A Tsunami Happened but Nobody Noticed the Wave … Yet!

4799824432_b5cc36d29e_nTsunamis are caused by earthquakes below the ocean. They can occur in any ocean in the world. The earthquake displaces a massive amount of water that forms a wave. This wave is slowly rolling to the shores of the United States as I write these words. Are you ready?

The earthquake happened when the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its Schedule Assessment Guide: Best Practices for Project Schedules, which applies to any capital programs of the U.S. government.

Here’s the trembler: The guide has sorted out two discussions in the land of project management that have been raging for at least two decades: First, should project and program schedules have activities? And second: Should project and program schedules be resource-loaded and workload-leveled? The guide states in unequivocal terms that schedules should have activities and that all activities should be assigned to resources and that the aggregated workload of all resources should be within their capacity. Wow!

Let’s reflect on this “earth-quake” and its size:

  • The United States government had an annual budget of $3.8 trillion dollars in fiscal year 2015. It is the largest buyer of goods and services in the world.
  • The GAO is hired by and reports directly to Congress. The GAO has a mandate across the entire government of the country. Every single agency and department is affected by its guidance.
  • The GAO of this powerful government has stated that the largest projects — the capital acquisition programs — should follow this guidance: All projects and programs should be broken down to the level of activities; all activities should be assigned to resources, whose workloads should be kept “reasonable.”
  • Any company that sells to the U.S. government will be affected by this guidance, which is just about any multinational company in the world except for a few hiding out in far-flung places.
  • These multinationals are supplied by millions of smaller companies. These smaller companies should all start paying attention to the GAO guide, because you can count on our multinationals aligning the demands on their vendors with the GAO guidance.

The GAO states that this applies to all major capital programs of the United States which also happen to be the largest projects in the world typically broken down into many smaller projects, each of which is also affected by the GAO guidance.

If this applies to the largest projects in the world, it makes sense for those working on smaller projects to start paying attention as well. After all, if you want to make a career in project management and want to become a program manager eventually, you should pay attention to this guidance now. Every project manager should consider resource-loading their schedules in order to be prepared for the big fish that everyone wants to catch, be it a job or large contract.

This is the tsunami that has happened, and I’m surprised to be the one telling you about it. The tsunami has not yet reached the shores of the United States yet. Eventually, it will reach many other shores around the world as well.

Many organizations have been sidetracked by the marvels of Agile management in the last few years and have stopped resource-loading their project schedules entirely. Other operations have struggled with getting their program and project managers interested and trained on resource-loading their schedules. Very few companies (and I have been to many) are currently resource-loading their project schedules or keeping all workloads leveled. I have come across very few integrated master schedules for programs that had resources in it: The bigger the project, the less appetite for adding resources and assignments. In other words, we’re not very prepared for this tsunami.

Do I sound a bit too alarmist? Perhaps. But let me help you think through the consequences of this GAO document and provide you with some skills to survive the wave.

Follow these basic steps for resource-loading your schedules:

1. You need to list all resources required in your project. Resources can be:

  • Generic roles (sets of related skills). For example, for a software development project these generic resource might be: business analysts, system analysts, developers, testers, technical writers, trainers and deployers; and
  • Named resources, such as Tom, Dick and Harry, employees of and consultants at your company.

The GAO guide is silent on whether the resources should be generic or named, so I advise taking the easiest route, generic resources. You do need to count the number of people you have in each role and enter these into the Max Units field.

2. Insert activities below each deliverable in your project schedule that create the deliverable. Capture a “cookbook” recipe on how to create the deliverable by listing the activities. Particularly, the construction world has mostly produced schedules that list the parts of the building or the bridge being built but not the activities on the next level of detail that designs, creates, transports, stores or guards these components. This has kept activities out of many work breakdown structures, a tendency that will now have to change in this industry.

3. You need to estimate the effort on each activity instead of the duration. This is also known as “effort-based” scheduling (as opposed to “duration-based” scheduling). Microsoft Project uses the term “work” for effort, and you need to enter these effort estimates into the Work column. The PMBOK Guide® is behind the times here; it only uses “Estimate Activity Durations.

4. Then you need to assign resources to all activities that now have an effort estimate. Pay attention to whether the generic resource will perform the activity part-time, full-time or as a group. Project assigns full-time individuals by default (100%) unless you tell it explicitly that the generic resource will only work part-time (less than 100 percent) or as a group (a multitude of 100 percent, such as 400 percent for four people) on an activity. You tell Project this in the field Units in the Assign Resources dialog.

5. You need to let your scheduling application calculate the durations of the activities. Project helps you greatly here because the formula, Duration * Units of resources = Work (D * U = W), is hard-coded into this application. It will immediately and automatically calculate the Duration for you (as long as you use auto-scheduled activities): D = W / U.

6. Finally, you need to maintain the Work estimates and the Duration values such that they always reflect the latest and greatest you know about your project. This is the thing most people struggle with; they never mastered this formula (or were never trained on how to use it). In my experience, most users work with Microsoft Project in a trial-and-error fashion: I noticed that Project sometimes recalculates values I entered manually, so, let me keep my eye on this cell while I change that cell! If you recognize this as the way you work with Project, you’re missing an important piece of basic knowledge about your scheduling application. Just as with any tool, you need to know a few things about it. Take a hammer. If you learned the hard way (like I did), you figured out the counter-intuitive thing that you need to hit the nail with the small surface at the front of the hammer rather than the wide surface on its side. Also, you need to hold onto the nail even though the small surface may hit you really hard on the finger. Even a simple tool like a hammer is counter-intuitive and requires training.

So here’s the counter-intuitive thing you need to know about Project to master it: You need to protect a value before you change another. The formula has three variables. If you protect one value and change a second value, it will always recalculate the third value. That is how three-variable formulas work, and this is how Project becomes very predictable! For example: If you want to change the number of resources working on an activity (the Units in the formula), first, you need to protect one of the other values in the formula (either Duration or Work) before making the change. That will force Project to recalculate the third value in this three-variable formula. Once you master this point, you’ll “nail” Project and be well-prepared for the tsunami about to hit land.

I strongly recommend you learn these six points — or run up a mountain for protection!

To learn more and better prepare yourself for the tsunami about to hit project management land, read Eric Uyttewaal’s book, Forecast Scheduling with Microsoft Project 2010/2013, available through his company’s website, ProjectPro, or sign up for a training course at www.ProjectProCorp.com/coursedates. Eric, a PMP and MVP for Microsoft Project, has trained tens of thousands of project managers on resource-loading their schedules for more than 20 years. He will also show you how to find the Resource-Critical Path in a resource-constrained schedule, as referred to by the GAO guide.

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Written by Eric Uyttewaal
Eric is a thought leader on project, program, and portfolio management. He spends most of his time using software from Microsoft. He has authored seven well-known textbooks including ‘Forecasting Programs,’ 'Forecast Scheduling with Microsoft Project 2010/2013/Online,’ and ‘Dynamic Scheduling with Microsoft Project 2000/2002/2003.’ He founded ProjectPro, which specializes in Microsoft Project, Project Server and Project Online. Eric developed several Add-ins with his team that enhance the capabilities of Microsoft Project in creating better schedules (Forecast Scheduling App), managing cross-project dependencies (CrossLinksPro), identifying and documenting the Critical Path (PathsPro) and creating S-curve reports (CurvesPro). He was president of PMI-Ottawa in 1997. Eric has received awards from PMI in 2009, from MPUG in 2012, and from Microsoft from 2010 until 2017 (MVP).
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  1. what the heck? i don’t get the joke, having just missed the Thailand tsunami and was in all the Nepal earthquakes last year, i don’t get the metaphor or joke or whatever this article was titled and then sprinkled with. I’d call it click bait, but this is worse.

  2. Now, if only GAO would state that projects must show positive ROI or face cancellation.That would be real progress.

  3. @ Jigs Gaton: it is not meant to be a joke; Tsunamis are never a joke. I use it as a methaphor here consistently throughout the article:
    Earthquake = release of the GAO Schedule Assessment Guide
    Magnitude of earthquake = the power of the US government as a buyer on the world markets
    Wave caused by the Eartquake below the ocean = the effect the GAO-guide will have
    Nobody noticed the wave … yet = the slowness of the adoption of a new standard in project management
    Survival skills = the skills you need to implement the best practices of the GAO-guide

    I regret having to spell out the analogies between my chosen metaphor and your reality (the possible effects of the release of the GAO-guide). It may not have been the best metaphor. Even though I really liked this metaphor because I could use it consistently throughout the entire article, not just for a small part of it, which often happens with metaphors.

  4. @Walter Boggs: The GAO Schedule Assessment Guide does not have much in terms of ROI and gates. Their other document, the GAO Cost Estimation Guide will certainly have a lot about ROI. With regards to stage-gate methodology versus other ones (waterfall, agile, critical chain), I think the GAO deliberately decided to stay silent because they do not want to impose a methodology on projects, even though they clearly require Critical Path Method (CPM) and Resource-Critical Paths (RCP) in resource-constrained projects.

    Hope this helps!

  5. @Eric Uyttewaal, The metaphor has not been lost on all of us. The implication, “Nobody noticed the wave… yet,” reminds me of the Government and Wall Street Gurus responsible for the Mortgage Bond Jenga game of which the recent film, “The Big Short” was based. Your tsunami is bound to have similar disastrous economic results.

  6. @Robert Zane: Robert, I fail to see how the GAO-guide would or could have disastrous economic consequences; it is more government “regulation” (guidance) instead of less regulation in mortgage-backed and repackaging of securities from the late 19s and early 20s, which triggered the 2008 “Great Depression”. What am I missing?

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