Case Study: Schedule Development - 5 Steps to Success

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The railway industry has been growing over the past few years.  With increasing investments in new rail lines supporting increased tourism and manufacturing, along with upgrades to existing lines supporting enhanced mobility, the future for rail is rather optimistic. And with a focus on new rail lines, there is a renewed focus on schedule development.

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The future is looking quite optimistic for our client as well – a mid-sized company making a big impact.  After delivering several local projects successfully, our client had grown by 400%, expanding in reach to become a global manufacturer of rail systems

In recognition of their quality and commitment to delivery, they have seen record levels of orders.  Over 80% of orders are with repeat customers; 40% are due to extensions on existing orders.

City Train

Getting Organized

In the face of mounting orders, it was time to get organized.  Or in Project Management terms, any increase in the level of delivery, requires an equal increase in the level of project management maturity.

So, our client made the decision a few years ago to move to a project-based organization.  A project-based organization is typical for organizations that have long-range, large-scale complex projects, like building new trains.  Dedicated teams of the right resources are put together to work on projects.  By realigning the organization against the delivery of products, our client could focus on ensuring they had a standard, repeatable way of doing business that scaled along with the growth of their business.

Success, if not handled properly, can lead to the demise of a project.

Was this really necessary?

Yes – by keeping the organizational teams focused on delivering their commitments 100% of the time, and in turn keeping their customers happy, they now have an engine primed for continued growth.

What could go wrong?  Well luckily in our client’s case, nothing.  They had the right team and the right management processes in place.  However, another program was not so lucky. 

In early 2019, a California high speed rail program went off the rails – with current projections putting the program 13 years behind schedule, with costs at twice the original estimate.  While we cannot go into all the details that led to the demise of the California high speed rail program, we can go into one specific detail:  The importance of a quality schedule.

The planning that goes into large complex projects is just that – large and complex.  It requires a great deal of effort from the team to break down the list of activities and estimate the size of effort.  However, no one wants to take the time to develop a detailed schedule anymore.  That is, until the parts are missing and by then it’s too late.  Your project is off the rails.

But, creating a detailed schedule doesn’t have to be difficult, or even that time consuming.  The steps are quite intuitive, can be applied regardless of the type of project and have not changed over time.  Here are 5 simple steps for successful schedule development.

What are the steps for project schedule development?

1. Define your Project Goals and Outcomes

Everyone on the team needs to know where you are going if you are going to get there.  In cases where you have a signed contract, this will list out key requirements, delivery dates and quantities.  Use this information to formulate the backbone of your project plan.

As Eric Singleton explains in his article on Effective Program Planning, a good plan tells a story of where the project is going.  This keeps the team and management focused on specific, measurable, and communicable outcomes which will then drive the overall scope of the program, its component projects and work packages.

2. Define the Activities

This step involves detailing the scope of the program / project / components / work packages so that you can clearly estimate the effort and resources involved in securing your desired outcomes.

With the advent of agile planning – a common question asked is whether a ‘WBS’ or Work Breakdown Structure is still relevant. 

Cliff notes version, it is.

A WBS is a method of taking a large piece of work and breaking it down into smaller, more manageable chunks, that can be more effectively and reasonably estimated and resourced.  While tied to more traditional project management methods, this exercise is equally applied cross functionally with epics, features and stories.

3. Sequence the Activities

Once you have detailed out the work to be done, the next step is to sequence the activities, paying careful attention to other related tasks, or interdependencies.  Basically, what order does the work need to be done in?

In development, many times you will not know the work to be done in follow-on phases of work, as it is dependent upon successful completion of a previous phase.  One should not go into production until you have finished testing; just as one cannot board the train until it arrives.

In the 2018 PMI Pulse of the Profession Report, the leading causes of project failure are due to a change in an organization’s priorities or objectives.  To mitigate this risk, the project management organization needs to be more flexible in the way that they plan, otherwise all effort invested upfront in fully detailing the project schedule could be wasted.  The key is finding the right balance.

PMI Pulse of the Profession Leading Causes of Failure
Source: PMI Pulse of the Profession 2018, Leading Causes of Failure Survey Results

One planning concept picking up steam is ‘rolling wave’ planning.  Rolling wave planning, while not new, is the process of detailing out the more immediate phases of work, while leaving later phases for when you have more information at hand.  This is very similar in planning for increments or sprints.

In another engagement, this time for an Oil and Gas major, our team revised the existing practice of fully scheduling a 256-line project template at the start of the program, to a progressive elaboration process.  This required changing their milestone acceptance process for Program Approval to include a lean schedule as a deliverable.  By having the project team detail the schedule as they came to each phase, the team saved time, simplifying the upfront planning while simultaneously driving improved Resource and Schedule Management capability.

4. Estimate Resources & Durations

In our previous example, as the team had delivered those types of projects before, the schedule was created from a template, along with resource estimates and durations based on their historical performance.  This was a huge benefit in estimating future program resources and durations, as well as a great way to share knowledge with new employees.

With our rail client, although 80% of the orders were repeat customers, the teams had not scheduled at that level of detail before.  Our project managers worked with the teams and suppliers to break down the work into more detail, and then defined estimates to support the added or decreased complexity.  This 5-step process works whether you are creating a schedule from scratch or creating a schedule from a template. 

By populating the information into templates, the client has a solid footprint to estimate and plan new work going forward, improving the speed at which they can respond to tenders.  In addition, schedule templates serve as useful information for onboarding new team members as they continue to grow.

5. Integrate the Schedule

The last step is to integrate your schedule – moving from a high-level plan to a detailed one.   While you can pull together a project schedule in Excel, it is much easier to link it all together in a tool built for schedule development and management like Primavera or Microsoft Project. 

With the right toolset, you can easily see whether you’re able to fit your delivery windows and if you’re within your resource capacity.  Essentially, it answers the question: “does your schedule make sense?”

If the answer is no, well then, it’s better that you know that ahead of time, before your delivery is put at risk, knowing this means you can start the hard work of mitigating it.  The art of crashing a schedule is best served for another article.

As specialists in project and program management, we have scheduled many large-scale programs like High Speed Rail and the Olympics.  We understand that you while cannot anticipate every hurdle that your schedule will need to overcome, regardless of the project management methodology being used by the organization, successful delivery requires successful planning.

In conclusion, with a Project Management Office in place, our client has a team of project managers as the focal point for proper planning and control, ensuring that no project goes off the rails.

Additional Reading: What is PMO? A Complete Guide.

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