Project Management

Correct your off-schedule project with these techniques

An off-schedule project may not always be your fault, but your client will almost always see it as a reflection on you. Here are five techniques that can correct the direction of a project that is missing deadlines.

Every project can be moved off its deadline schedule in dozens of ways. As a project manager working to get things back on track, your first obligation is to determine the cause of the problem. Your second task is to find ways to make the correction.

Second of two parts
Last week’s column on putting a project back on schedule offered five recommendations from columnist Tom Mochal.

Here are five more techniques to get a project that is trending over deadline back in order. Your project will dictate which approaches will work best.

1. "Crash" the schedule
"Crashing" the schedule means applying additional resources to the critical path, the sequence of activities that must be completed on schedule for the entire project to be completed on schedule. It’s always possible to just throw more resources on the critical path, but crashing also means you try to get the biggest schedule gain for the least amount of incremental costs.

For example, if one person were assigned to complete an activity in 10 days, you could see whether two people could complete it earlier. If two resources can complete the activity in five days, you may not be adding any incremental cost to the project, since you’re applying twice the resources for half the time.

In another example, if two people can complete the work in six days, you will have accelerated the schedule at an incremental cost of two workdays (two people for six days vs. the original 10-day estimate). In this example, you could further crash the schedule by applying three resources. Perhaps then the activity would take four days, or four and a half days. Typically, the more resources you throw on an activity, the more the incremental cost will be and the less incremental timesavings you will receive.

The additional resources may come from within the project team, or they may be loaned temporarily from outside the team. One of the goals of crashing the schedule is to minimize the incremental cost. However, crashing—in exchange for completing some work ahead of schedule—usually leads to some incremental cost increase to the project. If cost is not as important as the deadline, crashing a set of activities can result in accelerating the schedule.

2. Fast track
Fast track means that you look at activities that are normally done in sequence and assign them totally or partially in parallel. For example, in a home-building project, you can’t construct the frame until the foundation is dry. However, if the house is large enough, you may have options to fast track by starting to erect the frame on the side of the home where the foundation was poured first. The foundation will harden there first, and might allow you to erect the frame on that side, while the foundation on the far side of the home is still drying.

Another example involves designing an IT application. Normally, you wouldn’t start constructing a solution until the design was completed. However, if you were fast-tracking, you would start constructing the solution in areas where you felt the design was pretty solid without waiting for the entire design to be completed. Fast-tracking usually involves risk that could lead to increased cost and some rework later. For instance, in our example of designing and constructing an application, it’s possible that the design might change before it is finalized, and those final changes may result in having to redo some of the work already under way.

3. "Zero tolerance" scope change
Many projects begin to trend over their deadline because they are doing more work than they originally committed to. This could be a result of poor scope change management, or it could be that small changes are being worked in under the radar screen. If you’re at risk of missing your deadline date, as the project manager you must work with the client and team members to ensure that absolutely no unplanned work is being requested or worked on, even if it's just one hour. All energy should go into accelerating the agreed-to core work.

4. Improve processes
When you look at the cause for the project trending over schedule, you may find that some of the internal work processes could be improved. Solicit team member feedback and look for ways that are within your team's internal control to streamline processes. For instance, perhaps you have a daily status meeting that is not providing value and can be scaled back to once per week. You may also find bottlenecks in getting deliverables approved.

If you find delays caused by external processes, try to negotiate changes to the processes going forward—at least on a temporary basis. For example, you may find that activities are being delayed because people need to work on their yearly performance reviews. While these are important, perhaps the timing of completing the reviews can be changed to allow critical project activities to be completed on schedule.

5. Scale back the scope of work
One option that is usually available is to look at the work remaining and negotiate with the client to remove some of it from the project. If you feel like some of the remaining work is not core to the project, you could discuss eliminating it quickly. If the remaining work is all core to the solution, this discussion still might need to take place as a last resort. It may be an option to complete this project on time with less than 100 percent functionality and then execute a follow-up project to complete the remaining requirements.

Summary
I’ve pointed out 10 areas to examine if you’re behind schedule. Obviously, one solution is just to deliver the work at a later date. In some cases, that may be perfectly acceptable. However, the assumption here is that the scheduled completion date is important to the client. Some of these techniques don’t require any incremental budget. You should look at them first, if possible.

Other techniques to accelerate the schedule will result in increased cost to the project. If the deadline date is more important than costs, these techniques should be applied next.

If the deadline date is extremely important and you cannot move the schedule or the budget, there may be options associated with scaling back the scope of work. Usually you can complete less work faster. Once you know the cause of the problem and your budget flexibility, you can determine the best actions to undertake to get you back on track to hit your deadline.
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