5 simple project scheduling best practices

I have taught basic project scheduling principles to engineers for many years. At some point during the training, they become overwhelmed with the sheer number of rules to remember and apply. Project management tools, like Microsoft Project, provide the means to apply these rules, but how can you know which one to use and when?

Here is a non exhaustive list of SIMPLE scheduling practices that will ensure a good head start to produce high quality project plans:

1. Activity code / WBS: In order to structure your activities, you should use a numerical or alphanumerical value to categorize them.

2. Milestones: A milestone is an event in time to indicate an important decision or the completion of a key project phase. It should be monitored all the time. It goes without saying that the project start and finish dates are important events.

3. Relationships: All activities and milestones, except the project start and finish milestones, must have relationships with other tasks/milestones.

4. Constraints: Use scheduling constraints sparingly as they reduce scheduling options and optimization opportunities.

5. Project scheduling vs activity scheduling: If you schedule the project from its start date, make sure activities are set to start as soon as possible and vice-versa.

When you have successfully mastered these best practices, you can introduce others in your routine.

The Microsoft Office COM-based object model

I have been asked how PSSA can achieve such a high degree of interactivity with Microsoft Project without actually running in Microsoft Project. I surmise that this question must pop up when you realize the power and flexibility of PSSA UI.

Why use WPF ? We foresee that later versions of PSSA will make extensive use of graphics and other advanced features that will greatly enhance a project manager experience.

How can a WPF based UI interoperate efficiently with Microsoft Project? The answer is short, but the recipe to make it work is not: the Microsoft Office application’s COM-based object model. Extensively used by project managers to automate certain tasks using Visual Basic for Application (VBA), the object model is not as easy to tame when you are trying to access it with the .NET framework and its managed code. Microsoft offers an interop API that somewhat eases the pains, but it is not enough.

In order to interact in real time with Microsoft Project, PSSA had to be built to survive the intermittent timeouts and unmanaged errors generated by the interop API.

Project Management: From Zero to Hero

In the last few days, we, at SmartBox software, conducted a little experiment to test our Project Scheduling Smart Assistant (PSSA) software. Like any good scientific experiment, we started out with a hypothesis.

Hypothesis: PSSA can transform virtually anyone into a competent project manager, regardless of how much skills they possess in the field of project management.

To test our theory, we found the perfect guinea pig: our new intern, Alexander. Alexander had never touched Microsoft Project 2007 before and was totally new to project management. So we gave him the task to plan a simple project in any domain he knew very well with Microsoft Project 2007, first alone and then using PSSA. We asked him to be able to answer two questions at the end of the experiment:

  • If the project started tomorrow, when would it end?
  • How much would the project cost, in total.

Alexander successfully completed the experiment yesterday. His comments were:

“When I first opened Microsoft Project, I was overwhelmed. I could not see how this Excel look-alike would help me plan a project. I began to play with it and slowly began to understand what I had to do. After about an hour, I knew how to create a task, link tasks, create resources and make the project looks like a coherent whole. After a total of 2 hours and a half, I had a complete project planned.

Then came the next step; I installed Project Scheduling Smart Assistant (PSSA) and ran it. First thing first, I’ve rarely seen such a simple-yet-efficient user interface. You have one big button called analyze, you click on it, and voila, the software tells you what you must, should, or may do.

Among the practices it suggested were the creation of milestones, which I would not have thought of by myself, the necessity of linking task to others and the avoidance of tasks with free slack time greater than 50% of the time you need to complete the task. For those of you who do not know what free slack time is, and I did not know myself before PSSA told me, it is the time between the end of a task and the beginning of another linked task. My project plan had two tasks with an excessively long slack time, but thanks to PSSA, I was able to correct the mistake quickly. But one must keep in mind that PSSA does not tell you what to do, it warns you about possible problems your project may have, but not all of its warning must necessarily be heeded.

After half an hour, I was totally finished and, thanks again to PSSA, I knew when my project would end and how much it would cost, as requested. As a whole, the experiment took three hours. However, if I had had PSSA from the very beginning, I’m sure it would have taken less time, because I would have learned Microsoft Project much faster with PSSA’s help.”

Use Microsoft Project for more than gathering and storing data

Business software applications have made almost every job easier in the last 30 years. From simple tasks like writing a letter to complex jobs like calculating taxes, there’s software to speed up the process and improve accuracy.

Project managers have made use of specialized business applications too, most notably Microsoft Project and Basecamp. Think of the time and effort you’d have to invest to draw and label timelines by hand. Thanks to the specialized software, we can create them right on the computer, organize them, store them, call up the information in an instant and share the files with others.

But as valuable as these tools are for project management, they are only about collecting, saving and reporting data. Management is not about gathering data, it’s about making decisions. Specifically, it’s about juggling three constraints: the available budget, the available time and the project’s features (or objectives).

Real project management software would help you evaluate a plan and recommend improvements. It would help you audit your plan so you could spot potential problems and make corrections in advance.

That’s what Smartbox has created.

Our Project Scheduling Smart Assistant makes an objective evaluation of your project plan’s strengths, then recommends improvements based on the best practices we’ve gathered from of other project managers. It reacts to changes in a project schedule and notifies you of any nonconformity.

You still make the decisions, so you are still in control.

With the Smart Assistant, you become more efficient, which lets you get out from behind your computer and stay in contact with your project’s resources and stakeholders.

Going beyond collecting and reporting project data

In project management,  software such as Microsoft Project and Basecamp made  collecting, saving and reporting project data much easier. Now all the job elements and timelines can be stored, called up in an instant, presented in a clear form and shared. It was such a big improvement that some people began to think of the software itself project management.

But project management is not about gathering data. Project management is about making day-to-day decisions and avoid problems. PM decisions are centered around three constraints:

  1. Budget
  2. Time
  3. Features (or project objectives)

Now, the big question : IS YOUR PROJECT DATA RELIABLE ? Can you make the right decision at the right time ? I say yes if your data collection and reporting respect acknowleged project best practices. If your project plan is sound, project control will be based on correct assumptions. You cannot wait for an end of project audit to tell you your plan was not following best practices. You need to know right away to remove project process risk from the equation.

A PM identifies all risks related to these three constraints and makes decision accordingly. A good PM doesn’t sit in front of a computer all day. A good PM emails and calls and has face-to-face contact with project resources and stakeholders. A PM makes decisions with data that must be reliable. I would compare it to Command and Control in the military (…Command and control functions are performed through an arrangement of personnel, equipment, communications, facilities, and procedures employed by a commander in planning, directing, coordinating, and controlling forces and operations in the accomplishment of the mission… – Wikipedia). These are analogies I can use since I spent more than ten years in the Army.

In the Army, good intelligence is the key to winning wars. In project management, sound project data is the key to project success.