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Communicating the Plan

Why does a project need a schedule?

First and foremost, the schedule helps the project team keep the project on track to meet all delivery deadlines. The project schedule is also an essential component of the integrated project management system, making earned value assessments possible and meaningful. In addition, the schedule is a great communication tool to let the team and client know what is happening when.

Presenting Project Schedules

Communicating the project schedule is a vital ingredient in successful project management. A good presentation will greatly ease the manager's problem of understanding the multitude of activities and their inter-relationships. Moreover, numerous individuals and parties are involved in any project, and they have to understand their assignments. Graphical presentations of project schedules are particularly useful since it is much easier to comprehend a graphical display of numerous pieces of information than to sift through a large table of numbers. Early computer scheduling systems were particularly poor in this regard since they produced pages and pages of numbers without aids to the manager for understanding them.  It is extremely tedious to read a table of activity numbers, durations, schedule times, and floats and thereby gain an understanding and appreciation of a project schedule. In practice, producing diagrams manually has been a common prescription to the lack of automated drafting facilities. Indeed, it has been common to use computer programs to perform critical path scheduling and then to produce bar charts of detailed activity schedules and resource assignments manually. With the availability of computer graphics, the cost and effort of producing graphical presentations has been significantly reduced and the production of presentation aids can be automated.

Network diagrams for projects have already been introduced. These diagrams provide a powerful visualization of the precedences and relationships among the various project activities. They are a basic means of communicating a project plan among the participating planners and project monitors. Project planning is often conducted by producing network representations of greater and greater refinement until the plan is satisfactory.

A useful variation on project network diagrams is to draw a time-scaled network. The activity diagrams shown in the previous section were topological networks in that only the relationship between nodes and branches were of interest. The actual diagram could be distorted in any way desired as long as the connections between nodes were not changed. In time-scaled network diagrams, activities on the network are plotted on a horizontal axis measuring the time since project commencement.  In a time-scaled diagram, each node is shown at its earliest possible time. By looking over the horizontal axis, the time at which activity can begin can be observed. Obviously, this time scaled diagram is produced as a display after activities are initially scheduled by the critical path method.

Another useful graphical representation tool is a bar or Gantt chart illustrating the scheduled time for each activity. The bar chart lists activities and shows their scheduled start, finish and duration.  Activities are listed in the vertical axis of this figure, while time since project commencement is shown along the horizontal axis. During the course of monitoring a project, useful additions to the basic bar chart include a vertical line to indicate the current time plus small marks to indicate the current state of work on each activity.

Bar charts are particularly helpful for communicating the current state and schedule of activities on a project. As such, they have found wide acceptance as a project representation tool in the field. For planning purposes, bar charts are not as useful since they do not indicate the precedence relationships among activities. Thus, a planner must remember or record separately that a change in one activity's schedule may require changes to successor activities. There have been various schemes for mechanically linking activity bars to represent precedences, but it is now easier to use computer based tools to represent such relationships.

Other graphical representations are also useful in project monitoring. Time and activity graphs are extremely useful in portraying the current status of a project as well as the existence of activity float. The horizontal time difference between the two feasible schedules (or scurves) gives an indication of the extent of possible float. If the project goes according to plan, the actual percentage completion at different times should fall between these curves. In practice, a vertical axis representing cash expenditures rather than percent completed is often used in developing a project representation of this type. For this purpose, activity cost estimates are used in preparing a time versus completion graph. Separate "S-curves" may also be prepared for groups of activities on the same graph, such as separate curves for the design, procurement, foundation or particular sub-contractor activities.

Time versus completion curves are also useful in project monitoring. Not only the history of the project can be indicated, but the future possibilities for earliest and latest start times.

Graphs of resource use over time are also of interest to project planners and managers.  The graph is prepared by summing the resource requirements for each activity at each time period for a particular project schedule. With limited resources of some kind, graphs of this type can indicate when the competition for a resource is too large to accommodate; in cases of this kind, resource constrained scheduling may be necessary. Even without fixed resource constraints, a scheduler tries to avoid extreme fluctuations in the demand for labor or other resources since these fluctuations typically incur high costs for training, hiring, transportation, and management. Thus, a planner might alter a schedule through the use of available activity floats so as to level or smooth out the demand for resources. Resource graphs  provide an invaluable indication of the potential trouble spots and the success that a scheduler has in avoiding them.

A common difficulty with project network diagrams is that too much information is available for easy presentation in a network. In a project with, say, five hundred activities, drawing activities so that they can be seen without a microscope requires a considerable expanse of paper. A large project might require the wall space in a room to include the entire diagram. On a computer display, a typical restriction is that less than twenty activities can be successfully displayed at the same time. The problem of displaying numerous activities becomes particularly acute when accessory information such as activity identifying numbers or phrases, durations and resources are added to the diagram.

One practical solution to this representation problem is to define sets of activities that can be represented together as a single activity. That is, for display purposes, network diagrams can be produced in which one "activity" would represent a number of real sub-activities. For example, an activity such as "foundation design" might be inserted in summary diagrams. In the actual project plan, this one activity could be sub-divided into numerous tasks with their own precedences, durations and other attributes. These sub-groups are sometimes termed fragnets for fragments of the full network. The result of this organization is the possibility of producing diagrams that summarize the entire project as well as detailed representations of particular sets of activities. The hierarchy of diagrams can also be introduced to the production of reports so that summary reports for groups of activities can be produced. Even if summary reports and diagrams are prepared, the actual scheduling would use detailed activity characteristics, of course.

The use of graphical project representations is an important and extremely useful aid to planners and managers. Of course, detailed numerical reports may also be required to check the peculiarities of particular activities. But graphs and diagrams provide an invaluable means of rapidly communicating or understanding a project schedule. With computer based storage of basic project data, graphical output is readily obtainable and should be used whenever possible.

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