Planning and scheduling for project management

Every project, no matter its size, requires some kind of organization and planning. Whether you’re thinking about what you need to do when you wake up (shower, make breakfast, brush your teeth) or planning a new space programme, you will need to think about the tasks, in what order to do them, and how long it will take. This is called scheduling.

Planning projects requires balancing dependencies between tasks, resource allocation, and complex constraints in order to find a complete and feasible schedule. How much of this can be made rigorous? What is the limit of automation in this scenario?

In this post, I want to explore the problem of planning and scheduling in the specific context of project management. The goal is to set up the problem of project planning rigorously, and investigate what techniques we can apply to have a better understanding of our projects and reach our objectives faster.

General project management workflow

When starting a new projectThe definition of a project here is highly subjective, and has been strongly influenced by what I’ve read (see the references) and how I actually do things at work. In particular, most of the model and concepts can be found in Microsoft Project.

, I generally follow a rough workflow that goes like this:

  1. Define the global constraints of the project: functional specification, deadlines, overall resources available, etc.
  2. Subdivide the projects into tasks and subtasks. Low-level tasks should be self-contained and doable by few people (ideally only one). Tasks can then be grouped together for better visualising what is happening at various scales. This gives us a global hierarchy of tasks, culminating in the overall project.
  3. Specify the dependencies between tasks, ideally with an explicit deliverable for each dependency relationship.
  4. Estimate the work required for each task.
  5. Affect a resource to each task, deriving task durations accordingly. For instance, if Bob will be working part-time on this task (because he has other things to do at the same time), the task will take longer to complete than the nominal amount of work that it requires.
  6. Find an order in which to execute all the tasks, respecting workforce and time constraints (Bob cannot spend 50% of this time on three tasks simultaneously). This is called a schedule.
  7. Iterate on the order until a minimal completion date is found. Generally, the objective is to complete the project as soon as possible, but there may be additional requirements (overall deadline, lateness penalties, maximal resource utilization).

Given this process, a natural question would be to ask: how can we simplify it? What can we automate? The obvious task is the scheduling part (steps 6 and 7): this step does not require any human decision-making, and for which it will be difficult and tiresome to achieve optimality. Most project management software (e.g. Microsoft Project) focus on this part.

However, in practice, resource allocation is also extremely time consuming. Most importantly, it will constrain the final schedule: a bad allocation can push back the final completion date by a wide margin. Therefore, it makes sense to want to take into account both resource allocation and task ordering at the same time when looking for an optimal schedule.

Going even further, we could look into subdividing tasks further: maybe splitting a task in two, allowing a small lag between the completion of the first half and the start of the second half, could improve the overall objective. By allowing preemption, we could optimize further our schedule.

To understand all of this, we’ll need to formalize our problem a little bit. This will allow us to position it in the overall schema of problems studied in the operations research literature, and use their conclusions to choose the best approach as a trade-off between manual and automatic scheduling.

The project scheduling problem

A project is simply a set of tasksA task is often called a job or an activity in project scheduling. I will use these terms interchangeably.

. Each task is a specific action with a certain amount of work that needs to be done. More importantly, a task can depend on other tasks: for instance, I can’t send the satellite in the space if you haven’t built it yet.

Other constraints may also be present: there are nearly always deadlines (my satellite needs to be up and running on 2024-05-12), and sometimes other kind of temporal constraints (for legal reasons, I can’t start building my death ray before 2023-01-01). Most importantly, there are constraints on resource usage (I need either Alice or Bob to work on these tasks, so I will be able to work on at most two of them at the same time).

Finally, the objective is to finish the project (i.e. complete all the tasks) as early as possible. This is called the makespan.

You may have noticed a nice pattern here: objective, constraints? We have a great optimization problem! As it turns out, scheduling is an entire branch of operations researchSee my previous blog post on operations research.

. In the literature, this kind of problem is referred to as resource-constrained project scheduling, or as project scheduling with workforce constraints.

Classification of scheduling problems

There is a lot of room to modify the problem to other settings. Brucker et al. (1999) propose an interesting classification scheme for project scheduling. In this system, any problem can be represented by a triplet \(\alpha|\beta|\gamma\), where \(\alpha\) is the resource environment, \(\beta\) are the activity characteristics, and \(\gamma\) is the objective function.

The resource environment \(\alpha\) describes the available quantity of each type of resources. Resource can be renewable, like people, who supply a fixed quantity of work in each time period, or non-renewable, like raw materials.

The activity characteristics \(\beta\) describe how tasks are constrained: how the dependencies are specified (with a graph, or with temporal constraints between the starts and ends of different tasks), whether there are global constraints like deadlines, and whether processing times are constant for all tasks, can vary, or even can be stochastic.

Finally, the objective \(\gamma\) can be one of several possibilities. The most common are the makespan which seeks to minimize the total duration of the project, and resource-levelling which seeks to minimize some measure of variation of resource utilization.

Some important problems (\(\mathrm{PS}\) means “project scheduling” without any restrictions on resources):

Algorithms for project scheduling

Without workforce constraints

First, we need a way to represent a project. We can use the so-called job-on-node formatThere is also a job-on-arc format that is apparently widely used, but less practical in most applications.

. The nodes represent the tasks in the precedence graph, and arcs represent the dependency relationships between tasks.

This representation leads to a natural algorithm for project scheduling in the absence of any resource constraints. The critical path method (CPM) consists in finding a chain of dependent tasks in the job-on-node graph that are critical: their completion time is fixed by their dependencies.

It consists of two procedures, one to determine the earliest possible completion time of each task (forward procedure), and one to determine the latest possible completion time of each task that does not increase total project duration (backward procedure). The tasks for which these two times are equal form the critical pathNote that the critical path is not necessarily unique, and several critical paths may be overlapping.

. Non-critical tasks have a certain amount of slack: it is possible to schedule them freely between the two extremities without affecting the makespan.

An extension of the critical path method is the program evaluation and review technique (PERT). We still consider we have unlimited resources, but the processing time of each task is allowed to be a random variable instead of a fixed quantity. The algorithm must be amended correspondingly to take into account pessimistic and optimistic estimates of each task duration.

These techniques have been widely employed in various industriesWikipedia tells us that CPM and PERT were partly developed by the US Navy, and applied to several large-scale projects, like skyscraper buildings, aerospace and military projects, the Manhattan project, etc.

, and show that the project scheduling problem without workforce constraints can be solved extremely efficiently. See Pinedo (2009) for more details on these algorithms and some examples.

With workforce constraints

With resource constraints, the problem becomes much harder to solve. It is not possible to formulate this problem as a linear program: workforce constraints are intrinsically combinatorial in nature, so the problem is formulated as an integer programThe full integer program can be found in Pinedo (2009, sec. 4.6).

.

The problem is modelled with 0-1 variables \(x_{jt}\) which take the value 1 if job \(j\) is completed exactly at time \(t\), and 0 otherwise. The objective is to minimize the makespan, i.e. the completion time of a dummy job that depends on all other jobs. There are three constraints:

This problem quickly becomes challenging from a computational point of view when the number of tasks increase. Variations on the branch and bound method have been developed to solve the resource-constrained project scheduling problem efficiently, and in practice most applications rely on heuristics to approximate the full problem. However, even special cases may be extremely challenging to solve. The project scheduling problem is a generalization of the job shop scheduling problem, which is itself a generalization of the travelling salesman problem: all of these are therefore NP-hard.

See Brucker et al. (1999) for a short survey of algorithms and heuristics, and extensions to the harder problems (multi-mode case, time-cost trade-offs, other objective functions). Pinedo (2016) contains a much more extensive discussion of all kinds of scheduling problems, algorithms, and implementation considerations.

Further reading

Brucker et al. (1999) is a great survey of the algorithms available for project scheduling. For longer books, Pinedo (2016), Brucker (2007), Conway, Maxwell, and Miller (2003), and Leung (2004) are good references for the theoretical aspects, and Pinedo (2009) and Błażewicz et al. (2001) for applications.

Atabakhsh (1991), Noronha and Sarma (1991), and Smith (1992) contain algorithms that use methods from artificial intelligence to complement the traditional operations research approach.

Automating project management

Let us review our workflow from the beginning. Even for the general case of project scheduling with workforce and temporal constraints, algorithms exist that are able to automate the entire scheduling problem (except maybe for the largest projects). Additional manipulations can easily be encoded with these two types of constraints.

Most tools today seem to rely on a variant of CPM or PERTThis seems to be the case for Microsoft Project at least. However, I should note that it is an enormous piece of software, and I barely scratched the surface of its capabilities. In particular, it can do much more that project scheduling: there are options for resource levelling and budgeting, along with a lot of visualization and reporting features (Gantt charts).

. As a result, you still have to manually allocate resources, which can be really time-consuming on large projects: ensuring that each resource is not over-allocated, and finding which task to reschedule while minimizing the impact on the overall project duration is not obvious at all.

As a result, a tool that would allow me to choose the level of control I want in resource allocation would be ideal. I could explicitly set the resources used by some tasks, and add some global limits on which resources are available for the overall project, and the algorithm would do the rest.

We could then focus on automating further, allowing preemption of tasks, time-cost trade-offs, etc. Finding the right abstractions and selecting the best algorithm for each case would be a challenging project, but I think it would be extremely interesting!

References

Atabakhsh, H. 1991. “A Survey of Constraint Based Scheduling Systems Using an Artificial Intelligence Approach.” Artificial Intelligence in Engineering 6 (2): 58–73. https://doi.org/10.1016/0954-1810(91)90001-5.

Brucker, Peter. 2007. Scheduling Algorithms. 5th ed. Springer Berlin Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-540-69516-5.

Brucker, Peter, Andreas Drexl, Rolf Möhring, Klaus Neumann, and Erwin Pesch. 1999. “Resource-Constrained Project Scheduling: Notation, Classification, Models, and Methods.” European Journal of Operational Research 112 (1): 3–41. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0377-2217(98)00204-5.

Błażewicz, Jacek, Klaus H. Ecker, Erwin Pesch, Günter Schmidt, and Jan Węglarz. 2001. Scheduling Computer and Manufacturing Processes. 2nd ed. Springer Berlin Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-662-04363-9.

Conway, Richard, William L. Maxwell, and Louis W. Miller. 2003. Theory of Scheduling. Mineola, N.Y: Dover.

Leung, Joseph. 2004. Handbook of Scheduling : Algorithms, Models, and Performance Analysis. Boca Raton: Chapman & Hall/CRC.

Noronha, S. J., and V. V. S. Sarma. 1991. “Knowledge-Based Approaches for Scheduling Problems: A Survey.” IEEE Transactions on Knowledge and Data Engineering 3 (2): 160–71. https://doi.org/10.1109/69.87996.

Pinedo, Michael L. 2009. Planning and Scheduling in Manufacturing and Services. 2nd ed. Springer Series in Operations Research and Financial Engineering. New York: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-0910-7.

———. 2016. Scheduling: Theory, Algorithms, and Systems. 5th ed. Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-26580-3.

Smith, Stephen F. 1992. “Knowledge-Based Production Management Approaches, Results and Prospects.” Production Planning & Control 3 (4): 350–80. https://doi.org/10.1080/09537289208919407.