Project Scheduling


6. Project Scheduling

Step out of your business shoes for a second and imagine planning an important event in your everyday life. Maybe it’s a birthday, a wedding or family vacation. What are some of the first steps you would take?

You would probably start by deciding on a location, determining a date, what activities you’d do and in the case of the birthday and wedding, narrowing down on the guest list and where everyone would sit. Managing a project is no different.

Project managers use project schedules to communicate important information to both their team and stakeholders. This is a key step in the project planning stages, so let’s take a little time to explore the concept a little further.

New to project scheduling, or just need to a refresher? This guide is for you. We’ll offer a definitive overview, best practice and helpful hints so you can start creating schedules that help you and your team complete projects on time.

For the benefit of those new to our journey, or those needing a little refreshing, let’s start what a Project Schedule actually is.

project scheduling architect

What is a project schedule?

The project management schedule is a document that outlines tasks that need to be completed, the order that they should be done, what resources are required, how they will be distributed, and long the varying tasks will take. Ultimately, a project schedule helps the project manager communicate and collaborate with their team members and stakeholders, ensuring the project keeps on track.

You may be thinking, “this seems a little similar to a project plan?” It is important to distinguish here that although each plays an important role in getting a project to completion on time, the terms "project planning" and "project scheduling" are two entirely different pieces of the project management plan.

Think of the project plan as a culmination of all planning efforts compiled into a single formal document, a blueprint to broadly guide the project if you will. Alternatively, think of the project schedule as a tool that nails down the specific tasks within the project plan and looks at them in terms of timeframes and sequence.


What are the benefits?

So what is the point of implementing a project schedule you ask? There are actually many benefits of a well-crafted project schedule:

  • Managers, team members and stakeholder alike can track progress, set and manage expectations, communicate and collaborate.
  • Tasks and deliverables can be monitored and controlled to ensure timely project delivery – and if delays do occur, you can easily assess their impact and make necessary adjustments.
  • Increase profitability with the improved ability to calculate, track, and report on costs (time and resources being the primary factors impacting a projects budget).
  • Improved project insights inform distribution of personnel and resources to where they are needed most, helping to achieve project goals

How to create a project schedule

So what is the point of implementing a project schedule you ask? There are actually many benefits of a well-crafted project schedule:

  • Managers, team members and stakeholder alike can track progress, set and manage expectations, communicate and collaborate.
  • Tasks and deliverables can be monitored and controlled to ensure timely project delivery – and if delays do occur, you can easily assess their impact and make necessary adjustments.
  • Increase profitability with the improved ability to calculate, track, and report on costs (time and resources being the primary factors impacting a projects budget).
  • Improved project insights inform distribution of personnel and resources to where they are needed most, helping to achieve project goals

project scheduling planning pointing


Types of project management schedules

Now, before you start building your schedule, you’ll need to decide what type you need to use. This is largely determined by the complexity of your project. As a general rule of thumb: the more complex your project, the more comprehensive your schedule should be. There are three types of schedules you can choose from, all with ascending levels of complexity:

1. Master project schedule

This is what you are after if you have a relatively simple project. The master project schedule is developed in the early planning stages of a project and includes a basic list work items, a timeline, and/or a calendar. This provides a high-level outline of the primary deliverables and tasks, as well as how long they will take to complete.

2. Milestone schedule

This is more advanced than the master project schedule that is suitable for larger projects with multiple key deadlines. This is sometimes referred to as a “summary schedule”, and typically makes use of bar charts that plots action over time. This will give you a snapshot of important milestones, and if often used throughout the entirety of a project.

3. Detailed project schedule

If you have a large, complex project, this in-depth schedule is right for you. This can also be used throughout the entirety of a project and, depending on the complexity of the project, may be broken down into stages that may have their own sub-schedules.

Project managers will use such detailed schedules to:

  • Track and manage work on a daily, hourly, or weekly basis
  • Communicate progress to stakeholders
  • Identify, track, and plan for the relationships (or “dependencies”) between work items
  • Identify, track, and plan for any constraints on resources, work items, or deadlines
  • Manage resources more effectively to keep projects on track

The process of creating a project schedule

Now that you have determined the type of project management schedule to use, we can start building it. This process can vary based on your industry, organisation, or even project type, but there are some recommended steps that you should follow:

1. Start with your team

Engage everyone who will actually be working on your project, you may even want to approach stakeholders and clients. A group brainstorming sessions is a good way to start. All these parties will have unique insights into how long things take and what their capabilities are. You can even win some buy-in the process.

2. Cover the project scope

Review the project scope that you outlined in your project management plan.  This will set the baseline of what is required and get everyone on the same page.

3. List all the tasks required

If you completed a work breakdown structure in your project management plan, you are on the right start. If not read more about it here . Ultimately, you want a list outlining all your tasks, further  broken down into specific deliverables.

4. Identify the dependencies

Sometimes certain tasks can only be completed upon the completion of another, or they may need to be started at the same time. Think you can’t have toast until you toast your bread in a toaster, and you’ll want to your bread and toaster out the cupboard at the same time to get your breakfast faster. Identify what tasks rely on others and map them out. Consider putting a little slack in your schedule to give yourself some lee-way. We all know how things go sometimes.

5. Group the tasks in phases

With your project schedule and work breakdown structure under wraps, you should now have a list of tasks that need to be completed. What you’ll notice missing is how or when you complete these. With your list of tasks, reference your dependencies, and sequence them in the order they need to be started. To help move things along, why not consider using a table like this to get all your ducks in a row. 

6. Create milestones

A project milestone is a significant, marked progress point that appears along a project timeline. Generally milestones signify an important change or step in the development of a project and indicates where you stand in your projects progress. Milestones are different to project tasks or deliverables. They sit higher in the order of project planning and tend to be more general. We have a whole guide on project milestone here 

7. Estimate task resource requirements

Resource allocation is a critical part of managing any project. All tasks will require resources to be completed. You will need human resources, equipment, and supplies, plus an idea of quantity for each. To estimate resource needs, consider:

  • The sequence things need to be completed
  • Time restrictions such as holidays and sick days
  • Cost restrictions
  • Skill and experience

The best reference for estimation is historical data. Look back at what you have done in the past and note where things were under or over resourced. Also, don’t hesitate to talk to those who will be responsible for varying tasks. In terms of estimating time, this is sometimes a little harder. Head over to our post on project time management  for a little more info.

8. Allocate resources

Sometimes it’s helpful to assign tasks to their “owners”, those who will be responsible for the completion of that task. In doing so, you will be able to achieve greater granular control over the work being done.

9. Plan your people

Now You have an idea of essential tasks and timeline, you can start adding people to the schedule. Pair people with the right skill sets to the appropriate activities. Take into mind that people are not 100% productive. A common rule of thumb is to allocate 80% of their time to the project and 20% to admin etc. Give your schedule a little slack.

10. Perform a risk analysis

Determining risks that may be involved in your project can help you schedule accordingly. Give yourself some wiggle room to accomodate and deal with both identified and unidentified risks. Your risks can include:

  • Resource unavailability
  • Incorrect time estimations
  • Less experienced team members carrying out tasks
  • Technology implementation and learning
  • Simple misunderstandings

11. Check for errors

Congratulations, you’ve completed the first iteration of your schedule. Now it’s time to review and make sure we haven’t made any errors along the way. Consider meeting up with your team or clients to get their thoughts. Even run a couple of ‘What-if’ scenarios. Key things to ensure are:

  • Task start and end dates align with staff availability
  • Milestone, deliverable, and task start and end dates are realistic
  • The right resources are assigned to the right tasks
  • Schedule constraints, such as vacations, holidays, and equipment availability have been accounted for
  • All tasks have dependencies
  • There are no large chunks of work without milestones
  • Extra time is included to accommodate identified and unidentified risks

12. Finalise the baseline schedule

With your review complete your schedule should get approved. You now have a “baseline schedule”. Your schedule is effectively a living document and should be revised at various points throughout your project life cycle. However, your baseline schedule will remain fixed. Your actual project schedule is flexible and will change, but this baseline schedule will remain constant for comparisons and tracking.


Tips for creating an effective project schedule

  • Success of the project is based on meeting milestones in the critical path not completing tasks
  • List all tasks (all of them not some of them)
  • Define the critical path
  • Prioritise the tasks
  • Gantt chart the tasks (or use another technique – see below)
  • Estimate task duration and Build slack into the schedule
  • Note all assumptions and test them
  • Determine risks
  • Know the strengths and weaknesses of your team
  • Document the scope of the project before you start
  • Set goals in realistic timeframes
  • Ensure team members understand the deadlines
  • Use collaboration tools
  • Communicate clearly and often
  • Identify red flags and watch for them
  • Celebrate milestones
  • Don't micromanage
  • Have contingency plans

project scheduling computer work


Project Scheduling tools and techniques

As a project manager, you have a range tools and techniques at your disposal to develop, visualise, monitor, and control your project schedules. Let’s briefly touch on these below:

Gantt Charts

A useful visualisation technique for progress tracking and reporting purposes. A go to tool for most project managers when they want to get a quick estimate of the time it will take to complete all the project activities. A project schedule Gantt chart is a bar chart that displays key activities in sequence on the left (first activity is at the top left and last activity ends in the bottom right corner) vs time (on the top or bottom). Each task is represented by a bar that reflects the start and date of the activity, and therefore its duration.

Schedule network analysis

The schedule network is a graphical display (from left to right across a page) of all logical interrelationships between elements of work — in chronological order, from initial planning through to project closure.

Task lists

Of all the project scheduling techniques, the task list is without a doubt, the simplest. This is a list of tasks per team member, documented in a spreadsheet or word processor. This method is simple and familiar to most people, and is especially useful for smaller projects; however, for large projects with multiple tasks, dependencies and resources, a task list is not feasible for having an overall view and tracking the project.

Task calendars

While scheduling tasks in a calendar may seem like a logical thing to do, many don’t consider it for their project scheduling needs - and they should! In most calendars, there’s an option to create different calendars with their own unique names. In this case, you can create one calendar per project and schedule events (which become the tasks) for that project. The calendar shows a timeline for the entire project.

Critical path analysis

The critical path of a project is the sequential string of activities that takes the longest time to complete, recognising any dependencies between tasks in this sequence. The critical path method (CPM) determines by adding the times of all activities on the critical path, the earliest time that the project can be completed.

PERT (program evaluation and review technique)

PERT charts differ from CPM charts in the way times are calculated for activities. They allow better for uncertainty. For each activity, three estimates of time are obtained: the shortest time (SP), the longest time (LT) and the most likely time (MT). The estimate assigned for the activity is a weighted average of these three estimates. The formula is:

Expected time = (SP + 4(MT) + LT) /6.

Schedule compression

A schedule can be shortened two ways:

  • crashing: using more resources than planned on the task
  • fast-tracking: adjusting the schedule so, mindful of task dependencies, more activities are done in parallel than was planned

Risk multipliers

This involves building in a time or resource contingency for tasks considered to be at high risk of overrun. 


Maintaining the schedule throughout the project

It’s not a matter of if you schedule will change – it’s a matter of when and how. Client needs, tasks, and events are always changing in project management. With so many variables at play, it makes sense that schedules should be dynamic. The issue is we are often resistant to change. We let minor changes and deviations slip by and it is often not clear how far we have deviated from our schedules until things are way out of line.

If you take a reactive approach you, as a project manager, are essentially guaranteeing that your project will be overdue, over budget, and far from its original schedule. Instead it takes a proactive manager, fluid communication and continual maintenance to be successful and for your schedule to remain on track. As we have said earlier, your schedule is effectively a living document and should be revised at various points throughout your project life cycle. So why do these problems arise?

Why aren't project schedules updated?

1. Little emphasis on planning and scheduling

Scheduling can often slip down the ranks in terms of importance, with heavy emphasis often being placed on developing the budget. If a well thought-out and comprehensive plan is to accomplish the budget isn't in place, then the project is at risk before it starts.

2. Planning stops are the baseline schedule is prepared

Developing a baseline schedule is often required for formal submittals or to help inform the the resource requirements for a project. However, once done, a lot of people won't bother updating it any further. The problem is, that is not updated, a plan loses it value. As we all know, things never go as expected. If the schedule isn’t regularly reviewed and updated, it will quickly become inaccurate and even detrimental as a management tool.

3.Excuses are made for not updating the schedule

No matter what, any excuse you hear for not updating a schedule is a poor one. At the end of the day there is no excuses. It is foolish not to carefully monitor progress on a project and have up-to-date projections about remaining items. Without a good, updated schedule you don’t have the information to efficiently manage a project.

4. Organisations don't see the value of updating the schedule

You will be surprised how many organisations or clients still view scheduling as a necessary evil. Let's not even mention updating it once it is finished. To them it may be seen as a sunk cost. To combat this, you need to remind them of the tangible benefits that can be achieved through implementing good updating schedules. Consider at hinting at some of the following:

  • Less costly and more accurate - It is always less costly to build an as-built schedule as you go rather than after the fact. It can also provide invaluable information to future projects.
  • Time saver - Every day has a dollar value. If the project has an average operational overhead per day, if a schedule cut’s 5% off the project time, then significant savings and efficiencies could be made.
  • Better delay handling - Being able to monitor and document delays as they happen is a lot cheaper than after the fact. Also, a schedule should provide earlier identification meaning resolve times will be less.
  • Team building - A good schedule gives the project management team a sense of control. Even if things run longer than expected, an updated schedule will still keep your team on track. Que less frustrated staff.

project scheduling coffee and phone


Keeping your project on schedule

Every now and then, despite your best efforts, you may find your project falling behind. Perhaps you miss a deadline and experience project slippage. Perhaps your experience scope creep as the original goals in your project expand and client demands increase. Don’t worry, it’s not a be all end all.  There are steps you can take to get back on track, and more importantly, stay on track.

Determine the critical path

Focussing on the critical path can help you deliver a project on time, or even ahead of schedule. So what is it and how do we determine it?

  1. List all necessary tasks and estimate time: use the info you prepared in your Project Schedule process.
  2. Prioritise the tasks: this will fall into line of what needs to be completed first, but you must also decide which tasks carry the highest priority.
  3. Make a Gantt Chart: Be sure to use the time estimates you determined previously and adjust tasks based on priority
  4. Determine the critical path: The longest path of tasks on the Gantt chart is you critical path. Your project should never run any longer than this. Use this to track your progress and keep on schedule.

Revisiting the original plan

If your project has gone off schedule, maintaining your current plan will do you no favours. Your current plan is why you are where you are now, and even if external factors are at play, following your current plan will still mean you are behind. It’s time to review where you went wrong, and make adjustments. Ultimately you want to fit the remaining work into what time is left. If re-configuring the original schedule doesn't work, consider implementing schedule compression.

Schedule compression

Use schedule compression techniques to meet deadlines. These techniques help you complete certain tasks faster through the effective application of resources. Crashing is a method where extra resources are assigned to a task. Obviously the question arises as to where you get these resources and an increased cost if often associated. Fast-tracking is another method. This is where tasks are rearranged to that they can be completed simultaneously instead of sequentially. However, use this cautiously. This method comes with the risk of tasks and changed being overlooked and slowing the schedule down even further.


Project Scheduling with WorkflowMax

In the past, printed calendars on a office wall or shared spreadsheets over email may have been the method of juice for project scheduling. However, today most teams implement cloud based project management tools like WorkflowMax.

WorkflowMax can make it easier to create online schedules, making scheduling your tasks and teams so much easier. Because projects have so many moving parts, and are frequently changing, project scheduling software automatically updates tasks that are dependent on one another when one scheduled task is not completed on time. On a bigger scale you also have the benefit of being able to set milestones, link tasks together and see the actual vs. planned progress of the project update dynamically.

With WorkflowMax, a complete project management programme, you will have your projects scheduled in no time.