Show me you scheduling toolkit and I can tell you who you are!

Successful planning and delivery of complex programs and portfolios are not possible without application of best scheduling practices and advanced methods. Application of these methods and practices is difficult without appropriate tools to support them.

Traditional Program delivery tools, Microsoft Project and Primavera, enable only some practices and methods. If no supporting tools are used, program and portfolio delivery is going to be limited by capabilities of these tools and could not be optimised to full extend.

Application of additional scheduling tools differentiates mature scheduling consultants from junior project managers and schedulers. Some Project Managers and schedulers are too much tool focused. They have good (sometimes quite deep) knowledge of Microsoft Project or Primavera and believe that their tool is the best scheduling tool in the world and no other tools are required. However, if these specialists expand their experience and learn more from scheduling masterclasses, they will realise that applying supporting scheduling tools is critical for successful program delivery.

Good scheduling consultants have their own set of “tools” they bring with them to mature program and portfolio scheduling for their clients. In this article I’d like to share some of my “toolkit” items.

For over 20 years I’ve used many different tools to support my clients with program planning and delivery and/or portfolio optimisation. I still continue to discover new tools and also develop my tools further.

I would group scheduling tools in three main categories:

  • Basic scheduling tools
  • Advance scheduling tools
  • Supporting tools

Some tools could be used in both areas – as a scheduling tool and/or supporting tool, depending on a particular client case.

Basic scheduling tools:

Some of the tools below are not scheduling tools but they have capability to manage project plan to some extend:

  • Excel;
  • Project for the web;
  • CA Clarity;
  • Planner;
  • Jira;
  • Trello
  • SAP

Advanced scheduling tools:

  • Primavera (P6);
  • Microsoft Project and Project Online (MSP);
  • Spider Project (SP);

Supporting Tools

Supporting tools could be grouped by area of application:

  • Risk Management
  • Quality Assurance
  • Resource Management
  • Data Analysis
  • Reporting

In Australia majority of my clients use MSP or P6 and the most of supporting tools have been used to compliment these two systems.

 These approaches I used were dependant on customer’s needs:

 Develop a customised tool in Excel

Typically, it requires some macros development. I used this approach many times almost for all clients.  

 Custom development

Tools in Excel could give quick wins and increase maturity level very quickly, but usually these are used as a tactical solution, rather than a strategic approach.

Large organisations have an opportunity to access in-house developers and/or engage professional services to develop additional features in a scheduling tool.

P6, Project Online and Clarity do have this capability, but it is important to understand that this approach has some serious limitation. Certain core functions could not be enhanced even for a fortune. Also, this may increase complexity of systems and cost of upgrades. So it is really critical to perform proper impact analysis before custom development commences.

 System Add-ons

MSP has a big advantage over P6 in this space, as it allows to develop macros and installation of 3rd party add-ons (an add-on is an embedded feature which does not require import / export).

MSP add-ons are usually not so expensive and sometimes are even available for free. However, be careful as some of them may impact system performance.

In general, MSP macros are very helpful and could optimise scheduling processes, integration with another system or simply make schedule more user friendly.

 3rd party tools

I used 3rd party tools when there was no opportunity to enhance core functionality of MSP and P6. It is critical that the 3rd party tools have high quality import/export function and support core MSP and P6 features. For example, Clarity does not support some critical MSP features. This is causing differences in dates after a MSP schedule exported to Clarity.

Some tools are so critical for mature planning & scheduling that we (as Salute Enterprises) have purchased them to support our clients project management needs. These tools have a good proven global record of enabling successful delivery.

In case when tools are specific and are only applicable/preferred by a certain customer, that customer would pay for the tool themselves.

 WBS Schedule Pro

Usually mature Program planning & schedule development starts with WBS (work breakdown structure) development. WBS Schedule Pro tool is very supportive in this space. It helps a lot with developing the structures quickly and is powerful during stakeholders’ reviews and scope verification sessions. An alternative approach would be to use Visio linked to a scheduling tool.

 Spider project (SP)

While SP is a powerful advanced scheduling tool (when I only can, I use it as an alternative to MSP and P6), there are many clients who have a policy to use a certain corporate scheduling system. In that case I use SP as an additional tool. Usually I use it when I need to optimise a schedule developed in P6 and MSP. SP has much better capability for data analysis, resource optimisation and schedule risk analysis. As per my knowledge SP has the best algorithms in the world that enable resource critical path calculation, supports Monte Carlo and 3-points risk analysis methods.

Also, as SP keeps all versions of a schedule together, I think it’s absolutely unbeatable as a tool for the trend analysis (which I am a big fan of).

Primavera Risk Analysis

Some of my clients with P6 scheduling standard have already had a chance to appreciate Primavera Risk Analysis. We used Primavera Risk Analysis to estimate program contingency based on the Monte Carlo analysis.

It works perfectly. The only challenge I have with this tool is around resource constrained schedule analysis. This tool doesn’t support critical chain and the contingency is build based on the critical path method (not resource critical path). It would be so much better and easier if this tool was built in P6 directly.

In case when resources are unlimited or manual resource optimisation is possible (for small projects and a few critical resources it’s acceptable) this tool gives good result.

Deltek Acumen Fuse

For simple schedule quality analysis, I use my own set of filters in MSP and P6 and applying them after each schedule update. A tool in Excel is an option when I need to complete analysis of a number of schedulers and share results with the client.

For more detailed analysis my preferred option is Acumen Fuse.

The tool has over 100th metrics to analyse quality and performance of schedules and particularly is useful for vendor schedule analysis. It allows custom configuration and could be configured in alignment with clients scheduling standards.

Unfortunately, I have seen some misuse of this tool in some of the organisations when a “Master scheduler” who actually didn’t quite understand the purpose of this tool, was forcing PMs and Schedulers to complete DCMA-14 points full assessment with a reference that “it is a recognised standard” around the globe.

Reporting systems

Both MSP and P6 have built-in reporting system which I used from time to time, mostly for my own analysis. However, when I need to develop user friendly reports, it’s always done outside of these systems.

I have seen an Integrated Master Schedule as long as 100 page print. Of course, it was “too complicated and detailed” and no one used it.

For quick wins I often use Excel. It’s flexible and allows to incorporate customer’s feedback fairly quickly. For more mature analysis such as (e.g.  Linear Diagrams, S-Curves reports) it’s  much more easier for me to use Spider Project reporting engine, rather than tailoring this all in Excel. Especially when these advanced reports are in big demand for my clients.

MS Visio I use mainly for roadmaps and schedule management processes. It is possible to link Visio objects to Excel or even MSP data and update roadmaps much quicker. This approach is more useful when there is a good project management maturity level.

OfficeTimeline

This tool is quite handy for high level program timeline reports.

BI Reporting Tools 

An alternative option and as a more sustainable, long-term solutions is to use BI tools: Tableau or Power BI. Each of these tools has its own advantages (and unfortunately constraints) but often it is a matter of a corporate choice. Power BI is a traditional choice for technology projects, as it could be linked directly to Project Online. When I can, I use both systems (with Data Warehouse and Alteryx) utilising advantages of each system.

Often PMOs have access to BI system developers who could support with development of advanced dashboards, interactive IMS reports (and a version which could be saved as PDF) and many other type of reports. But it requires good scheduling standards to be implemented, as a format of P6 and MSP data extract (or backend connectivity) has to be stable for this automation to work properly.

Do you have your own toolkit, which you prefer to use to complement P6 and MSP and to increase the level of maturity in planning & scheduling? Please share.

Alex Lyaschenko

PMO | Portfolio Planning & Delivery | PMP | P3O Practitioner | AgilePM Practitioner | Six Sigma