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How to Build a Project Schedule in 5 Easy Steps

~ By Andrew Makar

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Congratulations! You've been assigned your first project and your boss wants to see a project schedule at next week's status meeting. Hearing of your new promotion, the PC support team has installed Microsoft Project on your desktop so you're ready to start building a project schedule! Unfortunately, your Introduction to Microsoft Project training class isn't schedule until next month and your boss is expecting a full schedule by next week. Fortunately, if you have a book on Microsoft Project and this article, you'll be able to complete your assigned task.

According to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), there are five key processes to developing a project schedule. PMBOK's Time Management knowledge area explains each of the inputs, tools and techniques and output in detail so you should consult the PMBOK for supplemental information. Knowing that you need to get started with developing a project schedule, let's start with the five key steps.

Step One: Define Activities

The goal of the activity definition step is to identify all the tasks required to accomplish the product. This frequently results in identifying all the work products and deliverables that comprise the project. These deliverables are found as the components of a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). The project schedule further decomposes these deliverables into the actual activities required to complete the work.

If the project team doesn't have an established scope statement, WBS, or sufficient scope definition, you may need to host a workshop or two to gather the requirements and further develop the project schedule. Since you need to produce a project schedule by next week, you will likely create tasks in your project schedule for "Analysis" or "Scope Definition." At this point in the project, it is OK to not have all the project details. You can build activities in your project schedule to gather the information. It is perfectly acceptable to build a plan for the analysis of the project before committing to the implementation or delivery phase of the project.

Assume for now you either have a WBS available or have enough information to build a sample set of tasks to further define the scope. Once you have all the activities defined, the next step is the sequence the activities.

Step Two: Sequence Activities

At this point you've entered all the task names and have further decomposed the deliverables listed in the WBS. The next step is to sequence the activities with dependencies. During this step, you'll identify any dependencies of related tasks and document them in the project schedule. You'll need to analyse each of the tasks to understand which task has a dependency on additional tasks. In your favourite project schedule development book, be sure to read about the different types of dependency relationships include Finish-to-Start and Start-to-Start dependencies. These relationships will impact your task start and finish dates.

Step Three: Estimate Activity Resources

The next step is to identify the resources and their availability to your project. Remember that not all team members will be 100% available to your project as some team members will be working on multiple projects. In this step, you'll also assign resources to each of the tasks. I usually assign resource to tasks using the standard Gantt Chart view in Microsoft Project. For each task at the lowest point in the WBS, click on the drop down box in the Resource Names column and select the available team member.

I recommend breaking down the tasks so you can assign one task to one resource to avoid adding multiple resources to a given task. It creates a larger project schedule, but it allows me better control in allocating and tracking resources as the project executes.

Step Four: Estimate Activity Durations

With resources assigned, the next step is to estimate each task's duration. The activity's duration is the number of working periods required to complete the task. In Microsoft Project, this can be defined in days, weeks, and even months! It is also important to understand the difference of the different duration types including Fixed Work, Fixed Duration and Fixed Units. Selecting the correct duration type impacts the resource availability and the forecasted task end date.

Step Five: Develop Schedule

The next step is to analyse the project schedule and examine the sequences, durations, resources and inevitable scheduling constraints. The goal of this step is to validate the project schedule correctly models the planned work. In this step you'll not only validate the duration estimates are accurate, but validate the resource allocations are correct.

Resource levelling is a key step in ensuring the project dates are realistic and the resources are appropriately assigned. Microsoft Project has an automatic resource levelling feature, but I recommend against using it. Instead of automatic levelling, I recommend using a manual process to resolve resource over-allocation. This manual process of resource levelling is time consuming, but it results in a better end project with realistic end dates.

Once you've completed the schedule development, you'll be ready for a review with your boss for initial feedback. Once you meet with your boss to review the schedule, obtain his feedback and make the necessary changes. You'll want baseline the project schedule before you move to schedule execution. This will ensure the original dates are saved in Microsoft Project and you can compare the planned versus actual dates as the project progresses.

The next step in the PMBOK is Control the Schedule, which will be the topic of a future article. I hope these simple steps have helped you get ready for your upcoming meeting. Good luck on the project!


Andrew Makar is an IT Programme Manager who effectively translates project management theory into actual practice. To learn more details on how to build a project schedule, improve project schedule development technique, or learn other project management techniques and Microsoft project tips. He can be reached at andy@tacticalprojectmanagement.com

Please visit Tactical Project Management


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