External dependencies are a complex issue in Project Management.
Direct external dependencies may cause those issues in our program schedule:
- Non-critical schedule delays (negative floats)
- Critical schedule delays (negative floats in the critical path, or in one of them
- Higher costs and risks derived from these delays
- Issues with resources interacting with these external sources (vendors, suppliers, engineers, construction managers, etc.)
- Issues among contractors working at the same site
Project schedule issues cause all kind of risks, which need to be properly analyzed by the adequate method and software, strategically planned, managed timely, and controlled closely. Risk management is a complex topic by itself, and can be related to the nature of the activity, to the project scope and location, to the project environment, to the industry, to the contractor, supplier or vendor past performance, etc., etc. Problem is that a contractor may try to hide issues (and their related risks) to avoid penalties and other repercussions to his job and company.
A good project manager and project controls manager will however be able to detect when something is not looking right. An odd cost pattern, a productivity index spike, a resource work surge or replacement, may be a hint that an issue has been hidden. The next step for the PM is to try to manage the issue(s) by interacting with the external source(s) of the risk(s), analyzing the situation together, and try to build a solution that will solve, or at least mitigate the problem for the project. I have seen this done several times, and this is what is called Dependency Management. This effort is especially important when the external dependency impacts the critical path, or causes a relevant cost increase, a serious environmental risk, or another relevant issue.
However, we also often have "indirect external dependencies" that need to be detected and managed - whenever possible. They occur when a contractor's schedule have direct dependencies with another contractor's schedule. THESE dependencies can also cause several issues, costs, risks, and delays, with one blaming the other, and the PMO should try to solve or direct their best resolution, to minimize program issues.
To deal with these external dependencies in a large program, I have often created separate top sections, one for the Key Milestones, and other for these external dependencies, and directed the contractor schedulers to have similar structures, so that even though they can make frequent changes to the schedule, their top sections would continue to be static, and their related special links in my IMS would continue to be valid, without the need for serious maintenance.
A relatively small number of external dependencies in a single project can be properly identified (special column with a flag, for instance) and controlled without the need for these top sections, even though I always use the Key Milestones one.