When the Schedule Slips

I came across a question on Linked In today which raised an interesting question about managing schedules, and what happens when the schedule starts to slip. Anyone offering a service will encounter this situation at some point in time, and those who will succeed know in advance how they will handle this situation.

At the start of a project, the timelines look good, the schedules may be aggressive, and optimism is high. People enjoy a fresh start, and the work begins. However, as time goes on, the Project Manager realizes that the schedule was unrealistic, or perhaps something unexpected came up, and now the project is a month behind. Suddenly, the client is clamoring for status updates, and wants to know why the project is late.

As a Project Manager, what do you do?

In order to answer this question, the first step is to understand the various reasons why a schedule might slip, since that can affect how to resolve the issue.

  1. The initial schedule was never accurate. It was overly aggressive, and did not allow for unforeseen problems. As a general rule-of-thumb, there should be about a 20% allowance for unforeseen difficulties. Additionally, the people doing the work should be involved in creating the schedule, since they will be the ones expected to adhere to that schedule.
  2. The schedule was sufficiently conservative, but a delay from a third party held up progress. Once the third party delivers, the schedule will be back on track, although pushed out by the length of the delay. The third party could be a resource for either the vendor or the client.
  3. The schedule was sufficiently conservative, but changes to scope caused the schedule to break.
  4. The scope did not change, but the amount of work required for some portion of the project was not estimated correctly and this was only determined once the work began.

The first step in resolving a problem with the schedule is communication. The client should be informed:

  1. There has been a delay in the project, and what the new schedule is
  2. What caused the delay, and whether or not another delay for a similar reason can be expected during the remainder of the project

Once the client has been informed of the new schedule, the relationship with the client must be repaired. Depending on the nature of the delay and the ultimate cost to the client, how the relationship is repaired will vary.

If the cost to the client can be measured with a dollar value, then that cost should be, to some extent, reimbursed to the client if the vendor was the source of the delay. However, this situation is not that common as making such a measurement is fairly difficult, and may not be determinable until after the project is complete.

In most cases, offer the client some form of compensation for the delay, with the amount depending on the nature and severity of the delay. Clearly, a single day delay is not as severe as a month delay. However, if that single day means that the client misses an industry deadline, the severity is greatly increased.

One form of compensation that allows for an opportunity to repair the relationship fully is to offer a discount on future work. For example, if the vendor was supplying a website, they can offer a discount on future maintenance, for example, a 10% reduction in the hourly rate for the first 50 hours of maintenance.

What is clear, regardless of the nature of the delay, is that the relationship between the client and the vendor will need repair. What should not be done is to attempt to hide or deny the delay – the client will eventually find out, and then trust will be lost. By being honest about the schedule, and keeping open lines of communication, you can work with the client to bring the project to a successful close. Your practices in dealing with delays will assist in future goodwill, as clients tend to appreciate when vendors are honest about schedules, and take appropriate action to adhere to them.