Tag: Gantt chart

Milestones in Project Management – What are they?

A project milestone is a point that has important significance in relation to delivery of a particular aspect of the project or financial payment. This is delineated in a point in the project schedule so it is evident to the project team, stakeholders and management. These points can note the start and finish of a project, and mark the completion of a major phase of work. Milestones can be used to symbolize anything that has started or finished, though it’s primarily used as a scheduling tool.

A milestone focuses on major progress points within a project, which is useful in scheduling. Just as tasks break a larger project into manageable parts, milestones break off components of a project to make it less daunting.

So, when starting a project, milestones can help immensely with scheduling. Milestones are most commonly found in project management software, and are represented as diamonds in the Gantt chart feature. Gantt charts are a visual representation of a schedule, laid out on a timeline, with tasks as points along the path to the successful completion of the project. Milestones divide this timeline into project phases.

Milestones provide a way to more accurately estimate the time it will take to complete a project, making them essential for precise project scheduling. They are often used in scheduling methodologies, such as the Critical Path Method, which can determine major scheduling periods. The use of milestones enables better calculation of the slack in a project by segmenting the project into intervals, or smaller time-frames to control.

Milestones, like tasks, can be linked. That is when the phase of one milestone cannot begin until the completion of the phase before it. That way the team members are not being hampered by having to wait or by not allowing them what they need to move forward with their tasks.

Milestones measure progress by breaking the project into phases. A milestone is a marker that separates the end of one phase from the start of another. There are typically four phases in project management: initiation, planning, implementation and closure. But when exactly is the milestone added?

The simple answer is when everything in that project phase has been completed. For example, completing the project charter is usually the last step in the initiation phase of a project. This would be where the milestone is placed to indicate moving from initiation to planning.

However, the exact point at which the milestone is placed depends on negotiation with the project team members, stakeholders, management. Some Milestones are self-evident and hence no formal discussion is required whereas others may need further input. It’s always best to seek help from experts in the industry and within the organization. A little guidance upfront can save a lot of headaches later on.

Milestones are more a period in time than the specific completion of a task, there can be milestones that don’t relate to project phases. Milestones can be points that are deemed important to the successful delivery of a project. Traditionally, they break projects into phases; a milestone can be created to indicate a major task, deliverable or more.

Part of scheduling a project is being able to monitor and track the progress of that schedule in real-time. Milestones are a way to see how far a project has progressed. By noting the completed milestones, this way the distance for the current point in time of the project to the end can be measured.

This comes in handy when dealing with stakeholders. Stakeholders are not interested in a granular, detailed report on the project’s progress. They want broad strokes that indicate whether or not the project is moving along as scheduled. Milestones are ideal for this kind of reporting because milestones show the major phases completed at this point in the project, according to the plan.

When presenting to stakeholders, they can be shown milestones completed to date and the ones on track to complete for the coming month. Let them know if those milestones were reached as planned or if there were any delays. Remain honest if milestone was late in being achieved, this should not be hidden. By being transparent, stakeholders receive a sense of where the project is. They will understand and appreciate the honesty, and in turn trust the professionalism in managing the project.

Reaching a milestone is a place in time, but that doesn’t mean completion. How is it understood that a milestone has in fact been achieved? Without knowing initially if the objectives planned where reached at the close of a milestone, then it’s an empty victory.

Project reporting assists with this situation, by generating a status report and get a look at the overall health of the project. Were the tasks completed on time and within the budget that was set? For example, a change in project scope may have occurred or perhaps there has been some slippage and the schedule has fallen behind. That’s not a milestone to celebrate.

However, it’s also not a cause for undue alarm. Changes are part of any project. The problems arise when those changes aren’t responded to. By running a status report, there is an understanding of what’s changed and its impact on the project. Work towards getting back on schedule by reaching the next milestone, run more reports to track progress and make sure the project is staying on track.

Milestones are mainly used for the nuts and bolts of scheduling; they are also useful for celebrating project achievements. Obviously, once a milestone has been reached it’s because the team has done something right, like completing a phase of the project or delivering something important, which can be used to congratulate the team.

Celebrate success in whatever manner is deemed fit for the project. It can be as simple as a handshake or a note to the team. Something bigger, like treating the team to a lunch or offer a bonus. Acknowledging the team’s achievement pays off in dividends in the forms of employee retention, team loyalty and project buy-in. It also fosters a positive relationship with the team and building trust, which is instrumental to a productive project.

Milestones can be anything deemed important by the project team, stakeholders and management. Remember to consult those involved with the successful delivery of the project to ensure milestones are reflected correctly. Once established they should be placed in a project management software tool for representation, via Gantt charts which provide real-time data, and a collaborative platform to assist with efficient and productive information for the team.

Critical Path Method in Project Management is as Easy as 1,2,3

What exactly is Critical Path in Project Management?

Critical Path Method (CPM) is a mathematically-based algorithm for scheduling a set of project activities. The essential technique for using CPM is to construct a model of the project that includes the following:

  • A list of all activities required to complete the project,
  • The dependencies between the activities, and
  • The estimate of time (duration) that each activity will take to completion.

Using these values, CPM usually calculates the longest path of planned activities to the end of the project, and the earliest and latest points that each activity can start and finish without making the project longer. This process determines which activities are “critical” (i.e. on the longest path) and which have “total float” (i.e. can be delayed without making the project longer).

Critical Path in a Simple Project

Now we’ll try to illustrate the concept with a simple, real-life project: hanging a picture on the wall. What should you do to complete this mini-project successfully? First, we need to define and list all the tasks that have to be done so the whole project is completed.

  • Choose a place on the wall
  • Buy the screws
  • Choose the picture
  • Drill a hole
  • Screw in the screws
  • Hang the picture

When we think of these tasks, we realize that some of them cannot start before the others are finished. That is, some tasks are dependent on the others. See the graph below:

The actions “drill a hole,” “screw in the screws,” and “hang the picture” form a sequence of tasks that must be performed in a specific order, one right after the other, to ensure a successful result. Such tasks are called “sequential” activities.

So these three tasks, together with the start of our project (“choosing a place on the wall”) in our example, are the most important critical steps that must be taken to arrive at the proper solution to our problem. These actions will be placed on your critical path for this project. So the essential concept behind Critical Path Analysis is that you cannot start some activities until the others are finished. These activities need to be completed in a sequence, with each stage being more-or-less completed before the next stage can begin.

Here’s what a sample schedule (a Gantt chart) can look like:

The critical path consists of the longest sequence of activities from project start to end that should be started and completed exactly as scheduled to ensure the project is completed by a certain date in the future. The activities on the critical path must be very closely managed. If jobs on the critical path slip, immediate action should be taken to get the project back on schedule. Otherwise, completion of the whole project will slip.

Imagine that you have a project that will take 300 days to complete. If the first activity on the critical path is one day late, the project will take 301 days to complete, unless another activity on the critical path can be completed one day earlier. So the critical path is simply all the tasks that determine the end date in your project schedule.

There can be more than one critical path in one project, so that several paths run in parallel. For instance, in our case, “choose a picture” and “hang the picture,” as well as “buy the screws,” “screw in the screws,” and “hang the picture” form other task sequences that also are important for us to complete the project.

The critical path in project management may contain all the important activities, or it may not. In fact, sometimes the activities on the critical path are not the most important parts of the project. At the same time, there will be tasks that are not on the critical path, but still determine your project’s success. Understanding the critical path involves determining which activities are critical to complete on time. But other activities lying outside of critical path may also be very important and require extra diligence and focus.

What Are Resource Constraints and Why are They Important?

Traditional critical-path-derived schedules are based only on causal (logical) dependencies. We’ve already marked these dependencies in our plan (e.g. it is impossible to drill a hole before you choose a place on the wall). However, a project can have resource limitations, which also should be taken

into consideration. These limitations will create more dependencies. These dependencies are often called “resource constraints.”

So if you work on a team, your project work can be split between the team members. In our case, while you’re choosing a place on the wall and drilling a hole, one of your friends can go and buy some screws, and your spouse can choose the picture. The tasks can be done in parallel, as on our chart above.

However, if you’re the only person responsible for the project, you have a resource constraint (i.e. you cannot drill a hole and go shopping for screws simultaneously). In this case, your critical path will look different.

On the chart above, we assume that you first need to choose the picture, and only later can you buy the screws. However, depending on the project conditions, these tasks can be performed in a different order.

Such a critical path is called a “resource critical” path. This method was proposed as an extension to the traditional CPA to allow for the inclusion of resources related to each activity. A resource-leveled schedule may include delays due to resource bottlenecks (i.e. unavailability of a resource at the required time), and it may cause a previously shorter path to become longer. This is what you see on our chart above.

Calculating the Length of Your Project

In project management, a critical path is the sequence of project activities that add up to the longest overall duration. This determines the shortest time possible to complete the project.

Getting back to our example, let’s assume that you have to do everything by yourself. For each activity, show the estimated length of time it will take. Also, you determine the approximate start time for each task on the critical path. Here’s how it can be done in our example.

Now if we add up all the critical tasks’ duration, we’ll get the approximate time that will be needed for the whole project to be completed. In our case, 1 hour and 26 minutes. Add the duration to the start time, and you’ll be able to calculate the earliest project completion time (10:26 am in our example).

Flexibility in the Critical Path

The critical path method was developed for complex, but fairly predictable, projects. However, in real life, we rarely get to manage such projects. A schedule generated using critical path techniques often is not followed precisely. As we already mentioned above, any delay of an activity on the critical path directly impacts the planned project completion date. New requirements may pop up, and new resource constraints may emerge.

Let’s say you’re planning to redecorate the living room together with your spouse. Your tasks will include:

  1. Getting rid of the old furniture
  2. Painting the walls
  3. Fixing the ceiling
  4. Installing the new furniture

Your spouse will then be responsible for:

  1. Choosing the new curtains
  2. Hanging the new curtains

The curtain tasks form a sub-project and can be treated as a non-critical path. Your spouse can “choose the new curtains” and “hang the new curtains” any time before the end of your project. So these tasks do have flexibility in the start and end date, or “float.” These tasks are parallel, and they will not be placed on the critical path.  Here’s how the whole project would look on a Gantt chart:

However, if any of the parallel tasks gets significantly delayed, it will prevent your whole project from being completed on time. Therefore you should always keep an eye on parallel tasks. Now, let’s assume that choosing the curtains took your spouse longer than you initially expected. This will delay the end of the project.

Your redecoration is incomplete without the new curtains, so the path that previously was non-critical becomes critical for the project’s completion. The initial critical path changes.

To keep an eye on your non-critical tasks, you should always keep your schedule up-to-date. That’s the only way you’ll know exactly where your project is at any given moment in time and whether it will be delivered as it was initially planned.