We’ve all been there… had that great idea, or wonderful concept, or brilliant plan which was going to be a game changer, until it wasn’t. What was once going to be the perfect project set to revolutionize the world or establish a new precedent and standard for an industry has now become a disaster. Although we started out with the best of intentions, somewhere along the way, the project fell into disarray—delay’s occurred, the critical path was lost long, long ago, costs have overrun, and it's now way behind SCHEDULE. We’ve blown past that end date with no end in sight.
But! What if…you could go back, rewind, and flag the missteps before they become disasters? In this post, we shine the light on those little “what if” red flags in your project schedule you wished you had known about or seen in time to stop an imminent disaster. Here we highlight five often hidden early warning signs that your project schedule is headed toward disaster.
What is a Project Schedule?
In the olden days, there were physical and tangible incarnations of a project schedule. It was observed and manifested in stacks of .pdf Gantt and PERT charts printed off and carried out in hot little hands just before a big stakeholder status meeting. With only a few hours to review the schedule before racing off, the PMs or the GC, or the scheduler began pointing fingers and wondering who was going to have the difficult job of explaining that the project was now 37 days off the critical path, and more importantly that they didn’t know why, or who was responsible?
Today, project management has come a long way and project schedules now often live digitally on a server or in ‘the cloud.’ Yet, regardless of where it ‘lives’, the schedule is like a map or the 2-dimensional blueprint of your project! Schedules are detailed plans. Specifically, it’s a roadmap or a timetable with clear start and end dates as well as a list of tasks, activities, and their duration — including the logic or relationships between those activities— that clearly define the project milestones and goal(s). A project schedule can also include project cost calculations and allocate resources needed for the project while also determining the critical path needed how to get there at the earliest time possible.
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The Difference Between a Project Plan and a Project Schedule
But what is the difference between a project PLAN vs. a SCHEDULE? Well, many people often conflate the project plan with the project schedule, creating even more confusion and ambiguity. They think the schedule is the plan, or the plan is just the schedule aka the ‘bar chart.’ However, the PLAN consists of multiple things. As stated in Project Cubicle, “a project plan is an extensive document that includes project risks, budget, organization, scope, goals, objectives, and also a project schedule.” Like other project deliverables (contracts, WBS, drawing(s), scope, SOW), a project schedule then is one of many satellite pieces that configure and make up this larger ‘plan.’ And it is this part that deals solely with task & time —assigning work tasks and activities as well planning their timing and sequence! I.e., What dates and at what time will work happen, for how long, and in what order? As Kissflow states, “Project scheduling, on the other hand, converts the plans, scope, and cost into an operational timeline.”
But did you know that the project schedule is also the STAR of your project plan?
Just How Important is the Schedule?
Why? Why is the schedule so critical? Going back to our map metaphor…Could Michelangelo have painted the Sistine Chapel with a blindfold on? Without your project schedule, you, the project manager, are blind. But we can take it one step further. Even more, than it is a map, a guide, or a “plan,” your project schedule is a TOOL. In fact, at its most basic level, it is THE most important planning, communication, and control tool for your project.
Good Schedule, Bad Schedule
Unlike traditional 2-dimensional maps or ‘plans,’ a schedule or GOOD schedule should be designed and utilized like a tool. Tools are things we use all the time. We pick up tools. We handle tools. We engage with and interact with tools on a constant basis. Yet sadly in the construction industry, more often than not, schedules are created in flat lifeless 2- dimensionality. They are created and observed and sometimes tracked. Again, more often than not, they sit static and neglected, until once a month (or even less) when a scheduler finally updates it for an owner's report. Oftentimes, it is too late to catch all the changes to the schedule until after disaster strikes - inevitable construction delays and overruns occur, and disputes commence.
This is a constant scenario that Mike Pink has encountered in his role as a project schedule consultant over the last 20 years when hired to fix broken schedules. As he insightfully noted in An Open Letter to Construction Schedulers, “You would think that with so many construction companies and owners finding themselves on this highly-trafficked road there would be a willingness to try something different. Yet, here we are still plagued by the same issues.” To sum it up: schedules have become a source of pain. And bad schedules are the norm, not the exception.
But schedulers don’t purposefully plan to make bad schedules nor to avoid them. Schedulers avoid their schedules like the plague for a variety of rational reasons as well as bad habits acquired over the years including:
- Too busy: They’re managing multiple projects and schedules with possibly thousands of activities and simply don’t have enough dedicated time to perform thorough schedule updates and reviews.
- No confidence: Their schedule is constructed so poorly that the quality is compromised and they don’t trust the data.
- Missed milestones: The project is delayed, the schedule is compressed beyond recognition, and…. the critical path is a mile off.
How do we avoid these pitfalls? How do we keep our project schedule on the righteous and critical path to goodness, and dare we say even perfection? And yes, it's perfectly okay to raise the bar and demand a PERFECT project schedule. Perfect schedules or nearly flawless schedules are not just attainable, but actually a mandate. Salvaging a poorly constructed schedule, or protecting a great one is the most important task on any project—it can mitigate risk and save untold amounts in both time, resources, and costs. It is literally the difference between project success and project failure.
So, if you want to get off that proverbial ‘highly-trafficked” road to ‘project schedule disaster’ and onto ‘the road to success,’ read on for the five early warning signs.
5 Warning Signs that Project Schedule Annihilation is Imminent:
Your Project Schedule has no Scheduler.
(Your schedule or its ‘manager’ lacks expertise.)
How can a schedule have no scheduler? Well, in a nutshell, your schedule is orphaned. Your schedule either lacks a dedicated scheduler at all or its scheduler isn’t fit, AKA unqualified. Unfortunately, as SmartPM points out, in many situations, there is only one person working on the schedule, and in an even worse scenario, working only part-time on arguably the most important job in project oversight and control.
Ideally, there is a project scheduler who works the job and KNOWS the job as good if not better than the on-site superintendent whose actual job is solely to ensure quality control. Your scheduler should live and breathe the schedule. He/she should not just be content to have a hands-off approach, providing last-minute status reports only monthly at project update meetings, but rather be dedicating all their time - full time - to studying the schedule data and identifying problems and even hidden issues as well as potential EMERGING issues before they make an impact.
To do this, your scheduler also needs to be qualified. Make sure your project scheduler has the necessary hard experience with a minimum of 2 years of experience in a scheduling role. Your perfect scheduler should also be adept at managing time and be certified. There have been a variety of certifications available for many years now. ProjectManager.com/au recommends the AACEi–PSP (construction/engineering/claims) certification which teaches in-depth key core planning and scheduling skills (and not just how to simply navigate scheduling software and press buttons). Another great certificate program that improves knowledge and increases hands-on experience is PMI’s PMI-SP.
So…don’t simply entrust the most important piece in the project plan, the schedule, to a hack. Hire a dedicated qualified scheduler to manage, monitor, and protect your schedule and your project data, like your life depends on it.
Your Project Schedule is… Stale
(Your schedule lacks oversight.)
You’ve created a thoughtful yet complex construction schedule, your schedule goes live and then you dust your hands off and walk away. Yet, weeks have passed and now you can’t understand exactly what went wrong and why your project is sideways. But! That’s just the very beginning. A scheduler’s work is far from over. More than just adding tasks, durations, and building in dependencies and logic at the start of the project, a project scheduler’s real work comes in after the initial schedule is built when he has to keep that project schedule in check (and on track). One of THE biggest warning signs that your project schedule is in trouble is a LACK of updates. If, for example, the last time your schedule saw an update was at the contractual minimum— a month ago —or so long ago you don’t remember, you’re going to have some significant issues to correct if not an outright disaster fomenting.
A good scheduler is constantly and proactively updating the schedule regularly, staying on top of all the changes, checking in with stakeholders, talking with folks on site, and monitoring the project schedule for potential risks. Monthly updates won’t suffice. The secret to having a GREAT project schedule is all in the updates. In a perfect world, project schedule updates and monitoring should happen at a much more frequent cadence to capture adverse events before they occur. As Mike Pink states, project schedules should be updated, “Monthly at a minimum, bi-weekly is even better, and weekly for the gold standard.”
Your Project Schedule is Shallow
(Your schedule lacks in-depth quality analysis.)
Beyond the frequency of updates, good schedules need QUALITY updates. When a scheduler is performing updates infrequently and often at the last minute or at the behest of someone else, he/she is performing that update at a shallow, or at a ‘just-need-to-get-by’ surface level. But as the expression goes, perfection is in the detail!
So if your schedule updates are suffering from ‘task-update-itis’ where only bare minimums such as task execution and durations have been reviewed, corrected, adjusted, and updated (simply to pull in the end date), you’re in the shallow now. Danger Will Robinson! All those little task duration updates should be little mini red flags calling out to you to dig DEEPER!
Also, an expert in schedule delay analysis, Mike Pink, makes a great case in Unlocking the True Power of Construction Data, for a more detailed and thorough analysis of the project schedule than what is typical in the construction industry. What does that mean? When updating the schedule, the scheduler should be performing a critical deep dive—checking the quality of the schedule as well as the actual performance data including challenging durations, questioning the sequencing, reviewing planned vs. actual, performing trend and delay analysis, and studying logical flows to identify any missing logic. Pink also recommends keeping an eye out for and double, if not triple, checking the following key structural integrity risk indicators within the schedule:
- Long durations
- High floats
- High criticality
- High compression
Your Project Schedule is Snowballing
(Your schedule lacks a healthy dose of reality.)
It is basic human nature to bite off more than we can chew or to be overly optimistic. As the expression goes, sometimes our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. The most well-intentioned scheduler means well when he indirectly schedules the drywall work in a room for three days instead of four. In an effort to compress that schedule, he’s eager and optimistic and perfectly confident that his great crew can do the work in the fastest time possible. (And they have also told him to ‘trust them.’) Yet, unwittingly, he has not only scheduled the task for a shorter time than what is realistic but also scheduled it without any float or schedule padding. In this scenario, what often happens is the snowball effect, or as durations are shortened and activities accelerate, there is a compounding result. Further, this compounding effect becomes exponential after each additional future update, as durations continue to be shortened to combat the compounding inevitable delays.
If your schedule’s critical path is inaccurate, and careening off schedule, then your schedule might be a victim of a major problem in project management or what is commonly referred to as overconfidence bias or a planning fallacy. A planning fallacy is perhaps one of THE biggest warnings that your schedule has gone awry, and is, as ScienceDirect notes, ``a prediction phenomenon where you underestimate the time it takes to do a future task…” Inherent in this phenomenon is an overconfidence bias! Essentially your scheduler is living in a fantasy world. As your schedule becomes compressed beyond all recognition, and as reality begins to sink in, in the form of compounding delays, the critical tool needed for successful project completion—your schedule—has now become compromised. The data is no longer reliable and the project team no longer has confidence in it.
If your schedule has fallen prey to this, one remedy is to hire an expensive scheduler or consultant to go through and audit the schedule. But in a smarter, more cost-effective decision, you could utilize analytic technology such as SmartPM's schedule optimization software to run analysis and check the 'planned vs. actual’ in the trades as well as check compression. In this way, you would be able to catch this hidden project schedule fallacy early before it 'snowballed ‘out of control.
Your Project Schedule is Silent, Your Scheduler Goes Dark
(Your schedule lacks accountability.)
A primary objective that must be met in any project is communication. Project communication and status are critical to the health of the project and therefore the health of the schedule. Yet, it is your project schedule that holds all the keys to the kingdom. Because, as stated earlier, the schedule is not just a monitoring and control system but a tool. More than almost anything else your schedule is the key tool for communication for your team. And communication is the whole ball game.
In an ideal world with a rock-star scheduler, your project schedule would serve as the one-stop information destination for all the project stakeholders. Your schedule would be accurate of course, as well as regularly maintained and updated and kept within arm's length of anyone who needed to access it instantaneously. Your project schedule would be a work-in-progress, iterative, fluid, dynamic, flexible, and most importantly available and ACCESSIBLE to all stakeholders. As Task demonstrates, if for example, there is a delay in schedule due to a supply chain shortage or due to a change in the owner's expectations, the entire project team would be updated in real-time and then immediate adjustments to the schedule could occur with risk mitigated.
If, however, that is FAR from your reality and 9 times out of 10 not only are you not finding out about schedule changes in real-time but you’re actually the last to find out and only after a crisis has occurred, it’s a sure-fire sign that danger lurks ahead. In this scenario, your schedule has gone silent and your scheduler….dark? It’s crickets in plan land.
Deafening silence from the scheduler or project manager indicates poor communication and more importantly zero accountability. Often times behind the scenes, the critical path has been derailed, schedule delays are imminent, milestones and deliverables have been missed, finger-pointing has ensued, and unfortunately, loss of revenue is on the horizon. The scheduler and/or project team is trying to conceal or cover up some variety of schedule mismanagement, and more likely it’s due to a fear of legal disputes that have become both an inevitability as well as a plague in the construction industry.
But poor communication, lack of schedule oversight, and collaboration can be a thing of the past. Many new updates to project management software such as Primavera’s EPPM exist in ‘the cloud’ and are an enterprise-wide license and solution to provide greater cooperation and collaboration amongst project team members and stakeholders. Moreover, new schedule analytics technology, such as SmartPM’s analytic tools allows schedulers, owners, and other key stakeholders to see all projects in a portfolio view in real time and additionally provides them with the power to get solid accurate schedule performance data and metrics about their project with a touch of a finger.
Now, armed with all this great knowledge and the clues to find the hidden warning signals towards improving and protecting your project schedule, go ahead… rewind the clock. Get back in the driver’s seat of your project, take control of your schedule and attack those hidden warning signs dead on, before disaster strikes!