Most project scheduling tools, such as MS Project, Primavera, and Project Libre, do not encourage essential project management best practices. Their outputs are also tricky to print and read, even with a large format printer, unless care is taken in formatting. As a result, you may find you have plans with unintended consequences.
While these products were not designed entirely by professional project managers, they have sufficient power and flexibility to incorporate practices to improve your schedule's success. Here are ten tips to consider as you create your plan. While any included navigation is for MS Project, these tips are essential for all three (and other related) products, which operate on similar principles with a different user interface.
- Add project critical success factors as milestones at the top of plans as a reminder. At the start of any project, it is vital to determine how the project sponsor will define success. I try to distill these down to a half dozen or fewer sentences and post them at the top of all project documents. The schedule is no exception, and these can be added as task names at the top of any plan; they will not have any effect on plan computations.
- Add the Type column to the Entry Table (left-side Gantt Chart view). MS Project and similar products work on the principle that there is a relationship between project effort, duration, and resources. It has the ability to hold one of three factors constant to compute the third when given the second. MS Project identifies these through task types. Without knowing the task type, calculations may have unintended (or at least misunderstood) consequences. Keeping this column visible for review is essential.
- Add the Work column to see all three factors in the plan. By default, MS Project starts with only the duration and resources columns exposed. In addition to adding the Type column, adding the Work (MS Project's name for effort) column makes sure all the variables in the important relationship are seen.
- Add the Project Summary Task to see overall project stats at the top of the plan (Format, Show/Hide Group, checkbox). While a summary of project effort, duration, and cost is available, once again, there is no place like the top of the chart to keep these numbers top-of-mind. When setting up your new project, be sure to activate this feature.
- Do not turn off the "?" (on by default) for durations. When automatically calculating duration from effort and resources, MS Project puts a question mark next to the number. Rather than turn off this feature, use it as a checklist. It goes away when you type the final duration. This ensures that you review any calculations. Remember Project automatically halves durations for an added resource. This is not always the case, so think about whether or not this is true and type over the calculated amount. When you are finished with your review, you can switch off the feature to remove the question from tasks with no change.
- Manually scheduled tasks have shortcomings. Set up Project such that new tasks are automatically scheduled (Options>Schedule>Scheduling options for this project); use manual sparingly to avoid unexpected computations.
- As plans expand, section them out by project phase or major deliverables through space separation, changing bar colors, highlighting, etc. One of my first major plans was more than 20 pages of tasks, and it was just a "starter" plan to be filled in by other project managers. It wasn't easy to read and identify where key work occurred with so many tasks all alike. Many simple edits can make this easier to read. To start, place a blank line between phases and end each phase with milestones of the major deliverables. Even with these edits, the pages often blurred. Text and bars for tasks were color-coded for each phase, making them readily identifiable.
- Project is great at Gantt charts, not so great on budgets. Due to some of its computational shortcomings, MS Project is not the best place to create and maintain a budget. While some of the cost items may be useful information, I generally advising keeping a separate budget in a spreadsheet or other tool, especially if the budget is critical to success. On the other hand, once you have a completed budget, you can keep track of your budget in in MS Project by using Budget Cost Fields.
- Be aware Project lacks many common-sense business rules. Since I mentioned computational shortcomings, it's only fair that I bring these up. First, there are the inevitable bugs. Although I had specified a half-time resource in one early version of MS Project, the resource budget reflected the full time. In the 2016 version, I found that the order in which data is entered can affect how task work is split. Of course, this also has consequences for the budget if the resources are paid different rates. Changing a project start date will not adjust project constraint dates (better: always use As Soon As Possible). And while documenting a 4x10 work schedule is possible, Project uses the calendar set up (Options>Schedule>Calendar options) when computing dates (the 4x10 schedule is just documentation). This latter rule makes it critical to set up calendar decisions before task entry. Failure to do so means you will have to start all over again as changes do not trigger the needed re-computations.
- Abbreviate, Abbreviate, Abbreviate. Space is limited on-screen and in printouts. Shorten column names (Predecessors --> Pred: right-click on the header, Field Settings, fill the blank Title field), use resource abbreviations (Resource Sheet), and set shortest time unit abbreviations (Options>Advanced>Display options for this project). This will ensure the best use of the screen and paper real estate. Remember, Gantt chart bars can be close together, so there is not a lot of room for added text.
Related Topics: For more information about Microsoft Project schedules, you may want to read General Overall Project Schedule Setup and Creating a New Microsoft Project Schedule or Microsoft Project Tips and Tricks 2017. For more tips not specific to scheduling tools, you may want to read 5 Tips to Avoid Common Scheduling Issues.
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