Scheduler Spotlight: Creating a Culture of Communication

October 06, 2020

It takes a village to deliver successful projects, and at the heart of that village are planners and schedulers. Jess Gerry, Program Planner/Scheduler & AS EV Focal in the Defense Systems Sector at Northrop Grumman, was kind enough to share her experiences and best practices during a recent interview.

Jess has served as both a planner/scheduler and an earned value (EV) analyst, which gives her a unique perspective, but she wanted to gain additional experience with more focus on scheduling and planning and joined Northrop Grumman Corporation (heritage Orbital ATK) in June of 2018 to do exactly that.

“I am an organizer of information,” Jess says. She expanded that the scheduler does not own the schedule, the project team owns it, but the scheduler is there to help the team take ownership over the activities and timeline. At the end of the day, it is the scheduler’s responsibility to continuously gather the most current information and organize it for the program team in the form of the schedule.

A Typical Day

Every day is different and the work varies greatly depending on where you are in the cadence of a particular program or the usual business rhythm (often tied to the monthly accounting cycle, particularly where EV is concerned). In her role, Jess prefers regular one-on-one meetings with control account managers (CAMs) rather than communicating through status reports, as it improves both accountability and visibility within the teams.

“These real-time conversations are more dynamic and often turn into deep discussions that are beneficial when working through the status of the program. Other issues are often identified and resolved, even technical ones, during these meetings,” Jess says.

Current information is a powerful tool and so the team meets on a bi-weekly basis to prepare that data and ensure there is a solid narrative, including commentary, on the critical path, key milestones and notes about what is driving the end of the program – such as a major test event. Jess also plays a key role in analyzing variances (VAR) in monthly reviews.

“Issues always arise so identifying them and then integrating that information into the schedule is an ongoing process. Those updates to the schedule need to be made as soon as an issue hits the team,” Jess notes.

The Human Element

Lack of visibility is a hurdle that most organizations need to overcome. Communications are often not frequent enough to ensure the schedule reflects what is actually happening in the programs.

“In my opinion, schedulers should be included in more program meetings, sometimes even the technical ones, in order to know what questions to ask,” Jess says.

At the end of the day, schedulers are trying to keep the schedule as accurate as possible.

Once a program is baselined, the program team does not always realize they should notify the scheduler when things pop up. When people are busy and trying to execute the program, it can be challenging to remember to loop the scheduler into issues that arise. This could cause a disconnect between schedulers and program teams. Jess recommends establishing expectations early between program teams and schedulers to help ease that burden and keep lines of communication open.

While her main focus is on planning and scheduling, Jess is also an EV lead and sits on multiple EV councils. Additionally, she works to train CAMs to think about scheduling and EV holistically. It is important to consider the human element in all of this work that supports the delivery of these projects. Helping CAMs understand how scheduling and EV can aid them in better managing their accounts has been key.

“It is my job to provide key data and information points to program teams so they can make good decisions,” Jess notes.

A Different Perspective

“Really solid and objective EV data requires a sound schedule,” Jess says.

It is interesting to see these two important disciplines brought together through her approach to scheduling and earned value management (EVM). Jess states that this perspective might be a little unusual given her expertise and training in both disciplines, and while different, this perspective does offer powerful opportunities to improve both aspects of project and portfolio management. She noted that, estimate to complete (ETC) is helpful if they are tied to the schedule as it flexes. By managing ETC in a resource loaded schedule, the forecast dates and ETCs shift together providing cost and schedule integration.

How Deltek Helps

“I have had great experiences using the Deltek [PPM] tools,” Jess says. “Open Plan is extremely helpful because it feels similar to Microsoft® Excel but has some really cool features to help you quickly identify driving path and critical path, among other things and it’s pretty easy to use.”

Jess goes on to explain that she really appreciates the ease of integrating BCWS (Budgeted Cost of Work Scheduled), BCWP (Budgeted Cost of Work Performed), and ETC data into Deltek Cobra. For EV programs, these two tools together provide the cost and schedule data integration needed. 

Jess also shares that she likes that there is so much functionality in Open Plan.

“I find that maintaining an Integrated Master Schedule in Open Plan is easier than in Microsoft® Project,” Jess explains.

While she feels she there is even more to learn and leverage within the tool, what Northrop Grumman is using has been beneficial.

Key Takeaways

Sound schedules provide the foundation a project needs to be successful and utilizing the right tools are integral to the creation and maintenance of those schedules throughout the project lifecycle. Frequent and open communication helps both the scheduler and broader program team ensure the most accurate schedule and cost forecast possible. To help with this, it is recommended that schedulers continue to set those expectations and stay close to the process.