To make schedule time buffers visible or not? This maybe a vexing project management question.
Yes, whether or not to hide your time buffer can be a difficult choice. If you hide the buffer, you may feel bad because you are being less than honest. When you choose to hide buffer, you are intentionally not showing the true schedule situation to stakeholders. This may lead you down the dark path of secrecy. However, if you show the buffer you may lose it. Thus the dilemma.
This article discusses why it is best practice to make schedule time buffer visible.
Visible or Not?
So, do we make schedule buffer visible or not? When faced with this perplexing question it is best first to consider the type of contract associated with your project. Is your project performed on a fixed price basis or, perhaps, on a time and materials basis?
Fixed price is when you agree to deliver the product for a fixed amount of money and an explicit delivery date. Time and materials is when you are reimbursed for all your work hours and materials expended on the project. In fixed price contracts you (the contractor) are on the hook and bear the consequences for not meeting cost and schedule targets. If your customer agrees to the price and delivery date you propose then they really do not need to see your profit margin nor your time buffer. Yes, it is may be acceptable in this case to hide both.
On time and materials contracts, you really do not need a profit margin or time buffer because all your expenses are reimbursed. Expenses and schedule buffer on time and material contracts should therefore be visible. The manager of a time and materials project does not have the same compelling reason to meet cost and schedule targets. Therefore, in an effort to ensure that a time and materials schedule is both complete and realistic, buffer should be made visible. With the visible buffer the client is thus able to ensure the quality of the baseline. Hiding buffer on a non-fixed priced project contract is definitely unacceptable.
Regardless of the contract type, project managers should exert every effort to make their schedule buffer visible. Making time buffer visible makes for good project management. And know that time buffers are not an uncommon practice. Project managers are generally allowed to own time buffers to accommodate for unforeseen events. One can also note that contingency line items in financial budgets are a generally accepted sound practice. It follows that if budget contingency line items are standard practice then schedule contingency line items are acceptable.
Visible time buffers, additionally, prevent a culture of secrecy. You want to be forthright with your stakeholders. So lay your time buffer cards on the table. Executives that discover hidden time buffers may resort to arbitrary cuts to the project, which is never good. An open transparent atmosphere is greatly preferred to a culture of secrecy.
A project manager displaying time buffers further sets a good example for other team members. Your team members tend to emulate what you, the project manager, do. If your team members see you hiding buffers from your executives, they will follow your example and start hiding their own buffers from you. This puts you, as the project manager, in the precarious situation where team members own the time buffer instead of you.
Well, it’s a general principle or, perhaps, phenomena that your team members will fill the allotted time given. Let’s reiterate, regardless of allotted time, much or little, team members will use the stipulated time provided. So make time buffer visible, but difficult to access by owning it yourself, as the project manager.
Making buffer visible, but difficult to access, brings to mind the movie “Confessions of a shopaholic”. The common scene when someone is trying to control their shopping urges is to see them completely cutting up their credit cards. This renders the cards unusable, so what do you do if you truly need to make a purchase?
Well, in this movie, the shopping addict chose instead to make it difficult though possible to use their credit card. This was achieved by freezing their credit card in a solid block of ice. The theory goes by the time the block of ice was melted or chipped away with an ice pick the urge to spend would have subsided.
The credit card was visible through the ice but difficult to get at. In the same way your schedule buffer should be clearly visible to all but difficult for team members to access. This ensures that every possible alternative and effort to meet the schedule deadline is exhausted before considering the schedule buffer. So only activities truly in need of the buffer are allotted the additional time.
Non-fixed priced contracts definitely require visible schedule buffers. Project managers may confidently display a schedule buffer, as they are common practice and similar to budgetary contingency line items. Deceptive or hidden project items produce an atmosphere of secrecy that often spirals into arbitrary schedule cuts by executives. Not good!
It is best for you to be transparent and to set an example of openness for your team members. This ensures that you remain the owner of the schedule buffer. You definitely do not want team members to have schedule buffer ownership, as history proves they will squander the additional time. Your goal is a visible but difficult to access schedule buffer. Make sure you therefore own it as the project manager. In this way you may control and distribute schedule buffer to only truly needy project efforts.