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Never skip creating a master schedule for your project

PostsProject management
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

January 20, 2023

Getting bogged down in the details is scarily easy when running a big project. And with so many other documents to manage — not to mention multiple schedules — losing sight of that all-important finish line is a natural hazard of the job. Fortunately, there’s a document designed to keep you on track: the master schedule. 

Much like an airport landing strip guides planes to land, the master schedule can guide your project’s progress to a successful conclusion.

As the name suggests, creating and following a master schedule can help you keep control of the entire production process. 

What is a master schedule?

This document serves as a roadmap for your project. It outlines all the steps you need to take to complete the project, from initial planning and design to delivery and beyond.

The master schedule, or master production schedule (MPS), will typically start with a timeline of key milestones and tasks in order of priority. This timeline is broken down into more detailed sections to track each activity’s progress and subtasks to ensure everything is on course.

It usually includes other important information – such as a resource list, estimated costs, and delivery timelines, and sometimes contains other, more granular schedules within it. 

Master schedule vs. production schedule

The master schedule and production schedule are linked but do different jobs.

Production scheduling is the process of creating a plan to ensure your project meets its deadlines, budgets, and quality targets. It includes a list of available resources and how they’re allocated to meet customer needs. This involves detailed daily activity planning, as well as ordering materials and services.

The master schedule, on the other hand, is an overall view of your project. It outlines the main tasks but doesn’t get into the granular detail. 

Master schedule vs. milestone schedule

The master schedule and milestone schedule are both vital documents for any large project. But they have different aims.

A milestone schedule is a timeline that outlines the primary goals you need to achieve to finish the project on time. It doesn’t go into too much detail, but it does include key dates, such as when specific tasks should start and finish.

The master schedule is more detailed, showing how each task will be completed and what resources are needed. It also includes a timeline of tasks but with more detail about the individual steps involved.

Why do you need a master schedule?

A central document containing all the information you need to keep track of your project is beneficial. It can help you ensure that all the project aspects are moving in sync, so there won’t be any surprises or delays once everything starts coming together. It also helps you stay on track with your primary goals without getting bogged down in the details. 

In a nutshell, a master schedule will help you:

  • Track progress on your project
  • Identify any potential problems or risks
  • Monitor costs and resources
  • Keep everyone in sync
  • Make adjustments to demand fluctuations
  • Prevent stockouts or overordering
  • Estimate resources and labor better
  • Boost efficiency
  • Manage cost control
  • Work out the best time to perform predictive maintenance or train staff
  • Help teams see production requirements in advance

Limitations of a master schedule

While the master schedule is an invaluable tool for experienced project managers, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t provide a complete view of the project. 

It can be difficult to accurately predict how things will change, or unexpected events may arise, and it also doesn’t consider any personal factors such as holidays or sickness.

It’s also worth noting that the MPS is only as good as the data it contains. If there are any timeline mistakes or inaccuracies, these can easily lead to confusion and delays.

When should you use a master schedule?

The master schedule is most beneficial when used in complex, fast-moving projects that require a high level of coordination between multiple teams. 

It’s especially useful for helping to manage resources, as it allows project managers to easily shift tasks or adjust budgets when necessary while keeping an eye on the overarching milestones and goals. 

The master schedule is commonly used in the manufacturing and construction sectors, where complex projects often require a high degree of coordination between different teams. It’s also used extensively in the software industry, which can help manage development cycles and ensure that teams deliver tasks on time.

It can also help keep smaller, fast-moving projects such as event planning or marketing campaigns running smoothly.

TL;DR? Implement a master schedule whenever you have a project with lots of moving parts and where efficiency is key. 

Creating an effective master schedule

A master schedule is only as good as the information it contains, and if there are any gaps or inaccuracies in your plan, you could run into problems later on down the line.

So how do you go about creating an effective MPS? Let’s break it down. 

  1. Defining the project objectives and creating your Statement of Work (SOW)
  2. Making your work breakdown structure (WBS)
  3. Creating a task list
  4. Sequencing the project activities and adding milestones
  5. Estimating task durations and costs
  6. Defining and assigning resources
  7. Comparing the master schedule with time constraints.
  8. Comparing the master schedule with resource constraints.
  9. Reviewing the schedule

Let’s take a closer look at each of these steps.

1. Defining the project objectives and creating your Statement of Work (SOW)

Your project objectives outline your primary goal, what you need to achieve, why, and the overarching steps to get there. 

You’ll also need to define your SOW, a legally binding contract covering all the deliverables, timelines, and other requirements for the project. Do this in collaboration with all stakeholders to ensure everyone understands roles and deliverables. 

2. Creating your work breakdown structure 

Once you’ve outlined your objectives and scope of work, it’s time to start breaking the project into manageable chunks. This helps you to identify critical tasks, as well as any dependencies and interdependencies between them. You can create a work breakdown structure (WBS), which divides the project into smaller components and organizes them hierarchically. 

3. Creating a task list

Once you’ve created the WBS, your next step is to create a task list. This should include all the tasks each person on your team needs to complete and any associated costs and resources. This will form the basis of your master schedule, so it’s important to ensure every detail is accurately listed. 

4. Sequencing project activities and adding milestones

Gantt charts are the gold standard for visualizing and sequencing the tasks in your master schedule; they provide an at-a-glance representation of the project timeline and any milestones, dependencies, and resource allocations.

Try Cacoo’s free Gantt chart template to get started.

Once you’ve created your task list, it’s time to sequence them — aka putting them into order, so the work is carried out logically. Two of the best-known techniques for this? CPM (Critical Path Method) and PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique).

The critical path is the sequence of tasks that will take the longest, so it’s crucial to analyze this carefully. Any delays here could cause significant disruption throughout your project. Understanding and analyzing your critical path helps identify potential problem areas early on so that you can take action to minimize the impact.

Top tip: You should also add milestones during this step. They mark critical points in the project and give teams a sense of progress. 

5. Estimating the activity durations and costs

This involves determining how long each task will take and any associated costs. It’s essential to be realistic with your estimates — if you underestimate, it can cause delays further down the line. Choose the estimation technique that works best for your project.

6. Defining and assigning resources

Once you’ve got your task list and estimated the activity durations and costs, it’s time to assign resources to the project. Ensure your team can complete all tasks on time by having enough people (or machines!) with the right skills for the job. You’ll also need to consider tools, like technology and raw materials, and how to source backup resources. 

7. Comparing the master schedule with time constraints

Your master schedule should reflect reality — but there may still be discrepancies between what’s on the MPS and what’s achievable. This is where time constraints come in to ensure that all tasks are realistically possible within the timeline.

Set out the time limitations that may contradict your master schedule and rework resources to get things as close to your MPS timeline as possible. Adjust the project path, ensuring that all tasks are realistically achievable within the timeline.

8. Comparing the master schedule with resource constraints

In addition to reconciling your MPS with time constraints, you also need to consider any resource constraints. This involves ensuring you have enough resources (people or machines) available at each project stage

Top tip: Use resource leveling to balance supply and demand throughout the project. Resource leveling involves adjusting the schedule so that resources are allocated as efficiently as possible throughout the project timeline — ensuring that no team member shoulders the burden while others put their feet up!

9. Reviewing and adjusting the master schedule

Review and adjust your MPS regularly as a project progresses. Check that all tasks are on track and make necessary changes if something isn’t going according to plan. It also helps you monitor progress throughout the project’s life cycle, allowing you to make any last-minute adjustments if needed.

Final thoughts 

Your master schedule is one of the most important documents in your toolkit — so make sure it’s clear, easily accessible, up-to-date, and easy to edit.

Look for planning and scheduling software to help you create detailed, accurate timelines and easily track progress at every project stage. With Backlog, our PM tool, you can create a schedule, level resources, and assign tasks with just a few clicks. Better still, it’s all cloud-based and works in real-time, so everyone is always in the loop.

Creating a master schedule is a complex task, but it’s essential for successful project management – so it pays to get it right! By breaking down the work, sequencing activities, estimating costs and resources, plus reconciling time and resource constraints, you can create a detailed MPS that will help keep your project on track. And with regular reviews and adjustments, you can ensure all tasks are completed on time, every time, with minimum fuss. 



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