How an Integrated Master Schedule Can Avert Program Management Disaster

Congratulations! It’s your first day at your new job as a Program Manager (PM). The last few days have been a whirlwind. You got the call from your director that you had been selected to replace the PM for one of the smaller programs in the portfolio. The previous PM had been reassigned and you barely got a chance to exchange greetings as you moved into your office.

Because of the program’s size, you don’t have a large staff – just a handful of people to take care of day-to-day activities. Your initial impressions after meeting the team and getting briefed on the program are that things seem to be in good shape. You’re excited about the new job as you begin getting up to speed and into the daily rhythm of the program.

Two weeks later and it happens. Your Contracting Officer (CO) just sent you an email reminding you the draft statement of work for the follow-on contract is due by Friday, two days from now. You recall one of your staff members telling you on your first day that the contract needed to be re-awarded “next year”, but there was no hint that any actions needed to be taken at this time. Soon after you get that email, you get a call from the Director’s office reminding you that your quarterly Program Management Review (PMR) update has been scheduled for next Wednesday and the read-ahead is due Monday. Your immediate thought is “What quarterly PMR??” You step out of your office to ask about the PMR, and when you get back to your desk, there’s another email. This is from the Comptroller’s shop telling you that there’s a budget review meeting next Monday and you need to be prepared to discuss and defend your program’s funding. You’re wondering two things – how am I going to get through the next seven days and what’s going to happen next?

Does any of this sound familiar? Is there a tool that you could have implemented on Day 1 to prevent the seeming catastrophes that are hitting on Day 14?

Comprehensive Plan at the Ready

Much of your angst could have been avoided had your program had an Integrated Master Schedule (IMS). The IMS is one of, and some may say, the most important tools in the PM’s toolbox. It captures major program milestones and events along with recurring activities. It documents your program’s plan to meet the milestones and accomplish the activities. It’s time-phased so you know what is happening and when it’s supposed to happen. It also documents relationships between events so that impacts can be assessed. Though trite, the phrase “failing to plan is planning to fail” is inevitably true. The IMS puts your plan at your fingertips.

We don’t have the space here to get into all the details about building Gantt charts or other schedule tools such as network diagrams and critical paths. DoD and DHS each have reference sites. The Defense Acquisition Guidebook has a helpful page. DHS employees can access a Best Practices white paper. For now, let’s look at our examples and see how having some schedule tools would have helped you today.

  • One of your major milestones would most certainly have been award of the new contract. You would have identified lower level milestones and activities required to meet that date. You would have estimated the durations of all the activities and developed need dates for each of the products. You would have known that your team should be working on the draft SOW now and it should be just about done if the contract is going to be awarded on time.
  • Your IMS would also include regularly scheduled briefings to major stakeholders such as the PMR to your director. The prescribed process to prepare for and present the PMR would have been included and you would have known that read-ahead charts need to be completed 2 days prior to the PMR.
  • Preparing and submitting your program budget requirements is a vital activity that would also be included on your IMS. Due dates and products would be identified up front so that when it’s time to defend your program, you’ve got the material you need.

Having your IMS on your 1st day as the PM would have alerted you to these key activities and events that were on the immediate horizon and you would have been ready for the emails and phone calls. Not having an IMS has put you in a panic mode. Hopefully you can get through it.

Getting Started

  • Meet with your team to review their current and planned (near-, mid-, and long-term) activities
  • Meet with your key stakeholders to understand their expectations of program performance and deliverables
  • Review your program budget documentation and requirements document
  • Capture all activities based on your findings and sequence them
  • Identify resources (personnel and funding)
  • Establish durations and lay out the activities in a time-phased manner
  • Assess the risks associated with this plan and review your product with your team and stakeholders
  • Gain final approval of the plan and execute the program (sounds easy, but trust me, there will always be more “challenges” and “opportunities for you to excel”).

Schedule is Key to PM Success

So what’s the lesson learned here? PMs are graded on how well they meet cost, schedule and technical performance parameters. Immediately upon assumption of PM duties, you need to know what those performance parameters are. You need to know what your program budget is. And just as important, you need to know what the plan is to succeed and deliver the required capability. That plan is best captured in your IMS.

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