Project Management Institute

Counting on Precision

The Decennial U.S. Census Must Be Completed on Time; Sophisticated Schedule Management Sets the Stage for Nationwide Program Execution



By Lisa Blumerman

The United States census is a complex, large-scale, multiyear exercise in program management. The scope of accurately and cost-effectively counting more than 330 million people across more than 3.7 million square miles (9.6 million square kilometers) includes hiring, training, paying, providing equipment and supplies, assigning work, monitoring work, collecting results and storing or shipping those results to a central location.

And there's no margin for error—especially for deadlines. The U.S. Constitution requires that a census take place every 10 years. The next one must be conducted by 1 April 2020, and the results must be delivered to the president by 31 December 2020.

That's why schedule management is the backbone of our program management framework. The Census Bureau documented and published its 2020 Census Operational Plan in 2015 (and updated it in 2016). Testing, which began last year and continues this year, will be used to refine that plan, as will a 2018 End-to-End Census Test next year. The census team has been leaning on a meticulous and highly integrated process to ensure the complex network of tasks are completed on time.

To begin the process, we held workshops to guide all involved staff in schedule development and methodology. They learned how to develop a product-oriented work breakdown structure (WBS), including how to develop work packages to the proper level of detail.

Then we developed the 2020 census schedule using a tiered approach. Each tier is supported by the project activities below it.

  • Tier 1: The most significant program milestones derived from budgetary and legal requirements.
  • Tier 2: The operation- or system-level milestones and decision points that support the Tier 1 milestones. These milestones and decision points are generally driven by two or more activities from lower tiers. Tier 2 follows the enterprise WBS and includes all 35 operations that make up the census.
  • Tier 3: Suboperation- or subsystem-level milestones and activities of the operations and systems. These milestones and activities could be driven by one or more activities from Tier 4.
  • Tier 4: Detailed schedules. This tier contains numerous project schedules, using a rolling wave development methodology, and is integrated horizontally and vertically.

To implement our schedule plan, we used workflows to identify activity dependencies and external dependencies in an integrated fashion. These workflows helped us integrate the schedule.

Next, each project within the program used a WBS to model its scope. The schedule methodology we use requires that a product-oriented WBS be developed whenever a project is defined. This serves multiple purposes, including emphasizing the objectives, or outcome, of a project, rather than focusing on the processes that support the project. This orientation helps measure each project's performance.

Each project WBS then is baselined, and all future changes require a formal change control review process. This ensures that the project scope is maintained and that out-of-scope work easily can be identified and managed within the program schedule.

Every project WBS also uses a WBS dictionary so that common elements across projects are standardized. This dictionary is maintained throughout the schedule management life cycle.

Finally, every project within the program has a project manager responsible for ensuring all activities are included, managed and monitored by the schedule staffers.

For the 2020 census, the current baselined 2020 integrated master schedule consists of nearly 21,000 activities across 250 schedules, encompassing 35 operations and over 50 systems. The program employs a rolling wave approach whereby each of the 270 schedules develops a detailed schedule that is integrated into the overall program schedule.


Even the best-developed schedule isn't much help if we don't use it to manage the work. Our schedule management plan reflects lessons learned from the 2010 census schedule management process. This includes refinement of the schedule change request process and optimized methods of deploying project management software tools to effectively support the decennial schedule management process.

Once schedules are developed and baselined, they are updated weekly. The core responsibilities of schedule management reside with the content owners.

We also have a monitoring process for weekly schedule reviews by senior management to ensure critical milestone activities, such as those in schedule Tiers 1 and 2 that measure major operational and system progress, are progressing as planned. This allows us to adequately address, mitigate and escalate schedule issues and risks when necessary. Schedule risks related to the decennial census can originate from many factors, including the complexity of the required integration between operations and systems and the massive mobilization of personnel required to conduct the census.

Even the best-developed schedule isn't much help if we don't use it to manage the work.

To help manage our schedule, we generate reports using filters that can identify specific activities and schedule attributes. This allows managers to get updates on critical milestone activities and focus resources on risk mitigation. Reports also are provided to the performance measurement and management staff for monthly input into the 2020 census dashboard.

Finally, the schedule management approach involves a formal change control process. If a schedule owner, user or stakeholder wants a change to baselined schedule data (such as finish dates), a formal change request and supporting documentation must be submitted to our change control board for approval.

All of this work adds up to the largest nonmilitary mobilization and operation conducted in the United States. It requires years of research, planning, and development of methods and infrastructure. And this effort has benefited greatly from the use of program management best practices and tools. PM

img Lisa Blumerman is associate director for Decennial Census Programs, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, D.C., USA.
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