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The 8-Step Guide to Creating a Quality Project Schedule

~ By Duncan Haughey

Businessman with a Gantt chart

Successful projects start with a good, quality project schedule. Creating a schedule is one of the first tasks you should do when given a project to manage. The temptation is often there to get on with the work and worry about the schedule later - this is a mistake. You will be left exposed and, if challenged, will have no evidence of whether your project is on time or running late.

This article looks at a simple, practical approach to creating project schedules. After reading it, you will have a sound approach to creating schedules that you can use for future projects. Without further adieu, here's the 8-step guide to creating project schedules that drive project success.

1. Plan with the Team

Team planning is more effective than planning on your own. It ensures everyone has a stake in the schedule and ownership of the outcome. The project team must account for all the phases, milestones and tasks, so the project can reach a successful conclusion.

I like to create a basic high-level schedule to kick things off. Even if it's wrong, it helps the session start moving. It's better than sitting in a meeting with your team staring at a blank sheet of paper.

2. Cover the Project Scope

Use the scope statement from your Charter to ensure you include everything the customer expects you to deliver. List all the activities needed to deliver the scope.

Look at the order of activities. It's often best to start with the most difficult tasks. The type of project may dictate the order. Clearly, you cannot build a house until the foundation has been laid. Think about the work you can do in parallel. What is dependant on other activities being finished first? Make sure you include those dependencies in your schedule.

3. Group the Tasks into Phases

Projects typically go through phases, starting with an idea and progressing all the way to launch and rollout. You should arrange your project schedule in these phases. Here's an example I've used for software development projects:

  1. Ideas (the first concept, creating the team and everything needed to get the project started)
  2. Feasibility (often developing a prototype, model or proof of concept)
  3. Build (doing the work to create the product or service)
  4. Launch (preparing to go live with the product or service, often as a pilot first)
  5. Rollout (delivering product or service to the wider audience following updates from the pilot)
  6. Closure (finishing the project, disbanding the project team and tying up any loose ends)

4. Create Milestones

Adding milestones to your schedule helps the project team stay focused and motivated. Milestones are the end of certain phases, the point where work needs completing or where sign-off needs to be obtained for work carried out. These milestones are how the team sees and measures progress.

Poring over hundreds of tasks each week is daunting. Milestones help put the entire project into perspective - they keep everyone on track to a successful finish.

5. Make Time for Time

When adding time estimates (hours or days) against tasks and activities, use people's experience. Better still if you can use a database of production rates to give more accurate estimates.

Estimating as a team is effective because it gives team members the opportunity to challenge estimates. If an estimate is given by one team member, another may challenge it because he or she has direct experience of similar work.

Make sure everyone agrees with the estimates and signs off during the session. This way there are no arguments later.

6. Plan Your People

Now that you have your schedule, it's time to add your people, either existing or new team members. Try to match your people's skill-sets to the work. Have they done similar work in the past? Do they have a skill that would be useful on a particular aspect of the project? Have they shown an interest in working on a certain area?

A common mistake when new to project scheduling is to use people for 100% of their time. It's best to assume people will only be productive on the project for 80% of their time. Administration, filling out time sheets, team meetings, support and other unrelated tasks take up the remaining 20%.

Once you have assigned people to the tasks in your schedule, review it for conflicts. Do you have areas where people are working on two work streams simultaneously? Is the work allocated evenly across the team? Be careful not to overload your key people while under-utilising others.

7. Check for Errors

Check your schedule thoroughly to ensure there are no errors. Here are a few common problems found in schedules:

  • Not including public holidays
  • Not including team members' holidays
  • Missing links to dependencies
  • Creating one continuous block of work with no milestone deliverables along the way
  • Using poor task estimates or guesses instead of people's experience or production rates
  • Starting with an end date and making the schedule fit it
  • Assigning people for 100% of their time
  • Dividing tasks between more than one person
  • Not building in contingency time in the event things go wrong

8. Update Regularly

Remember to regularly update the schedule with your team to check progress and make adjustments where necessary. A daily 15-minute 'Scrum'-style meeting or phone call is useful, one where team members individually say what they did yesterday, say what they intend to do today and highlight any blockers holding them back.

It's your responsibility as project manager to help remove any blockers and smooth the path ahead.

In Summary…

  1. Define the tasks and activities using your scope statement
  2. Sequence the activities identifying any dependencies
  3. Group the tasks and activities into phases
  4. Create milestones
  5. Create time estimates for the tasks and activities
  6. Assign people to the tasks and activities
  7. Review your schedule for errors and correct
  8. Hold daily progress meetings with your team and adjust the schedule

A quality project schedule is the basis of project success. Spend time with your team creating a meaningful, realistic schedule.

What about our readers? What steps do you take to ensure you create a good schedule? Any tips for creating a quality schedule not included here? Let's share and discuss.

Comments (2)

Topic: The 8-Step Guide to Creating a Quality Project Schedule
5/5 (2)
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23rd November 2019 9:31pm
Guy Scudamore (Milton Keynes) says...
Do you think complementary pairing team members into a task is likely to proportionally complete a scheduled task more efficiently than individualised assignments?
Full StarFull StarFull StarFull StarFull Star
31st August 2016 10:07pm
Mark Lowers (St Augustine) says...
An addition to #7 Check for errors, I would add; know the environment you are working/building in. If project is out of doors you should include rain/snow days as these could severely affect the schedule. It is very easy these days (Google) to look back and get the average number of rain/snow days for a particular area and time.

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