Understanding the Importance of a Schedule Design Plan

Craig Relyea
Doing the right work at the right time is critical to the success of any capital project. Among other things, schedule builders must ensure the schedule meets expectations, can allow for proper reporting and metrics, and manages risks. Success hinges on one essential first step: developing a schedule design plan (SDP).

Without an SDP in place, the scheduler may simply sit down in front of a computer and begin typing activities, or members of the project team may attend a schedule development session and arbitrarily identify activities through an Interactive Planning Session (IAP). In both cases, schedule development has started without an initial discussion of the overall purpose or desired results. This approach to scheduling is likely to be ineffective on larger, more complex projects. The approach increases the risk of developing an incomplete schedule with portions of the project insufficiently planned, or a schedule that will not meet the activity management or reporting needs of all the stakeholders.

A well-built and consistently maintained project schedule is a critical tool for the project team, but before an actual schedule can be created, it’s important to understand the schedule expectations.

It should be coordinated in tandem with high level decisions on how the project will be managed and executed overall. Will the project be divided into several phases? Will separate teams be responsible for detailed schedule development? Will the project schedule be used to generate management metrics or reports based on subtotals that roll-up to summarized large segments of work? The answers to these questions are important to consider in the design process. They will lead to decisions as to whether the schedule should incorporate a fixed, hierarchical work breakdown structure (WBS), a more flexible coding structure, or both. Further, if Primavera P6 is identified as the project scheduling software, then a WBS is mandatory as a requirement integral to using the software.

Schedule design should be the first step in developing a project schedule for any capital project. It is the planning process of creating the structure and organization of the schedule prior to developing an actual, detailed schedule. It provides a disciplined approach to building the schedule, so that when schedule development starts, it will advance logically from the original plan.

If the project scope is likely to change or expand, flexibility and scalability of the schedule structure may be the most important considerations in its design. When the project is large with many repetitive elements, consistent descriptions and coding are key to an effective schedule design. The structure of the schedule will depend on the management, reporting and communication requirements and expectations.

There is no one correct way to design a schedule, but some designs work better than others to address specific needs. The better the design, the easier the schedule development process.

Detailed activity, duration and logic definitions are reserved for the schedule development process. During that process, the design may be revisited to ensure that development is proceeding consistently. If certain elements of the SDP are found to be unhelpful, they can be revised. So, if the development of a schedule is a project in itself, what is the plan for the larger project overall?

While no schedule is perfect, getting the schedule as close to perfect as possible is the goal. After all, the purpose of having an SDP is to create a solid project foundation on which the project team can build.

The best practice for an SDP Table of Contents should include sections that focus on specific categories. Following are those categories and a description of each.


The schedule commonly functions as the primary time management tool on the project, but the project team should develop a shared understanding of what that means to all the stakeholders at project kickoff.


Develop a common glossary of terms related to the scope of work and the scheduling techniques to be used.


Develop an organized approach to the schedule structure. The initial WBS, activity coding, calendars, resources, and cost accounts should be defined during the schedule design process to allow for feedback during the schedule development.

Level of Detail

The simplest definition for schedule detail would be breaking down the scope of work to the lowest level so that the schedule can be used to achieve its intended purpose.

Methods and Tools

Identify the necessary and appropriate software tools, i.e., CPM, Linear, P6, MS Project, etc.

Risk Management

Identify the known potential problems, determine potential impacts, establish time contingencies and the strategies for the contingencies will improve the probability of delivering the project on time. During schedule design, this entire process can be discussed, formalized and explained so that it will be incorporated into the baseline schedule development.

Lessons Learned Benchmarking

Schedule design is the perfect time to discuss what has worked well in the past and what has not. The project management team, as well as the client, can provide historical data, which is helpful in the development of the schedule. If it is a completed project, explore using the as-built schedule as a starting point.


Identify the input data required for schedule development and the output that will be produced, including report content, frequency and format requirements.


Identify team resources that will be part of the schedule development process and the team resources that will be responsible for updating and revising the schedule and producing status reports.


Involve key stakeholders as much as possible, and as early as possible, in the schedule design planning process. If project leadership is involved in the decisions made during schedule design, they will most likely endorse the actual schedule to manage the project.

Once the schedule design plan has been drafted and approved, the team can start building the schedule. The SDP is one of the most important inputs into an overall project execution plan. It provides the guidelines to design the project schedule, incorporating all the necessary information and documenting all the decisions that are relevant and effective for the success of the project.