Anyone who has been responsible for a work schedule knows how complicated they can be. Imagine how much more complicated the schedule for producing an app or even constructing a building must be. Project scheduling is an involved topic that can be bewildering. However, those who take the time to understand it will discover a powerful tool for project managers.
Key Takeaways: Project Scheduling
- Project scheduling is a multi-part process that takes the plan and turns it into concrete steps.
- At minimum, a project schedule contains an estimated start and end date for the project.
- Usually, a project schedule is a complex document that contains a lot of information, such as task lists, estimated task durations, and more.
- Techniques like the critical path method and program evaluation review technique can be used to analyze the project schedule — looking for critical tasks or providing expert time estimates.
- Modern project scheduling software is a great tool for project scheduling.
- During the project, the projected schedule may change due to real-world variables.
- As the project continues, the project schedule can be used for what-if scenarios, baseline comparisons, and performance assessments, among other things.
Project Scheduling Overview
The process of arriving at a complete and even vaguely accurate project schedule is no easy task. However, it is a critical one in the field of project management. Not only does it allow for more detailed project planning, but it is also a vital aspect of determining resource allocation and even determining project success. A project schedule is one of the most useful tools a project manager has at their disposal.
In some ways, project scheduling is the first place the ideas underlying project planning come into contact with the real world. The project scope —the goal and the process for achieving it— has to be broken down into project tasks. Project details have to be determined and taken into account.
At the end of the project scheduling process, those disparate factors are translated into estimates and concrete dates. Key tasks that can’t be delayed in the project process are identified. A roadmap of goals and requirements, the project schedule, is developed to keep the project on track and on time.
What Is Project Scheduling?
A project scheduling process analyzes task sequences, durations, requirements, and constraints in order to develop a project schedule. The project schedule itself is the planned dates for performing those project tasks and meeting milestones.
There are a number of steps to create a project schedule, including developing task lists and a work breakdown structure (WBS), as well as putting together a project timeline.
However, once the initial schedule has been developed, work has only really just begun. The schedule can then be used by project managers in further project planning, to estimate usage of organizational resources and identify critical tasks.
In complex projects, a well-defined schedule can be the only way of keeping things organized, so that prerequisites are met and the project isn’t delayed. Finding critical tasks means resources are directed where they can do the most good. Some types of analyses can also call on the expertise of team members to get informed opinions.
The schedule will most likely change throughout the project as hazards and efficiencies are discovered. However, once there is a draft schedule, project management tools allow managers to anticipate obstacles, create budgets, and more. Techniques like crashing and fast-tracking can also be used to change completion dates.
Why Create a Project Schedule?
While other aspects of a project plan detail the what, where, and why of the project, a detailed project schedule provides the who and when. In other words, creating a project schedule is the first step in turning a plan into a product. Schedules play a critical role in project success in several ways, including:
- Create a project timeline.
- Serve as a control tool.
- Efficient resource allocation.
- Portfolio management tool.
- Serve as a communication tool.
Create a Project Timeline
A project’s timeline adds actual, if estimated, start and end dates to a plan. That is valuable in its own right for a number of reasons, but one important one is the work breakdown structure. The WBS is the list of tasks and the logical order in which they have to be done.
In project scheduling terminology, it helps identify predecessor tasks, which have to be completed before another task, the successor task, can start. The WBS can be expressed in several ways, including Gantt charts or network diagrams.
Project scheduling also provides tools for identifying risk and avoiding it. The critical path method, as we’ll see later, produces a list of tasks that can delay the entire project. A project manager might therefore devote more resources to those tasks.
Serve as a Control Tool
An initial schedule is an estimate and inevitably things will change, disrupting project progress. A schedule can help clarify which changes are worth making despite the hit to a project’s progress. It provides a baseline against which delays and costs can be gauged. Controlling changes to the project scope is vital to completing a project successfully.
Efficient Resource Allocation
Using a schedule, it’s possible to begin to allocate resources where and when they’re needed. A schedule can also reveal when there is a shortage of the resources required, potentially delaying the project.
On the other hand, a schedule can also be used to effectively manage techniques like fast-tracking or crashing, where more resources are devoted to a task to complete it more quickly.
Serve as a Portfolio Management Tool
Most companies work on more than one thing at a time. With the schedule of each before you, it’s possible to make informed choices regarding project portfolio management. In other words, selecting the projects that will have the greatest benefit. It can also clarify how to distribute resources to each project in resource planning.
Serve as a Communication Tool
The schedule can be a great tool for communicating with team members and other stakeholders. With a clear schedule, everyone is on the same page regarding deadlines, resources, and other important information.
A clear schedule is also a prime use of PM software for startups, showing investors what they can expect at each step.
Project Scheduling Steps
Creating a project schedule is much more complicated than just coming up with a timeline or project calendar. It involves parceling out work, estimating duration and resources, and juggling a range of crucial issues. An outline of the process for creating a schedule might look like this:
- Develop the WBS.
- Define tasks and logic.
- Estimate task duration.
- Define resources.
- Analyze the schedule.
Develop the WBS
A WBS is sort of like a step-by-step process for accomplishing the goals set out in the project plan. However, the relationship between each step may be more complicated than a simple consecutive task list.
Working out those relationships is one of the more important and complex tasks project managers may be responsible for. As part of the project scheduling process, each step is further broken down into work packages.
Define Tasks and Logic
In this step, the work to be done is further broken down into individual tasks. Project tasks are specific pieces of work, sometimes also called project activities. Project managers may decide how many tasks there are, or other factors may come into play.
The logic underlying task dependencies also have to be defined. In other words, individual tasks can relate to each other in different ways. Some examples include:
- Hard logic: One task must be completed before the next can begin.
- Soft logic: One type of task is usually performed before another, even if there’s no strict requirement.
- False logic: An arbitrary order because you can’t work on all tasks at once.
Additionally, the requirements of the logic can be defined according to need. The most basic is finish-to-start, meaning one task must finish before the next can start. Another is finish-to-finish, which requires one task to finish before the next can be finished, but doesn’t define its start. Other options include start-to-start and start-to-finish.
Estimate Task Duration
The WBS allows for the time estimates found in project schedules. The duration of each task is estimated—both best and worst cases—which, when added together, give the total project length. This is the ideal project schedule, in which the duration of each task is estimated without considering outside factors.
Two dates for completion are usually given, using the best and worst-case time estimates. The difference between those two dates is the ‘float’ or ‘slack’ in the project timeline. A common way of displaying this information is the Gantt chart.
In a draft schedule, the resources needed may not be taken into account. It’s reckoned purely by the amount of time each task is estimated to take, assuming perfect resource availability. At that point, it’s possible to gauge resources required at each point in your task list, compared to their availability.
Resources can be things like materials or software. One of the most important resources is the project teams’ time.
Analyze the Schedule
Some of the most important tools available to a project manager are project scheduling techniques, methods of analyzing the schedule to better understand it. This step can also be thought of as optimizing the schedule.
By using project management techniques, two of which are described below, it’s possible to identify crucial tasks, accurately predict the project’s completion, and judge resource requirements.
In the same way, the right tools help a carpenter take apart and put together wood, project scheduling tools help project managers better understand the relationships between tasks. For example, if two tasks can be worked on simultaneously, time and money are saved. Effective project scheduling also reveals key tasks, ones that can be used to aid in schedule management.
The right project scheduling software can make creating the project schedule much easier. There are many options, though you can check out our MS Project vs ClickUp review for examples.
Scheduling software will have tools to use the two project scheduling techniques described below.
Critical Path Method (CPM)
CPM is a tool that considers all the tasks in the entire project, mapping out relationships in order to create a project schedule. It is a fundamental and common tool in project management that is usually used in combination with a network line diagram. Using it to calculate the longest path counterintuitively provides the shortest completion time of the project.
To clarify how it works, imagine that a project is broken into steps. In each step, one task will have the longest duration, which becomes the duration for the entire step. That task is the critical task and their completion usually defines major milestones. By plotting the schedule around critical tasks, we prevent redundancy and unnecessary delays.
The estimate for each tasks’ duration is usually given for the best case, the worst case, and the most likely case. The difference between the best and worst-case scenarios is the float or slack. In the strictest sense, critical tasks should have 0 floats. However, ‘near’ critical paths may be used with more flexibility.
One common way of visualizing these charts is the network line diagram, though Gantt charts can also be used.
CPM doesn’t take resource availability into account. As a result, resource management comes into play in other steps. Sometimes, another technique called resource leveling may be applied.
Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT)
PERT was developed for military projects during the Cold War, in the early days of modern project management. It provides a way to accurately estimate project schedules by involving team members with expertise in each area. Each of the project activities’ or tasks’ duration is estimated. By adding them together, an overall project time can be calculated.
Unlike CPM, the question of how to manage resources does come into play with PERT analysis. For example, it can reveal when more resources will be needed to keep the project on task.
While team collaboration is part of the PERT process, the entire team usually won’t be involved. Additionally, to keep things manageable, this technique may only be used for specific tasks.
Tools To Create Project Schedules in ClickUp
ClickUp has some of the best project management tools that are available. Modern project scheduling software offers a wider range of options and project scheduling tools than ever before, while also remaining relatively easy to use. As a result, ClickUp has many options to assist a project manager with their project scheduling. Some of the tools are:
The basis of the system is the task, which has the same general meaning we’ve been using: a discrete bit of work. An example might be an article for a website or a particular software function. Using tasks, it’s possible to monitor project progress and even be notified about overdue tasks.
Multiple tasks can be strung together with task dependencies, which ClickUp calls its Relationships tool. It’s a ClickApp that has to be activated, so it’s not available to the free tier. However, with Relationships, tasks can be linked to each other without creating a dependency. Tasks can also be set as blocking or waiting on another task.
The project status can be reviewed using several reporting tools, which in ClickUp are accessed through different Views. For example, the Gantt view creates a Gantt chart for the project, based on the tasks and dependencies you’ve defined. Using Gantt charts, it’s possible to identify tasks that are causing bottlenecks or other causes of delays.
The major resource ClickUp is concerned with is people time, the workload of your team members. This can be reviewed in the Workload and Timeline views, allowing you to see how everyone is spending their time, as well as their availability.
Another ClickUp, called Milestones, allows you to create a milestone schedule of significant events. Milestones can be used to compare projected and actual progress, among other things.
Managing Project Schedules
The project schedule has been created and assigned tasks begun, but there are still many ways to use a project schedule as part of your project management strategy. The schedule is a tool that may evolve but will continue to be useful until the project’s close. Among other techniques, it can be used in:
- What-if scenarios.
- Comparisons to baseline.
- Performance assessments.
In addition to tracking project progress, project management software can be helpful with all of the techniques described in this section. PM scheduling software allows you to alter variables or change tasks without entering information more than once.
The basic concept is familiar to just about everyone. Try to imagine likely scenarios that might affect the schedule, then follow those scenarios to see what could happen. What-if analysis should try to take into account all the deliverables, including documentation or marketing materials.
This strategy is particularly useful for resource planning. Experimenting with different, hypothetical task management and resource management problems can prevent obstacles from arising.
Comparison to Baseline
The master project schedule provides an ideal schedule which the actual progress can be measured against. This is a key aspect of schedule management, comparing your average weekly planner notes, workload, task progress, and other factors against the original estimations. Doing so can often reveal problem areas and tasks that are lacking resources.
The flipside of a baseline comparison is the performance assessment. Team members’ performance should be gauged regularly, both to help them improve and to track performance. Similar assessments can be made for vendors, suppliers, or other aspects of the project. It’s not just people that are assessed.
Once a problem is identified, these assessments can be used to pinpoint the causes. They might also highlight potential solutions.
Key Project Schedule Related Terms
There is a lot of specialized languages when discussing the project scheduling process. To help keep things clear, here is a brief list of key terms and their definitions:
- Task (also activity): A discrete piece of work, like an article or block of code.
- Critical path: The sequence of tasks that determines the duration of the project.
- Critical task: A task on the critical path, which determines a project’s duration. Not necessarily an important or difficult task, it’s the duration that’s significant.
- Dependencies: A logical relationship between two tasks, either as a requirement or product.
- Float (also slack): The difference between the best case and worst case duration estimates for the project.
- Gantt chart: Gantt charts are a form of bar chart that indicates projected task duration, task dependencies, progress, and other information. Often combined with the project calendar.
- Network line diagram or network diagram: A graphical method of representing the dependencies between tasks.
- Resource: Skilled team members, services, supplies, and other requirements to complete tasks.
- Resource leveling: Using resource requirements and availability to determine start and end dates.
- Schedule: The planned dates for completing tasks or meeting milestones.
- Successor: A task that cannot start until its predecessor is complete.
- Predecessor: A task that is required to be completed before another task, its successor, can be begun.
- Work breakdown structure: A breakdown of the project plan into specific steps and work packages.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) for Project Scheduling
Final Thoughts on Project Scheduling
There have been books filled with different ideas about and on methods for producing a project schedule. As a result, we can’t do more than scrape the surface of the topic.
However, it’s a study that just about everyone could benefit from. By better understanding the process of producing project schedules, it’s possible to learn practical methods for managing our own projects and lives.