This is How Activity Sequencing Should Be Performed

Just like a building project, IT project activity sequencing is important.This Project Manager’s soft hands were once rough, calloused, scraped, and bruised. Hard manual labor, and I loved it. And it was my first foray into the practical application of activity sequencing.

In high school, and later in college, one of my summer jobs was as a drywaller contractor (seems to me I started this contractor gig pretty early in my life). I was the one who “mudded” over the sheetrock screws. I taped over the joints, then “mudded” over the tape to give the walls that smooth look. I hand-sanded between coats of mud and after the finish coat to get the walls ready for painting. Sanding was the worst job – it would take days to get that fine sanding dust out of my nose, mouth, ears, lungs …

Ceilings were especially fun. Think Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, eyes heavenward for hours at a time. I learned to walk on adjustable stilts so I could move freely around the room without the constant need to move scaffolding. Nothing says adrenaline like sanding the ceiling in a stairwell, two or three stories above the basement floor, walking a 10-inch wide plank on 3-foot stilts, while looking up. OSHA, where wert thou?

But I digress.

In construction it’s a lot easier to understand the idea of activity sequencing, of precedence planning, and of resource scheduling. For example, within the drywalling activity, taping precedes “mudding” which precedes sanding, which precedes painting, and so on. Similarly, across the many activities of constructing a building, foundations can’t be laid until the ground is brought to grade and prepared. Framing can’t occur until the foundation is poured. Electricians and plumbers can’t proceed until the framing is roughed in. Sheetrock can’t be hung until the electrical and plumbing is in place. Drywallers can’t mud and sand until the sheetrock is hung. Painters can’t paint until the drywall is paint-ready.

A before B.
B before C.
C before D …

The reason activity sequencing is so understandable in the construction example is each activity is typically performed by a different construction crew or team. Each crew has its own set of activities internal to that team. The General Contractor deals with all of the various crews’ activities across the entire construction project.

The General Contractor must deal with:

  • mandatory dependencies (e.g. foundation in place and cured before framing the building);
  • discretionary dependencies (e.g. drywall contractors brought in partway during the hanging of the sheetrock so that they can work in one part of the building while staying out of the way of the sheetrock hangers working in another);
  • external dependencies (framing the building is dependent on the lumber yard delivering the construction materials on time); and
  • internal dependencies (roof trusses not put into place until they are fabricated on site).

IT scheduling and delivery is more complex, largely because the institutional knowledge for each project is best preserved by maintaining many of the same personnel throughout the entire project. Thus, a novice analyst during requirements gathering may become a key team member during the design phase, then a team lead during development (unlike on construction projects where carpenters don’t do plumbing, or plumbers don’t hang sheetrock). IT project activities become more fluid and overlapping as staff effort is maximized by removing the gaps in resource scheduling. Yet each project phase is distinct with defined inputs, outputs, milestones, and review and approval processes.

So how does a Project Manager deal with:

  1. the competing priorities of planning project activities with definite start and stop dates (much like the transitions from activity to activity in the earlier construction example),
  2. maximizing staff effort across the activities,
  3. scheduling the overall project to meet client and contractual requirements?

To a Project Manager, precedence diagramming is her friend. To the project staff, precedence diagramming results in “death marches” – possibly more than many other project planning factor. (Refer to the article “How to Conduct Activity Planning with People Aspects in Mind” for a review of how activity planning can contribute to or help avoid the project “death march.”)

How is that?

Because with project scheduling software, the art of linking project activities together using the various precedence diagramming techniques becomes a fairly simple task. That simple task results in a project model that looks completely doable on paper, while creating a series of activities so tightly linked that there is little room for contingency.

For example, from my own project scheduling experience (I say “an” example, though I saw it repeated many, many times over the course of my career), I would lay out a project schedule that seemed to be optimum for successful project delivery. My Project Manager would invariably assess the schedule as being too long in duration, and thus too costly to the bottom line.

And here is where precedence diagramming became the Project Manager’s friend. She would instruct me to tighten the plan. It’s amazing how adding lead time to a finish-to-start relationship, or lag time to a start-to-start relationship, would ripple through the entire project plan pulling the end date forward (much to the Project Manager’s delight!).

Did I mention that, in order to maximize staff effort, projects often maintain the same staff members in different roles across different activities? What happens when lead or lag time are introduced to the project schedule, effectively paralleling tasks and activities that share the same staff? You guessed it – staff is suddenly required to extend their work hours to cover overlapping activities, sacrificing evenings and weekends. And the “death march” begins.

This is almost never intentional. Activities are often planned, at least initially, with little emphasis on resource planning. The project plan looks so doable on paper that it becomes an easy sell to the customer.

I can hear the naysayers taking exception to my premise, especially seasoned Project Managers who would never allow schedules to be developed in this way. Good for you! But pardon my skepticism. I can still hear the assertions of project staff who have been the unfortunate benefactors of such planning, who have survived projects scheduled exactly in this way, and who understand that it happens more often than not.

My premise for this series of 52 Project Management Success Tips is the reason projects do not achieve the customer’s complete objectives, are completed over time and over budget, or fail outright, is because the people aspects of Project Management are disregarded.

So how do we consider the people aspects of Project Manager in activity sequencing efforts using well-established precedence diagramming methods? From my experience, there is nothing wrong – indeed, there is everything right – with judiciously applying lead and lag times to linked activities to truly tighten up the overall project duration … but as project schedulers, we can’t stop there.

The entire project schedule should be printed out, pinned to the “war room” wall, and reviewed activity by activity. The collective experience of the delivery staff needs to be applied to the review, not just the unbridled optimism of the project cheerleaders. Project Managers who have presided over difficult deliveries need to be objective in reviewing the schedule, and not advocating for the grand wishes of the sales executive or the client. Nothing beats experience.

The beauty of scrutinizing the entire schedule with the delivery staff who have been tapped to deliver THIS project, is that experience superimposed onto the schedule will ferret out optimism and apply realism. Yes, lead and lag time are necessary to optimize the schedule. But have the lead and lag been applied with the correct assumptions? Can the delivery team be successful, or do contingencies need to be built into the schedule, knowing that not every activity will be executed exactly as planned?

Be realistic. Be judicious. Your staff will thank you. Your project will have a far greater chance of success.

People aspects. People aspects. People aspects. Link the project activities utilizing appropriate precedence relationships, and with the people aspects in mind.

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