Schedule Reporting Techniques

In preparation for the next reporting cycle, the Schedule Manager statuses the project schedule, reviews the schedule with team leads and other managers, performs basic health checks, then makes any necessary repairs and approved changes to the baseline. All of these steps require critical thinking and strong attention to detail. In contrast, the mechanics of Schedule Reporting should be the least difficult step in the Schedule Management process.

Schedule Reporting Principles covered the criteria which makes schedule status reports useful to the project, and the necessity to report schedule slip as soon as it is convincingly anticipated. This article will touch upon some concepts for simplifying the reporting process. Then it will discuss how to review schedule status reports with key stakeholders such as clients, and how to establish expectations for dependable, sustainable Schedule Reporting to last the duration of the project. 

Working With (Not Against) Schedule Management Tools

Modern Schedule Management software comes with some built in capability to produce report artifacts which are based on existing schedule data. In Microsoft Project for example, a custom Gantt chart can be built to show only critical project milestones, or only tasks on or near the critical path. These charts, if created properly, need only be created once with occasional updates to maintain the chart. 

Schedule Management software also comes with a large array of custom user fields which can be utilized to label and sort work by project name, task lead, work package, funding source, etc. Schedule Managers are encouraged to get to know everything their software can do in an effort to simplify and improve the consistency of their reports. 

Other applications from spreadsheets (Microsoft Excel) to purpose-built reporting software provide both canned and customized reporting capabilities which, once set up, can produce very useful information with only minor upkeep required. 

Regardless of the tools chosen, it is important to keep two things in mind. First, reporting is a means, not an end. Report stakeholders must understand the reports’ key takeaways for the exercise to be productive. The Schedule Manager should not waste time building large involved reports which will not be useful to the stakeholders or will not answer Schedule Analysis’s Big Three questions1Are you on schedule? How do you know? What are you doing about it?. Second, the Schedule Manager should not be afraid to automate as much of the reporting process as possible. 

Automation

Manual steps in any repeated process are fraught with peril. Automation, even of trivial steps improves accuracy and repeatability, while reducing tedium and human error. For example, suppose a Schedule Manager uses a spreadsheet to produce a five-page schedule status report. The report includes a cover page, a written summary page, two pages reserved for milestone and summary activity Gantt charts, a pie chart of task progress, and a Schedule Performance Index (SPI) graph. 

Three of the pages reference either the report’s delivery date (a Wednesday) or the report’s “as of” date (the previous Friday). Each week, the Schedule Manager must change these three dates which are always a Wednesday or a Friday. The Schedule Manager can save two steps by linking all three date references together with a spreadsheet formula. A third step can be saved with a formula that automatically picks the report date based on the current date, or data extracted from the schedule file. 

Similarly, the pie chart of task progress and the SPI graph may be updatable at least partially using automated steps. Whether the user pulls the data from a dedicated schedule view, uses a third-party reporting tool, or writes a macro to extract the relevant schedule data, any steps which simplify, or improve the Schedule Manager’s reporting process are worth investing time on. Time invested in automating Schedule Reporting pays even greater dividends when reports can be saved and used across projects. A good suite of reporting tools is a valuable addition to any Schedule Manager’s toolkit. 

Schedule Review Meetings

It is common to review schedule reports with clients and other key stakeholders. Not only does the Schedule Manager benefit by hearing first-hand their stakeholders’ most significant concerns, the Schedule Manager can provide context and explanation needed to properly understand the reports’ conclusions. 

The Schedule Manager also becomes the advocate and first line of defense for project managers and team leads. The Schedule Manager has the knowledge to justify why project teams may need more time, why variances do or do not impact the larger project schedule, and the long-term outlook for the project. 

Meeting Focus – Are You on Schedule? 

Schedule review meetings should be brief. Stakeholders at any level have only a small ability, and a small amount of time to affect the project and the schedule. Schedule review meetings should focus on stakeholders’ key areas of concern and where they can substantially impact the project. 

The summary Gantt in Figure 1 depicts a schedule in distress. The Requirements and Design phase is expected to finish a month late. Development will finish at least a week late. Integration Testing should have started a month ago. On which of these problems should the project manager focus their time? In every project, there are tasks which run late, and there are tasks which run late that matter. Managers should spend very little time worrying about late tasks which are not driving tasks2Driving tasks are tasks which are on the critical path or otherwise preventing other work from completing.. Managers should also minimize the time spent focusing on tasks which have already run late. There are very few options for rescuing work which has already fallen off the cliff, and the effort expended to make a task slightly lesslate usually does not pay dividends.3Experienced readers may point out that managers should spend effort remedying any overdue activities where progress has ground to a halt. They are correct, but not because the task is late. Managers should troubleshoot any blocked work, whether it is late, early or on time.

A manager’s real options and opportunity to recover the schedule is looking ahead to the next tasks which are forecast to run late. These are the tasks which a manager has the ability to prioritize, add resources to (i.e. schedule compression) or rescope. However, managers do not automatically know where their attention will do the project the most good.

The summary Gantt Chart’s orange vertical line shows the project status date. Grey lines indicate the baseline start and finish dates. Note that Development started earlier than planned, and is still expected to finish late.

Schedule Managers should use their meetings as opportunities to draw attention to those issues that will benefit most from management focus. Even though the late requirements look like Figure 1’s biggest red flag, the project manager will likely do the project far better service by ensuring Development does not slip further, and that Integration Testing can proceed unencumbered. 

Substantiating Schedule Status Reports – How Do You Know? 

The Schedule Manager is likely to encounter resistance or disbelief when reporting delays that significantly impact the project. Fortunately, the Schedule Manager has a couple strategies to ensure that their audience hears, believes, and is empowered to act on a schedule report’s intel. 

Like a thorough prosecutor not hinging their case on a single fingerprint, Schedule Managers are far more likely to be believed beyond a reasonable doubt when they present overlapping evidence from multiple sources. Continuing with the example in Figure 1, the summary Gantt suggests that the lost time can be recovered, however current activities probably have little or no slack left. A good Schedule Manager must be prepared to explain how underlying schedule data support or refute their concerns.

Schedule Variance

Even a cursory look at the timeline shows none of the work starting on time. Only the last activity may finish on time. Whatever project forces disrupted the first five activity dates could well disrupt the sixth. 

Dependencies and Driving Task Analysis

Every sub-task inside Figure1’s three main activities should connect to other tasks. Which requirements tasks are pushing the development tasks? Which requirements and development tasks are pushing the start of Integration Testing? Why is Integration Testing still predicted to finish on time? 

The Work Equation

Even the most complex schedule boils down to fundamentals. Does the team have enough time and personnel to get the work done?

Figure 2: The Work Equation. Nine and a half people need almost six weeks to complete 2,230 hours of work.

Suppose the Development Team estimates that they have 2,230 hours of Remaining Work (i.e. Effort). If they have ten team members with one working half time, and twenty-five days to complete development, Figure2’s basic algebra shows that the team won’t finish on time. The good news is the manager and the team lead have five weeks to figure out how to recover.

Corroboration with Team Leads

The Schedule Manager may see the big picture, but only the team members in the trenches know how their work is really going. Is the truncated Integration Testing time a problem for the Test Team? The team lead is the stakeholder most likely to know the answer. Their and other team leads’ input into the schedule corroborates not only the schedule’s accuracy but also what options and outcomes are realistic.  

History and Trends 

Consistent Schedule Reporting chronicles a project’s entire history, and means that no report stands in a vacuum. Was this week’s emergency noticeable last week? Are the delays growing worse or better? How much schedule slack are project teams consuming? How often has Integration Testing been delayed? All of these historic trends allow the Schedule Manager to substantiate their forecasts.

Empowering Managers to Act – What Are You Doing About It? 

The dire news presented in Figure 1comes with a significant silver lining. Managers have weeks to outmaneuver the icebergs on the horizon. Not all schedules can be rescued. But the more managers and team leads understand about specific causes and possible solutions to delays, the more likely they are to make informed choice which will substantially benefit the project and the team. 

Setting Reporting Trends in Good Times

Effective Schedule Reporting is crucial to removing surprise delays. If the Schedule Manager sets the trend for properly maintaining the schedule file and good reporting, significant delays should be detected and reported with substantial advance warning. The best time to establish good reporting practices is at the project’s beginning, while the news is still good. 

Projects always appear to start well during the opening weeks. Most teams will complete their kickoff activities on time. Even work that immediately starts slipping has an easy path to recovery, assuming at least some slack was built into the project schedule. Most stakeholders will not object to comprehensive Schedule Reporting in a project’s early phases when the reports show favorable progress. If a project begins to be impacted by delays or other schedule concerns, the Schedule Manager can lean on the already established reporting trends to maintain the flow of communication about the schedule. It is far more difficult for managers and clients to interrupt an established reporting trend than to block a new one. Consistent reporting trends also protect project teams and the Schedule Manager against stressful requests to drop everything and provide an instant status report.

Avoiding Instantaneous Schedule Reporting 

Managers or clients hit by an emergency, often want to know the schedule status “as of today”. This presents two practical challenges. First, the Schedule Manager cannot produce a new schedule report “as of today”, without first bringing the project schedule up to date “as of today”. Any reports produced from a schedule that is only partially up to date are valueless, and the steps required to status and analyze even small schedules take time. Time is not an abundant commodity in an emergency. 

Second, instantaneous schedule reports do not provide the information which managers and clients need to develop a rescue plan, unless the schedule has never been reported on. Projects cannot pivot on a dime. Changes which affect a project’s next five days will not correct the project’s long-term trajectory but will disrupt project teams’ tactical planning. The decisions which will rescue the project schedule are those that shape the next five weeks or months. For that level of strategic thinking, a schedule report which is an hour old won’t be much more beneficial than a report that is a week old. 

Reporting in Arrears to Look Further Ahead

To be sustainable, Schedule Reporting cannot be a time critical emergency for every time a report is due. Statusing the schedule, reviewing the schedule and remedying or mitigating delays takes team leads and the Schedule Manager time. How does a Schedule Manager make time to perform all of the preparatory steps necessary to produce a report which contains timely and useful schedule information? The counterintuitive answer, illustrated in Figure3, is to report progress a week after the fact. Project managers’ and clients’ first reaction to this idea is usually one of horror. Schedules are dynamic, and a schedule report’s useful shelf life is short.

Figure 3: Three weeks of a weekly reporting cycle. Note that Week One’s progress is reported during Week Two, and Week Two’s progress is reported during Week Three.

Remember that schedule reports should be forward looking. There is no avoiding the ice already beneath the ship’s hull. If good Schedule Analysis detects a delay that is four weeks out, even though the report may be a week “out of date”, the report is providing stakeholders a credible warning three weeks ahead of time. An emergency with weeks advance warning is inherently not an emergency.4Emergency (n) – A sudden, urgent, usually unexpected occurrence or occasion requiring immediate action. (Source: Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, 2019)

Furthermore, though the report may be slow to spread the word, the Schedule Analysis process has alerted team leads even sooner via weekly schedule reviews. Both the Schedule Manager and affected team leads have had time to check the schedule logic, discuss options with team members and take proactive steps to mitigate the delay’s impact. Adding as much as a week to the Schedule Reporting process improves the quality of the report and also enables the report to be written proactively. 

Next Steps

Schedule Reporting concludes the cyclical Schedule Management process that includes creating new schedules, updating the baselining, checking the schedule’s health, making routine repairs, statusing the schedule and reviewing with stakeholders. The next step after completing a schedule report is to repeat the process all over again. Every week a Schedule Manager repeats the process, the Schedule Manager should look for ways to streamline reporting, while improving the schedule’s accuracy, manageability, and usefulness to the project team.