this scenario: You are an engineering manager in a manufacturing firm. You are supporting several projects with your engineering/design staff. Each project leader is clamoring for engineering support for his or her individual project. Frequently, you are accused of providing more support for “the other projects.”
MULTIPROJECT CAPABILITIES CHECK LIST
|GROUP CAPABILITIES||SUBPROJECT CAPABILITIES|
|Group mode capability||Subprojects mode capability|
|Max projects in group|
|Assign priorities to projects||Assign priorities to tasks|
|Individual project task details retained in Master||Subprojects task details retained in Master|
|Individual project resource details retained in Master||Subprojects resource details retained in Master|
|Individual project task relationships retained in Master||Task relationships retained in Master|
|Can define links between projects||Can define links between subprojects|
|Can review task details in Master||Can review task details in Master|
|Can edit task details in Master||Can edit task details in Master|
|Changes in Master are transferred to individual project||Changes in Master are transferred to subprojects|
|Can schedule multiple projects in group||Can schedule multiple subprojects in Master|
|Can analyze use of resources in group||Can analyze use of subprojects resources in Master|
|Can resource level several projects in group||Can resource level subprojects in Master|
|Can enter progress data for all projects in group||Can enter progress for subprojects tasks in Master|
|Can view all projects in group|
|Can produce multiproject reports with details/summary||Can produce reports with task details/summary|
|Multiple projects open in memory at once||Master and subprojects open in memory at once|
|Group and individual projects open at once|
|Can produce resources per period by project report|
Your project management software should be able to produce a simple, concise report that provides you with the data needed to respond to these accusations. To test for this capability, try the following:
- Create a resource pool consisting of your engineering resources (or any resources).
- If the program will allow it, define a resource hierarchy (resource breakdown structure). For example: Engineering can be broken down into Engineers and Designers. Each of these, in turn, can be broken down into Mechanical, Electrical, Civil, etc.
- Create three (or more) projects. Define some tasks and assign resources to the tasks.
- Schedule the projects. It is not necessary to perform resource leveling for this test.
- Create a “group” consisting of these projects. In some programs, this may entail creating a master project from these “subprojects.”
- Design a series of reports that list the total number of resources scheduled, per time period, per project. Here are some examples:
- Total Engineering Department hours per month, per project.
- Subtotals for Engineers and Designers, by week, per project.
- Total hours for each category of designer, by project.
Frankly, this requirement is quite reasonable. Yet, many of the products that I have looked at cannot support this simple requirement. If project management software is to be used by support functional managers, it needs to provide these kinds of views of the multiple project resource loads. Among the products that I have tested for this reporting capability, I was able to produce these reports with Project Scheduler 5, Project Workbench for Windows, and Primavera. I could not do it with MS Project SuperProject or TimeLine.
When you are shopping for project management software that will be used in a multiproject environment, you will have to look beyond the multiproject claims of the vendors to ascertain if and how these products support your needs.
MORE ON EFFICIENT RESOURCE LEVELING
In our October column, on project management software differences. we neglected to include Welcom Software Technology's Open Plan among the products mentioned that had advanced resource scheduling capabilities. Open Plan offers three options for optimizing the utilization of limited resources during resource leveling. These are (1) Activity Splitting, (2) Activity Stretching, and (3) Activity Re-Proofing. The Splitting option is similar to Prestige's. You may specify the minimum duration of any split, and the maximum number of splits. The Stretching option allows you to extend the duration of a task (reducing the resource requirements per time period). The assigned resource quantities do not change. The user specifies the maximum duration. In Re-Proofing, additional flexibility is achieved by allowing the program to determine the optimal daily loading while staying within the minimum and maximum specified durations.
Harvey A. Levine, president, Project Knowledge Group (21 Pineridge, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866) has been a practitioner of project management for over thirty years, primarily with General Electric Company, and is a past chairman of PMI. Mr. Levine has been adjunct professor of project management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, and is the author of the book Project Management Using Microcomputers as well as several articles.