Scheduling is omnipresent in business. All functions use it, from manufacturing & supply to strategy & finance. Unfortunately, scheduling is like a gremlin: If you don’t master it, soon this nice little gizmo will turn itself into a beast wreaking havoc.
Why do we schedule:
Scheduling relates to managing complexity: Indeed, people do not schedule when it’s easy. Yet, “easiness” is always overstated.
Scheduling helps us to coordinate: Working with multi-site activities, one must ensure cohesion between teammates, suppliers, customers & other stakeholders.
Scheduling helps us also to control: It brings quality & responsibility on commitments & milestones.
Scheduling is good for return of experience: It is not really difficult to cut & paste a schedule.
But the main reason why we schedule is to help us to make decisions.
Pouring water on them will make them multiply:
When you finally get your schedule, your associates generally take the only part they are interested in: their part. That’s when your schedule goes in watersheds. Partners’ schedules start to have lives on their own and, as the integrator; you need to ensure that they are not evolving without your acknowledgment.
Schedule can also multiply easily when you incorporate iterative loops (like PDCA) or decision nodes (“or” decisions).
No food after midnight, please:
Once a schedule has its baseline, beware of scope creeping. It generally comes out of poor understanding of the baseline. So you need to monitor scope variance. This is tricky unless you have a correct work breakdown structure (WBS, see below).
Don’t treat variation orders (VOs) as scope creep: redo the baseline instead. As for monitoring; VOs may disrupt indicators, like the very useful earned value. To understand what is happening when a VO has been received; look at the indicators both with & without the VO during 3 consecutive reviews.
Anatomy of a disaster, or how to avoid it:
To be effective, you need to structure your schedule. WBS tasks link your contract / business case items (the “Why” of your scheduling) with your added value (the “Do”), with your resources (the “Who”) & with the outcomes (the “What”). All items of your WBS could be summed up in a sentence like: “Due to the requirements given in §1234 of the ABC contract (Why), John (Who) tests (Do) the alarm system (What)”. Thus, you can relate tasks with cost outflow.
For logic, add links between tasks, where required.
Add confirmation milestones, on top of contractual ones, at times you can still turn to “plan B”, on the critical path.
Add customer’s payment milestones during the selling stage in order to remain cashflow positive.
Avoid percentage completion indicators as their origins (the “100%”) become meaningless & forgotten. Go for milestones instead.
You can use a time-time diagram to monitor key milestones. However, this diagram gets heavily manipulated in real life to remain as flat as possible, as long as possible for each milestone, and becomes asymptotical near the due date when the truth cannot be hidden any longer.
You can incorporate the risks you already know. Put a weighted duration in risky tasks or split the task from its risks by adding a task representing the risk. It adds complexity but helps you to identify the risks, specific or mutual, & keeps the target well in focus.
You can put time contingencies in the schedule; whether a full buffer at the end of the schedule and/or some buffers at the end of a series of activities (free float on a path). The full buffer is for “unknown risks as of today”.
Should you add resources to your schedule? It depends whether these resources are critical/scarce or not and if they are under your direct authority. If either is a yes, put them in. If both are a no, put them in if the person in charge is using your schedule as his schedule. If he has his own, make sure he puts the resources in and audit him. Don’t forget non-human resources like this 4x11x8-wheeler that you won’t find in your corner shop.
Should you use retro-scheduling? Of course you should, but... Doing only a backward pass (“retro-scheduling” from target completion date to the beginning), you will get the late dates of what you must do. And if you only do the forward pass, you will only get the early dates of what you can do. Doing both passes will give you the critical path(s), path(s) with the least float.
Myth or reality:
Sometimes, retro-scheduling creates tension: Despite what teams can do best (the forward pass) the backward pass method is seen as emphasizing impossible targets to be reached; thus bringing management to rig the schedule by making both passes to match.
This judgment is incorrect, however, as a method is just a method and does not preempt how it is used. The error lies in that the schedule doesn’t represent reality but one possible strategy among others.
When the passes do not match, check your assumptions: Scope, time, quality, cost, resources & added value. Play on the why, who, what & do:
- Renegotiate / prioritize features
- Work in parallel
- Add resources
- Downgrade quality (kill over-design)
- Make / Buy…
There are few ways to check your business maturity in scheduling. Check:
- The “rigging” postulation at all levels: management, control, project or individual. Do check whenever rescheduling is necessary.
- The schedule construction: When a schedule is “cut-&-pasted” you know that it isn’t owned by its users. Loss of ownership isn’t a gain in time. It is a proof of lack of thinking & preparation. So, schedule from scratch first with the team and, only then, review other similar schedules to optimize yours. Use “cut-&-paste” as a check.
- The delegation of authority: A trivial example: you ask your son to prepare breakfast. The task-detailing you’ll do with your son will depend upon his maturity (imagine he is 6, then 17). In business, if you get the proof that your partner had recurrent expertise over some tasks, bundle them.
- The level of information at hand: The big data trend pushes firms to have extremely detailed schedules that are supposed to be updated “live”. But they are not. This trend stresses means rather than ends. It is a symptom of inward-focused businesses incorrectly addressing their institutional problems.
- The chief scheduler & corporate scheduling experts: They shouldn’t take initiatives unless you want them to become a self-serving group: Don’t put “brains” where you need “hands”. They assist the company only with training & expertise. Expertise is built on a reference library of tasks performed on previous projects. Split audit from support as they are incompatible.
- The career ladder: Schedule experts shouldn’t be a “Mexican army” of tool gurus. Good schedulers should be known by the hours they interface partners in situ, as opposed to updating schedules that they, alone, understand. Assign them to more complex schedules or temporarily as corporate experts. Then, promote them as project managers.
- For French-speakers, confusing planning with schedule is, again, taking means for ends. Planning means thinking ahead, while a schedule is a tool (no brain).