ghost schedules in project controls

Any project controls professional knows that during the course of a project multiple versions of a project schedule will be created. Schedules are often created at different levels. It usually takes a few iterations to get to an agree-upon baseline. Then there are progress schedules, scenario schedules, mitigation schedules, and perhaps even a recovery schedule. But what about ghost schedules? There might even be a ghost schedule.

What Is A Ghost Schedule?

Ghost schedules are essentially versions of a schedule that are not shared with the entire team. You could say they are kept in secret.

In a 2015 report by Navigant Consulting, the authors reveal that ghost schedules are most often produced in order to view the timeline of a project in terms of an earlier target finish date. Then the ghost schedule can be used to influence the project participants to back the new timeline or to influence other key project decisions. It can often be the case that a scenario schedule, a schedule built to explore a hypothesis or to demonstrate other possible timelines, becomes a ghost schedule when it continues to be maintained and progressed concurrently with the progress schedule.

You might have heard ghost schedules by some of their other names: concurrent schedule, shadow schedule or alternate schedule.

Since ghost schedules are used in the background, they can be controversial. A ghost schedule is clearly not the contract schedule. It can be maintained by the owner, or by the contractor or even by a subcontractor. Although a ghost schedule can used for analysis and decision-making, it’s not a document that is shared with the entire project team, making it’s use a bit of a slippery slope. However, it seems generally accepted that ghost schedules exist on a large majority of projects.

What Are Some Common Situations That Lead To The Creation Of A Ghost Schedule?

contractor ghost schedulesReferring back to Navigant’s report, there are many situations that lead to the spawning of a ghost schedule. Here’s a synopsis of some of the more common reasons broken down by the user of the Ghost Schedule. These are high-level summaries and for more on each situation, I would refer you back to Navigant’s report which has more detail.

Contractor Ghost Schedules

  1. Owner refuses to approve early completion schedule set forth by the Contractor. Thus, the Contractor creates a ghost schedule to track and target and early complete date.
  2. Owner & Contractor disagree on the execution of, or updates to the contract schedule. As a result, the Contractor maintains an independent schedule, while updating the contract schedule to the Owner’s requirements.
  3. The Contractor is attempting to finish earlier than the contract schedule in order receive early completion benefits, but does not inform the Owner. The Contractor in this case will maintain an early completion ghost schedule throughout the life of the project.

Owner Ghost Schedules

  1. Owners become unsatisfied with the Contractor’s schedule updates. They create their own ghost schedule and update it with more accurate data.
  2. Owners decide to maintain a copy of the contract schedule independently from the Contractor. Here, the Owner has empowered itself with a schedule that can be used to analyze project decisions and test scenarios.

What Are The Pros And Cons of Ghost Schedules?

<edit Sept 2, 16> Maintaining both a ghost schedule and the original schedule has some major implications. First, it’s not easy. Just maintaining the current schedule is usually a significant effort on its own, depending on the size of the project. So maintaining a 2nd copy is going to be a challenge, one that may lead to lots of frustration and extra effort, but a what cost? There is strong likelihood that the two schedules will eventually deviate to a significant degree, rendering the ghost schedule unusable.

Then there’s the confusion factor. Project controllers are already awash in data and scenario projects, and adding more may not lead to the clarity that decision-makers expect. Personally, I’m not a fan of maintaining a ghost schedule.

On the other hand, we know that ghost schedules are out there, and that there are many situations in which an alternate schedule is created and maintained independently during a project. A schedule is really a collection of data, or a dataset in IT terms. In today’s big data world, using a dataset to evaluate or forecast scenarios or other outcomes empowers the user. It becomes a tool for decision-making. It’s easy to copy data and we do it all the time. But what we have to keep in mind is that the originating dataset is bound by a legal contract and an understanding by the team.

If used at all, ghost schedules should be used as a tool to help facilitate a mutually beneficial outcome for the project, not as a tool that promotes secrecy and obstructs open communication between Owners, Contractors, Subcontractors and other stakeholders.

What are your thoughts on the use of Ghost Schedules?