In an ideal world, you’d have all the resources you need to complete a project on time and within budget. Unfortunately, project managers regularly run into resourcing conflicts, capacity issues, and inaccurate estimates for task durations.
One way to handle these difficulties is to use a resource optimization technique like resource leveling. Resource leveling helps keep any resource limitations from derailing your project.
In this article, we’ll dive deeper into resource leveling, its benefits, and how you can use it to complete your projects on time and within scope.
What is resource leveling in project management?
Resource leveling is an optimization technique that ensures the most efficient use of available resources to complete a project.
The technique effectively manages resource constraints like scheduling conflicts, so that project managers and resource managers can balance available team capacity with the project demands. Resource leveling involves adjusting activities' start and end dates within a specific project. The changes can occur immediately after the project schedule is created or even during the project itself to account for shortages.
Let's say you have a project that requires two developers working on the back end of a website. But you have only one developer to do the job. You can complete the project successfully without overworking your team member using resource leveling. For example, you can split tasks so that your team member has enough time to complete their activities, or you can extend the planned duration of the activity.
The adjustments are made without impacting the project timeline. According to Mike Clayton, former project manager for Deloitte and founder of OnlinePMCourses.com, there are several ways to level resources. You can:
- Delay start times
- Extend planned duration
- Remove some tasks
- Allocate additional resources
- Split tasks up
- Bring tasks forward
- Assign alternate resources
“Remember that resource leveling is a response to a project that is over-constrained,” says Clayton. “Your job here, as PM, is to fight for a plan that is sufficiently resourced and has enough time to deliver in a way that does not stretch your resources to breaking point. Be an advocate for your people.”
What are the benefits of project resource leveling?
The main benefit of resource leveling is that it helps you manage resource constraints. You can optimize the use of resources in a project, solve resourcing conflicts, and avoid missing deadlines. It also helps ensure that project plans are realistic and executable.
According to Float's Global Agency Productivity Report, 74% of team members are overbooked on projects at least once a month. With that in mind, it's no wonder 71% of respondents in the APA Work and Well-being Survey feel stressed during work hours. Resource leveling can provide relief for over-stretched workers.
"Resource leveling is all about fair and efficient allocation of work," says Clayton. "The impacts are improved productivity and greater morale."
Maximizes use of resources
Resource leveling ensures you can finish a project with the available resources by delaying the start, performing tasks in parallel, or extending the timeline. This way, you can be sure to get the most out of the limited resources at your disposal.
Eliminates resource conflicts
Team members often work on several projects simultaneously, so their limits may be stretched.
For example, you need an illustration for a new blog post, but the graphic designer is busy working on a new landing page for a website. Since your project isn't a priority, you'll have to get creative. You may decide to ask a junior designer to work on the illustration, or you may extend the deadline for the task until the designer has time to work on it.
Ensures that project plans are realistic and executable
"When resource leveling is performed correctly, the result is a schedule aligned with a (resource) critical path that is both fast and obtainable," says Erik van Hurck, senior consultant at Projectum and Microsoft MVP. "We should acknowledge the fact that we might not be able to get the resources we need in the ideal resource-leveled schedule. Always take the schedule and scrutinize it in detail to find out if there is a possible issue with the schedule that was presented."
Resource leveling requires identifying schedule flexibility and resource constraints within the project. With this information, you can make accurate project plans.
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When should you use resource leveling?
Resource leveling will not solve every problem within a project. But it is pretty effective when there are constraints on your team’s availability. Let’s look at some scenarios where resource leveling is a great solution.
- Team members are not available to take on work
Your team will start working on a series of explainer videos for a client next week. However, the motion designer has taken some time off and won’t be available to start. To solve this problem, you can delay the start of the project a few days. This solution is best if you have some slack to work with.
- Team members are available but for limited periods
Your team is working on an ad campaign for a new client. The lead copywriter is involved in other projects and is only available for a few hours weekly. So you split the tasks over two days instead of one, giving them enough time to get the work done without becoming overwhelmed.
- Team members are overallocated
A marketing team of two plans to produce 15 blog posts per month. However, they discover that they won’t be able to produce this quantity without compromising quality and being overworked—so they hire a freelance writer to help them write some blog posts. Bringing on an extra person reduces the workload and time spent on the project.
What is the difference between resource leveling and resource smoothing?
Resource leveling is an optimization technique used when there’s a shortage of resources, while resource smoothing is used when there is little time to spare.
Resource leveling might affect the critical path and project timeline, whereas resource smoothing does not. Another difference is that resource leveling happens after task allocation, while resource smoothing takes place after the leveling of resources.
What are the types of resource leveling?
There are four techniques you can use when leveling schedules to overcome resource constraints:
- Critical path method
- Critical chain method
- Fast tracking
Let's explore each and how you can use them for resource leveling.
Critical path method
The critical path method determines the minimum time the project can be completed. It also determines the sequence of activities that should be completed to finish the project by the due date.
When leveling resources, it's essential to identify the critical path so you can accurately adjust schedules without risking project failure. Say you have a construction project which is to last six weeks. The estimated duration for laying the foundation is four days, and there is a slack time of two days (the amount of time a project can be delayed). Any delay that would cause the task to take more than six days could lead to missing the project deadline, as the other tasks can't begin until the foundation is laid.
Project managers should follow the steps below when using the critical path method:
- Identify activities in the project using the work breakdown structure.
- Create a sequence of activities by identifying the relationships between each task.
- Build a schedule diagram showing dependencies.
- Estimate the duration of each activity.
- Establish the early start and early finish for each activity.
- Establish the late start and late finish for each activity.
- Identify the critical path by finding the sequence of activities with the longest duration. This path will have all activities' ES/LS and EF/LF.
- Identify the non-critical path.
- Identify the available slack by calculating the difference between ES-LS or EF-LF.
Once you identify the critical path, you can optimize resources by compressing schedules. For example, you can shorten the estimated duration by assigning more people to the task to save time (crashing) or doing tasks in parallel (fast tracking).
While the critical path method is a good resource leveling technique, it doesn't consider resource availability. This is where the critical chain method comes in.
Critical chain method
The critical chain method determines a project's minimum duration while considering resource constraints. It also includes various buffer times for unforeseen contingencies.
Let's say it takes six days to lay bricks on a housing project. Instead of setting that exact number of days as the duration for the activity, adding a buffer of two days gives the masons more time to get the job done right.
- Project buffer: Extra time between the last task and the project's due date to add room for completing critical activities
- Feeding buffer: Time added to the non-critical tasks to avoid delaying the critical activities
- Resource buffer: Extra resources are reserved in case there's a need for more team members/equipment
Here's how to use the critical chain method for resource leveling:
- Determine the optimistic and pessimistic estimates for each of the activities.
- Build a project schedule with pessimistic estimates. This schedule should not be shared with your team.
- Build a project schedule with optimistic estimates. Your team will use this schedule.
- Build in buffers at the end of each path. For example, the project buffer is added at the end of the critical chain, and the feeding buffer is added at the end of the non-critical path. This extra time will be calculated from the slack in pessimistic estimates.
- Encourage your team to complete the project using the optimistic estimates as a guide. You will use the project buffers to protect against missed deadlines.
Crashing a project is bringing on extra hands to help get the job done faster. If cost is not a constraint and you are pressed for time, this is a good option. However, it might increase the project's duration if you bring on new people you have to train.
For example, building a new mobile app would take two months for a single engineer, which is beyond the client's deadline. So you hire a second engineer to help out.
Fast tracking is doing independent tasks in parallel or simultaneously. It shortens project timelines and helps work get done faster. However, it can lead to some mistakes, which could slow the project down.
For instance, let’s say you are in charge of fast tracking a building project. The engineers begin construction while the architects are still doing the design. After the foundation has already been laid, the architects identify a design flaw, and the dimensions are changed.
Unfortunately, this results in a delay in the project.
How do you use resource leveling?
From Gantt charts to spreadsheets to project management software, there are several ways to use resource leveling.
- Resource planning software
Resource planning software automates the complex parts of project resource leveling by making it easy to see capacity and utilization.
A tool like Float provides a centralized view of people and projects to see who’s working on what and when. This enables you to plan and distribute work based on availability and capacity. You can optimize how work is assigned by dragging and dropping a task to an available team member or splitting tasks to share with several team members.
- Project management software
You can manage project schedules by using a tool like MS Project, Jira, or Asana. Some of these provide automatic resource leveling features so you can adjust the project schedule with a click of a button.
Keep in mind that automatic resource leveling is not error-free. As Mike Clayton points out, “Trusting the software without understanding its algorithm is a risk.” A safer approach would be to assess the situation and make necessary adjustments manually.
- Network diagrams
Network diagrams are used to visualize project workflows. You can create a network diagram using a tool like Lucidchart or Miro. You can determine the critical paths of your projects and get a realistic view of bottlenecks, minimum dates to finish, sequence of activities, and other parameters.
A Gantt chart breaks down projects into timelines, tasks, and delivery dates. Gantt charts are great tools for planning your projects and visually representing project progress.
It shows resource constraints and resource conflicts that occur while scheduling, and you can adjust project dates to match the availability of your resources.
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Use resource leveling to get more work done
Let's face it—sometimes projects don't go to plan. Resource leveling can help you identify issues and manage problems that stand in the way of completing your projects on time and within budget. It's also beneficial for keeping workloads efficient and improving the well-being of your resources.
Using one of the resource leveling options above will help you plan smarter, execute faster, and keep your team happy.