Tips for Working with Microsoft ProjectTM

Introduction: Microsoft Project is a flexible software application for creating schedule graphics, estimating resource requirements, analyzing task dependencies, and tracking project progress. It can be used to provide a graphical presentation of your project schedule, where you simply list the tasks and assign task durations or dates. While that approach may enable you to present a schedule picture to management, it is not adequate for managing a project with any size, complexity, or risk. The method describe below provides a more comprehensive use of Microsoft Project, using its resource management features to help you determine if you have a reasonable plan.  In many project environments, managing scarce staff resources and dealing with unreasonable schedules are the bigger parts of achieving project success.   (I'm sorry to say that so many versions of MSP are in use that I have omitted describing the specific key strokes needed to accomplish the steps below.)


Step 1: The first step in using MS-Project (MSP) is to assign the project start date.

The project start date will be the default start date for all tasks until you establish dependency relationships.  If you don't put in a start date, MSP will put in the current date.

If yours is a long-term project, you may also want to adjust your project "Calendar" at this time to compensate for holiday times.

Step 2: The next step is to write a list of tasks to fill the left column of the Gantt schedule and organize them in a deliverable-oriented work breakdown structure (WBS).

Click the indent arrows to move tasks to the right and establish tiers of summary titles over the tasks.

It may require serious thought to cluster tasks the way you will want to measure and report progress. Your project charge numbers should be unique to each WBS category where you will measure performance. (For instance, if you want to measure project performance against major WBS categories, plan to have unique charge numbers for each major category.)

Step 3: After the WBS and task list are defined, add resources and work estimates (hours).

Please do not input end dates or task durations!

The software tool will only be useful for resource planning if you assign resouces and then enter work effort (in hours), and then let MSP determine the dates and durations. You will have to insert a column for work effort, as it doesn't appear on the default Gantt format.  A task with fixed duration, such as a procurement lead time, may be entered as a "fixed duration," but all other tasks should be entered as "resource driven." (Double click the task line to bring up the entry window. At the bottom of the resource section, you will have the opportunity to specify fixed work, fixed units (people), or fixed duration.)

While doing initial planning, it may be useful to make up skill codes as the initial resource name. When you have a staffing plan, you can always replace the skill codes with names, if needed.

(Note: If you have no resources assigned when the work estimates are added, the work estimates will be changed when you add a resource.   This is just a bother.  Be alert to make sure you don't lose your work estimates.  You can preserve this data by "saving as a baseline" and then opening the column "baseline work.")

After resource assignments and work effort estimates are added, check to see if the durations are reasonable. Adjust either the resource allocation or the work estimate to achieve realistic task durations.

Step 4: The next step is to establish the dependencies or "precedences" between the tasks.

These precedence relationships will usually be finish-to-start, but you can add lag or lead times to offset or overlap dependencies. When precedence relationships are entered, the PERT graphic can often be arranged to create an orderly picture.

I recommend that you take the time to organize the PERT view of your project. MSP will put the tasks in an arrangement that spreads them out over a vast area. Format the boxes to the smallest size and then group them into an area that you can print. When you want to see the overall shape of your PERT chart, use the print preview and view multiple pages. When you have organized the small boxes into a useful area, you can use large boxes and organize the flow of work so it tells a useful story.

On large complex projects this can take a few hours of simply moving boxes around, but it is very useful in helping you comprehend the scope, interdependencies, and work flow of the project. It is also the view from which you can best perform analysis of the critical path and near-critical paths.

This entire process (Steps 2 thru 4) should be iterated with the responsible task leaders until there is general agreement on the task list, work estimates, staffing assumptions, durations, dependencies, and end dates. Then you will have a realistic plan.

Step 5: When you have iterated your plan so you feel that the task list is complete, the dependencies are realistic, the staffing is feasible, the work estimates are valid, and the overall schedule result is acceptable (Yikes!), and have received buy-in from the staff, then save the plan as a baseline.  That will enable you to use the Tracking Gantt feature in the future to status your project.  (The Tracking Gantt provides a cool graphic that will show which tasks are on schedule, once the work starts and you input actuals.)

Step 6: If you intend to do performance measurement, save a copy of this schedule as your performance measurement baseline.

Use the "View/Resource Usage" to look at projected expenditure of labor by skill category for the duration of the project. These hours can be turned into a spend plan for tracking project spending and for measuring against earned value estimates. Copy the data into EXCEL, which you may have to do in peices (data, names, dates).  Then use the graph wizard to show a profile of total labor against time.  If this looks like Mt. Everest, you have a problem.


Additional MS-Project Support:

The Microsoft Project web pages provide a variety of templates for various types of projects. In addition, you can download a trial evaluation copy of MS-Project software.

If you want to convert your MSP schedules into horizontal graphics showing the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) format, there is software made by Critical Tools that will do this for you. You can download an evaluation copy off the web. It is limited to printing 50 tasks, but it gives a good idea of the quality of their product, which sells for $199.  This is a great product!

(Last revised: 1/31/01)

© Copyright 1997, James R. Chapman, All rights reserved.
Return to: Project Home