When is a Project Schedule Not a Project Schedule?

I’ve just been looking at a couple different schedules in Microsoft Project. One was in the course of doing some evaluation for a nonprofit organization, the other was submitted in the course of a client project. Unfortunately, neither really qualified as a project schedule.

Both documents – done in Microsoft Excel – succumbed to the mistake of making a requirements checklist into a schedule. While it’s important to identify requirements, and important to verify that they were satisfied in the course of the project, requirements do not represent scheduled activities per se.

Imagine something like this (yes, I’m overworking the standard project management “building a house” analogy again):

  • Slab concrete foundation
  • 2 x 6 construction
  • Glass fiber insulation
  • 200W electrical service
  • 75′ setback from front property line
  • Built-in microwave oven
  • 2 1/2 bath

etc. ad nauseaum.

But the above is just a list of specifications (albeit incomplete) for the house. Instead, we want to think of major structure components of a project, then the activities that people have to perform to complete them. For example:

  • Foundation
  • Survey
    • Excavation
    • Set forms
    • Pour concrete
    • Remove forms
    • Backfill
  • Framing
    • Set sole plates
    • Frame walls
    • Install wall sections
    • Install rafters
  • Etc.

(Of course, I have omitted many elements there – including the critical one of completing a design and obtaining a building permit!)

At various points in the process, there may be an activity checkpoint that validates the activities completed against the original specifications. That is the function of the previous list – to define the performance expectations for the finished result.

But that is not the same thing as a work breakdown structure and schedule.

There is one more side effect of trying to do scheduling in Microsoft Excel. Most such schedules simply ignore that there might be any dependencies between activities. And that can get you into a lot of trouble, very quickly. “Sure, we can complete that in three weeks!”

Granted, you have to explicitly indicate such dependencies in Microsoft Project (or your other real critical path method (CPM) scheduling tool of choice) but at least the tool will tell you what the overall schdule will be with those dependencies.

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