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Milestone table instead of schedule: A dangerous trap for the project team!

“Why do we need the schedule? Give me the target dates and I know the rest!”

Have you heard this sentence before? If you are working in a project environment as a planner or project manager, most likely your answer is yes!

This is a fact that many of the project team members or even project managers especially in multi discipline projects prefer to work based on the target delivery dates (milestone approach) instead of having the complete and detailed schedule and being traced based on that. There are several reasons for this preference. Let’s first take a look to these reasons. Usually project team members prefer the milestone approach better than schedule approach due to one or a combination of these reasons (or excuses!):

  1. Schedules are too complicated to read.
  2. In reality not always everything goes as it is planned.
  3. Milestone approach gives us the flexibility to work and plan our job and possibly recover backlogs and delays.
  4. At the end we should meet the delivery dates (milestones). So leave us and just let us to focus on milestones!​

All of these argue could sound to some extent valid but there are very serious and undeniable threats that could make the milestone approach a deadly trap for the project team.


First and foremost, using the milestone table instead of complete schedule increases the threat of neglecting about the interactions with the other disciplines. A correctly developed schedule accurately maintains the inter-relationships between different parties’ activities so the impact of each activity on the overall project is accurately traceable. That is obvious that you cannot see these inter-relationships in just a milestone table! Especially in big and complicated projects, no matter how experienced you are or how familiar you are with the project, there is always the threat that you miss an interaction with other stakeholders while you are planning your job in your mind. Just imagine that you have only two weeks to the milestone date and you think you are finished with the job but you suddenly realize that you have forgotten the client review and comments period of 3 weeks!


The second threat of using milestone tables instead of schedules is a well-known phenomenon which is usually addressed as “Student Syndrome” or “Parkinson’s law” in project management terminology. As Lechler, Ronen and Stohr (2005) explain, Student syndrome refers to the fact that human tend to postpone starting of the job to the latest possible and allowed date. The Parkinson’s Law also states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. In other words, people tend to not finish the job ahead of schedule even when it is possible!


Admit it or not, this is a fact about human’s behavior and focusing on milestones instead of using the detailed schedule, opens the door for such an unconscious behavior. This is while regular measurement of the performance against the baselined schedule helps project managers to make sure that activities don’t take time more than what they really require and prevent the team members to waste the float existing in the schedule. There is no need to mention that maintaining the existing float in the schedule is important because it is a safety margin for on-time completion of the project. Schedule float is a tool for project managers for risk mitigation and give them the room for preparing recovery plans when some of the activities are delayed due to unexpected issues.


The third reason which is somehow related to the previous item is that in most of the contracts there is a signed schedule baseline as a contractual document which clients use it for measuring your performance. Also in many of the contracts clients own the schedule float. So basically and from claim management point of view, contractors are not allowed to consume the float by extending the duration of activities. Of course if you focus on milestone table you can have no control on the float and while you think you have a good performance because you feel that the delivery dates look achievable, your client may see your performance not acceptable because you are not following the baseline schedule! To feel it better how important is to work according to the signed baseline, just imagine a situation that you lose a large amount of claimed compensation fee or bonus money just because you wasted the float owned by your client and worked not according to the signed baseline!


The last threat that I would like to mention here is that when the use of milestone tables take the place of using schedules, the approach gradually changes the organization culture to put less effort on the planning process since people may find the schedule useless. This mentality is a big danger for the whole organization because it makes the outcomes of planning process not accurate and not realistic since people do not care about active participation in the planning process anymore. I brought this threat to attention because I heard this several times from project managers that: We prepare the schedule and keep it in the background but for the team, let’s just use the milestone table!


OK! Now we understood that we should use schedules instead of focusing on milestone tables! But the problem is still there because many of the people who are involved in projects still prefer to stick to their lovely simple milestone tables! What we can do? Force them? Yes that could be an answer but I doubt it works! So what we can do to reconcile project team and schedules!


Well I have some suggestions to answer this question:


First of all I would suggest organizing a sort of schedule understanding and awareness workshop. However people may not admit it but many of them don’t like to use schedules simply because they don’t know how to read it! In a workshop you can explain how the schedule is set up and how people can get the information they need from the schedule!


The second very important work to do is to involve people in the planning process. Don’t forget that the team members should plan their own job! Organizing Interactive Planning Sessions would be very helpful to involve people in the planning process and make the outcome of the planning process (Project schedule) favorable for the project team.


The third suggestion is to pay more attention on designing smart and easy to read schedules and schedule layouts. Identify the information that project team require to receive and try just to show those information to them. Don’t bombard people with the information they find it unnecessary and useless. Tricks like using smart ID’s and appropriate sorting and grouping for activities are very helpful for making your schedule easy to read and understand for the team members. Issuing Look-ahead schedules also is very helpful for controlling the level of information you distribute to the team.


The fourth thing we should do is to make using schedules a part of the culture of organization. Setting up appropriate standards and regulations for project controls plays very important role in this regard.


And finally, we should not forget that we can expect the team members to use the schedule only when we provide them a good quality, accurate, reliable and realistic schedule!




Lechler, T. G., Ronen, B. & Stohr, E. A. (2005). Critical chain: A new project management paradigm or old wine in new bottles. Engineering Management Journal, 17(4), 45-58.

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