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Quality Digest


Resolving Resource Overloads

First, anticipate them

Published: Sunday, October 5, 2008 - 22:00

In the context of project management, a resource is any entity that contributes to the accomplishment of project activities. Most project resources perform work and include such entities as personnel, equipment, and contractors. The concept of a resource and the techniques of resource management can also be applied to entities that don’t perform work, but which must be available for work to be performed. Examples are materials, cash, and workspace. The resource that is of greatest concern to most organizations is personnel. In a project management system, personnel resources may be identified as individuals by name or as functional groups, such as computer programmers.

The purpose of resource planning
After a detailed schedule has been developed for a project, a nagging question remains to be answered: Will the resources required to execute the project on schedule be available when needed? In the process of developing each project schedule, the average availability of resources should be taken into consideration when activity durations are estimated. However, this estimation process doesn’t guarantee that the total workload for any given resource (person or functional group) from all projects and nonproject assignments won’t exceed the availability of that resource during any future period. When resource overloads occur, personnel are subjected to unnecessary stress, and project activities fall behind schedule. The quality of the deliverables produced is also likely to suffer. The purpose of resource planning is to anticipate resource overloads, so that they can be resolved for the benefit of the people and the projects.

The range of approaches to anticipating resource overloads
The approach taken to the challenge of anticipating specific resource overloads in specific future periods depends upon the number of simultaneous projects undertaken by the organization and the extent to which people are shared across multiple projects.

If the organization undertakes only a few projects at a time, or if each person is dedicated to work on only one or two projects at a time, a shortcut approach may be employed. The easiest, and probably most effective short-cut approach is to give each person a copy of the newly developed project schedule showing only those activities in which that person will be involved. Then ask that person to check the schedule against their personal calendar and other work commitments (including the schedules for their other projects) and report any obvious conflicts. A person may realize for the first time that, during a week which is three months in the future, they are scheduled to work on five major activities in two different projects, while preparing their operating budget request for the next fiscal year and participating in a two-day training program. Clearly, something’s got to give. The key to this approach is that each person is given the opportunity and the responsibility to identify his or her own overloads.

However, if the organization shares resources (again, individuals or groups) across a significant number of simultaneous projects, shortcut approaches to the anticipation of resource overloads are inadequate, and a comprehensive approach is required. To be effective, the comprehensive approach must capture the workload associated with all projects in which the personnel are involved. Fortunately, most popular project management software systems support the comprehensive approach as described in the next section.

The comprehensive approach to anticipating resource overloads
The first step in the comprehensive approach is called resource loading, and it occurs during the planning process for each new project. For each activity in the project schedule, the quantity of each resource required to perform the activity (typically measured in staff hours for personnel resources) is estimated and entered into the project management software system. Thus, we might estimate that an activity called “develop computer code” should require about 30 staff hours of Linda Baker’s time and 120 staff hours of effort from a group called “computer programmers.” Because the estimates are attached to the activities, the project management software has the ability to determine when the resources will be needed based on the scheduled start and completion dates for the activities. In other words, we now have a time-phased projection of resource requirements or workload for each resource (Linda Baker and the computer programmers). It’s also necessary to estimate and enter resource requirements for project-level work (such as project management) and nonproject work (that is, the ongoing background process workload) for each resource.

The next step is performed periodically and must be centralized at the project-portfolio level, rather than being performed at the project level. For each resource, the time-phased resource requirements are summed across all projects (as well as the nonproject workload) within the project management software system. The resulting “resource profiles” can be displayed in graphical or tabular format. By comparing the total workload projection for each resource with the resource’s planned availability, overloads during specific periods become obvious.

The above description makes the process sound easier than it really is. Challenges include developing, maintaining, and applying on all projects standard ways of identifying organizational resources; developing the ability, confidence, and discipline to estimate resource requirements for all activities on all projects; establishing the centralized infrastructure that supports the accumulation and analysis of total resource requirements across all projects.

Resolving the anticipated resource overloads
Once a specific resource overload has been anticipated in a specific future period, explicit action must be taken to resolve the overload. The action will involve either increasing the planned availability of the required resource or decreasing the planned workload during the period of the overload, or both.

If the overload is significant and long-term, use the resource analysis as the justification for seeking approval to hire additional personnel:

  • Planning to use overtime.
  • Planning to employ temporary personnel to supplement the resource group.
  • Rescheduling vacations, training, etc.

Common methods of decreasing the workload on the resource include:

  • Reassigning project or non-project work to other people.
  • Contracting out work.
  • Cancelling or delaying the start of low-priority projects.
  • Delaying the start of selected activities. Most popular project management software provide algorithms for selecting or suggesting activities to be delayed. Typically, these algorithms will start by selecting activities with slack—those in the lowest-priority project that can be delayed without affecting the scheduled completion date of the project.

If these methods cannot resolve the overload, there are two more options that are legitimate if authorized, but that should be avoided if possible:

  • Reducing the scope of one or more projects.
  • Extending the duration (scheduled completion date) of one or more projects.

The key to resolving resource imbalances is the ability to anticipate them. Most of the methods listed above require advanced decision making and preparation in order to be implemented.

The good news is that you aren’t required to anticipate and resolve resource overloads, and few organizations make any attempt to do so. The overloads will always be resolved automatically. The bad news is that if you fail to resolve the overload, the default solution will virtually always be the unauthorized application of one or both of the two options listed above that should be avoided; that is: Some of the work on some of the projects will never get done, or some of the projects will be completed late, or both. As mentioned earlier, the people working on the projects will experience unnecessary stress that’s due primarily to the inadequacy of the organization’s project management system.


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For 39 years Quality Digest has been the go-to source for all things quality. Our newsletter, Quality Digest, shares expert commentary and relevant industry resources to assist our readers in their quest for continuous improvement. Our website includes every column and article from the newsletter since May 2009 as well as back issues of Quality Digest magazine to August 1995. We are committed to promoting a view wherein quality is not a niche, but an integral part of every phase of manufacturing and services.