One of the primary functions of management is to keep the entire staff busy on the highest priority work. People, supplies, and money are too precious to spend on work that is not of the highest business value. On the surface, this can seem fairly simple, but it takes a number of factors to make this process effective. Let’s say, for example, that you're a consultant managing an IT department with 60 people, and we'll look at the elements of the workload planning process from a manager’s perspective.
Know your available resources
Since you're the department manager, you should know what resources are available to you. You know that you have 60 people, other resources such as equipment and software, plus budgets for training and other expenses.
Let’s focus specifically on people. Understanding your resources means more than just knowing how many people you have. What you really need to understand is the capability of the resources. Your IT people are going to have different skills, experience, and responsibilities. If the company has work that requires systems development skills, for example, and the people who work for you have skills in communications and networks, you obviously cannot do the work in your department. Likewise, let’s say that your highest priority work is a new project. If you don't have project managers and senior people available, you cannot do that particular work at this time.
Understand business priorities
The second component of workload planning is to understand business priorities. Again, this is easier said than done. This is not a list prioritized by you. The client must prioritize this list of work.
Typically, you first establish an agreement with your client on the level of support needed for production processes and systems. The agreement generally states the level of staffing based on the service level the client needs. In almost all organizations, the support of current processes and systems is the top priority.
Next, you must work with your client on the priority of additional projects and discretionary requests. The projects represent larger work efforts that were probably approved during the prior year’s budget process. You can map out the resources for each project and the timeframe for when each project starts and ends. This scheduling process is based on client prioritization, as well as having the right staff available. For example, the client’s top two priorities may require staff with similar skills. This may mean that the two projects need to be scheduled sequentially, while a project with a slightly lower priority (and different skill set requirements) gets scheduled in parallel.
Finally, you would see whether any staff members are still unallocated. If you have additional staff capacity, they'll be allocated to discretionary requests. These are smaller work efforts that include enhancements and nonemergency bug fixes. Again, this list of discretionary work is prioritized by your client throughout the year (perhaps monthly). The ongoing reprioritization takes into account changing business priorities and new work that is added throughout the year.
If you understand your available resources and the business priorities, you can establish a process to map the people against the needs. This is not a one-time process. In companies where I have worked, this workload planning process usually takes place monthly, normally at the end or beginning of the month. The overall process is as follows: First, determine your staff’s availability by estimating the number of hours that each person has available to work during the next three months. Account for vacation, training, holidays, management time, etc.
Then determine whether there will be any changes regarding the people who are working on ongoing support and operations. This work normally changes little from month to month—the assumption is that if a person is working primarily on support or ongoing operational work, that person is probably going to be allocated to that work on an ongoing basis. Allocate these people first, since the support of current systems is usually the highest priority work in the department.
Next, review the work in progress and the people allocated to that work. Do a quick check to verify that this work is still valuable and that priorities haven't changed. Since the work is in progress, it's assumed that it is of high priority. However, sometimes work that is in progress must be stopped or deferred if other work is prioritized ahead of it.
Look at staffing over a three-month period to determine who will become available during each month. Map this list of people against the client work that is of highest priority. If possible, you'll apply the available resources directly to the highest priority work. Sometimes you'll have to make compromises, though.
For example, three people may become available next month but lack the right skills to do the highest priority work. You could try to train the people, but it is more likely that you'll look down your priority list for the first work for which they have the right skills. This may mean that the third-highest priority work gets assigned these resources, while the first two priorities are deferred for a little bit until the right resources are available.
After you make a first pass, make sure that all people are fully allocated during the next two months—and the third month out if possible. If it becomes apparent that some people don't have enough work, allocate additional work to them. You should be very sure about the work that everyone is doing this month at this point, but if you allocate work out three months, some of those numbers will be little more than guesses.
Communicate with everyone individually so they understand what work is allocated to them over the next few months. They need to understand that the priorities may change—and probably will. But they'll be able to see the best estimate at the time about what they'll be working on for the next three months.
Evaluation is ongoing
If your people are allocated to the same work month after month, it's not as important for you to be a good workload manager. This may happen if your group does ongoing support, for example, or if your team is allocated on a long-term project. However, most managers need to maintain awareness of the availability of their staff and the backlog of high-priority work.
There is no excuse for people finishing one assignment and then having downtime because no additional work has been assigned. A good workload planning project forecasts resource availability during the coming three months and maps the available resources against the highest priority work. These priorities may change from month to month, so you must replan and revalidate business priorities on at least a monthly basis. Doing so will ensure that people are allocated to the highest priority work on an ongoing basis.
Tom Mochal is president of TenStep, Inc., a methodology and project management consulting and training firm. He has previously worked for Geac, Coca-Cola, Eastman Kodak, and Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. Tom has developed a project management methodology called TenStep, a PMO framework called PMOStep, and an application support framework called SupportStep.