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Stop Scheduling; Start Planning

By focusing on creating an output, project teams have lost all sight of the collaboration and commitment required to produce an effective project plan.

We see it on every project; the early production of a complex Gantt chart. It's long, it's complicated, and its produced by a scheduling expert that has completed a plethora of software training and a number of projects to hone their skill set. This schedule, updated throughout the project lifecycle, satisfies the client's requirement to produce a detailed project plan. Hurrah, we can now get to work.

The problem; the end result is often not a project plan. It's not produced through intense collaboration among project stakeholders, but rather by one person who is stuck in a tiny office, surrounded by computer monitors and empty cans of Red Bull. They speak a language that sounds alien to many, using code words such as WBS, CBS, CPM, and PERT. They build activities, add logic, and resource load for days. In the end, they produce a 50 page level 4 project schedule complete with 40 pages of additional reports. But the result is a schedule; it's not a plan, and in more cases than not, it's not even used.

The Problem with Schedules

Sit in on any weekly construction schedule review meeting. You will see a few people highly engaged in reviewing items line by line, on all 40 pages. Others will look mildly interested as they peruse sheet through sheet, while others disengage completely (think Candy Crush Saga tournaments and group text conversations). The development format, nor the review process, is engaging. In fact, reviews have become so complex that it is difficult to engage. Those that want to follow along have a hard time keeping up without cycling back to trace lines and decipher logic.

Put yourself in the position of a Superintendent on a large industrial project. Want to know if the civil sub-contractor will be complete their concrete pour on schedule? Flip to page 37 and look at line item 2,461. There is your update. Keep in mind that this schedule was last updated a week ago, and may not even be accurate anymore. So what does your Superintendent do? They go out and have a conversation with the civil team. The complexity of creating schedules is driving the actual planning out to the workface. The plans concocted, and the decisions made, are often never cycled back and included in the next schedule iteration.

Construction teams conduct ad hoc planning in the field because it's more effective than navigating a complex gantt chart that they can't contribute to, interact with, or get notifications from. Ask any construction supervisor if they are working to the schedule and you will often get a chuckle. It's not their plan, and they aren't working to it. They update it, only because a weekly schedule update is a required deliverable. As a litmus test, ask a supervisor who owns the plan. If they tell you 'the scheduler owns it', you have a problem.

Because they aren't working to it, the schedule does little to drive stakeholder collaboration or accountability. How do you effectively collaborate when only one person can update and contribute to activity planning, sequencing, and updates? How do you hold people accountable to dates that they didn't collaborate on, or agree to? You can't, and without accountability, what is the point in having targets in the first place?

So why do we continue down this path?

Clients require a Gantt chart to be produced as a project deliverable, so effectively we continue to follow the path because it is written into contracts. Project reporting expectations are becoming more complex and convoluted, not less. If you are producing a 100 page project controls report every week to two weeks, your system is broken. You aren't planning; you are scheduling. You're not engaging; you're excluding.

Project teams have normalized the complex and convoluted schedule. Rather than challenging the process or the deliverable, teams continue to trudge along and spit out outputs and reports. Teams become focused on getting the end product out the door, and in the process they lose sight of the benefit of planning altogether. Combine that with aggressive schedules, and back-to-back contract awards and construction mobilizations, and you have a recipe for a lack of collaboration and effective planning. But all hope is not lost.

The Fix

The first step in fixing the problem is acknowledging that the system is broken. Fixing a broken system requires clients to drive improvements through the use of new processes and technology. Clients must shift the focus of their expectations. They must require intensive, collaborative planning if they want to produce quantifiable project performance improvements. Devoid of intensive collaboration, planning a complex project is a lost cause. Hire all the schedulers and produce all the Gantt charts you want. Sporadic conversations, emails, and a few whiteboard sessions just don't cut it.

Moving forward, it's important to note that the production of a Gantt chart itself is not the problem; the platform is. Gantt charts are effective reporting tools; they aren't effective planning tools. Modern scheduling platforms are complicated to use, and expensive to license. The result is a lack of access. One person (the scheduler) becomes the gatekeeper to the project plan. The result; a lack of planning. If team members aren't provided a space within which to collaborate, they won't collaborate. It's pretty simple to identify the root cause of the problem.

How do we fix it? We give teams a space to interact. This space must extend beyond site trailers and boardrooms. Projects are global and stakeholders are distributed. This collaborative space must be virtual. Further, it must be easy to access, and simple to use. Strip out the plethora of functionalities, tools, and reports. Get back to the basics of effective planning with tools that are designed to break down barriers, draw input, and produce reports that enable project stakeholders to make better decisions.

Want to improve project performance? Stop scheduling and start planning. It's not complicated, and it doesn't require scheduling platforms sporting more computing power and functionality than current space flight technology. Good planning requires engagement, buy-in, and accountability. If you can produce that, you have exponentially increased your potential for project success.

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