Get Microsoft® Project to work for you instead of against you

Abstract

Are you frustrated by Microsoft® Office Project 2003 or 2007, and rather than use this powerful scheduling tool have you reverted back to Microsoft® Office Excel? This paper discusses the problems associated with typical “where to click”-type training by taking a “how it works” approach and explaining the business application for specific features of Project. In particular, the first part of the paper covers problems with current training models and the second part of the paper covers “how it works” in Project. Special areas of focus include dependencies, constraints, milestones, deadlines, task calendars, and task types. Overall, you will gain some insight into the best ways to use features that are designed to help a project management practitioner manage a schedule. After reading this paper, you will be able to discuss how the critical path is computed, be able to differentiate between deadlines, constraints, and task calendars and be able to discuss the impact of task type during calculations.

Introduction

Computer savvy professionals who understand the concept of scheduling may attempt to teach themselves Microsoft® Office Project. Unfortunately, some behaviors of this scheduling tool conflict with skills learned in other software, such as Microsoft® Office Excel. As a result, this creates frustration among users and generates schedules that are difficult to set up, challenging to maintain, and often discarded as unusable for managing a project. Typically, the issues users face are due to specific features they do not understand. In some cases, the assumed behavior of the feature goes against the programming design by Microsoft®. By giving users a better understanding of the purpose of commonly-confused features, they will be able to utilize the software as a supplemental project management tool and track the myriad of activities necessary to accomplish the goals of the project. This paper will discuss dependencies, milestones, deadlines, constraints, task calendars, and task types. This paper will also touch on how “where to click”-type training may not have explained the business application for specific features and leaves users with knowledge gaps that create confusion when applying features on-the-job.

When working with new computer software, the average person applies skills they have learned in other computer programs. For example, I know that F9 is used to recalculate in Microsoft® Excel, so I am tempted to try that key in other programs to do the same thing. In Microsoft® Project, this keyboard command works exactly the same. Based on my experience, I am tempted to try other familiar shortcuts and may assume that any feature that resembles a Microsoft® Excel feature will work the same way in Project. Making this assumption can be problematic. A sports analogy can be used to illustrate this point. Being a skilled tennis player may give you an advantage in another sport. Tired of tennis elbow, you decide to take up golf. You immediately identify some similarities between the sports; they are both played outside, require strength to swing, involve hitting a ball, and involve accuracy in aiming. With so many similarities, you are confident you will be a proficient golfer; however, when you try playing golf for the first time, you realize the differences. The distance you are aiming for is much farther away, the golf club handles differently than a tennis racket when trying to control the ball, the terrain is dissimilar, and the swinging posture is different. Suddenly, you feel like a pathetic putterer. Frustrated, you consider returning to tennis.

However, instead of packing up your clubs and driving your golf cart to the nearest tennis court, you decide to ask a nearby golfer for advice. As she seems to be having more success at keeping her golf balls out of the pond, you are confident she will be able to help you improve your game. However, you discover that she has been teaching herself to play golf by watching videos on the Internet, but has never had any formal training. She gives you advice that improves your game by teaching you improper techniques, which you then practice and perfect.

Like the tennis player who expects to be good at golf, a skilled user of Excel may expect to be immediately successful at using Project. However, despite some similarities with Excel, there are important new skills to be learned in order to be successful at Project. For example, in Excel, information can be entered into any cell and can be modified at any time. In Project, only certain types of information (i.e., letters or numbers) can be entered into each particular cell. This difference can cause frustration for the Project novice. In addition, the novice may become concerned that there are not sufficient cells to enter information, when additional cells are merely hidden.

Like the novice golfer, the novice Project user may seek advice from a co-worker who has experience creating schedules using Project. When asked, the co-worker begins by displaying a Gantt chart with a series of bars representing activities. Excited, the novice user asks, “How can I learn to create a chart like that?” The helpful co-worker says, “Simply type in the start and finish dates of every task like you enter dates into cells in a spreadsheet.” While typing dates will create a nice-looking Gantt chart, it is a bad habit to develop. Like the well-meaning golfer, the helpful co-worker's advice may help the novice temporarily, but will lead to problems in the future. If he continues using the technique described by his co-worker, he will receive error messages and encounter other challenges when trying to create schedules. As discussed in Dynamic Scheduling® With Microsoft® Office Project 2007, when you use the Start and Finish fields in Project, the software creates task constraints and makes the schedule very inflexible” (Ambriz, 2008, p. 234). In the process of trying to learn Project, the novice Project user has received advice that actually goes against the scheduling technology built into the program and creates a static schedule (2008, p. 183). In addition, he is now going against the good practices of a schedule model by not allowing Project to function as a dynamic tool (Project Management Institute, 2007, p. 13).

Problems with Current Training Models

At this point, you may have discovered that the self-teach and learn-it-from-a-friend models are not always the best way to acquire new skills. Depending on how it is presented, training may not be any better. Again, this can be illustrated by using the example of a person trying to learn to play golf. Providing a new golfer with a list of step-by-step instructions is unlikely to be successful. Missing even one step in the process can create failure. What if the person forgot to tell the golfer to place the ball before swinging? This highlights the problem with “where to click” training. Often called “clickercise,” this type of training is presented as a series of steps to use a feature and full understanding does not occur until the steps are completed (Greenberg & Clark, 2002, p. 1).

A better alternative is to “Teach How it Works” (Greenberg & Clark, 2002, p. 7). In golf, the trainer might explain that the goal is to hit the ball long and far, while balancing speed and control, in order to reach the hole. Power can be increased by using a longer swing or by placing the hands closer to the top of the golf club. By explaining the process, the new golfer can fill in the steps needed to achieve the desired result (2002, pp. 7-12). Individuals who are trying to learn Project are often given “where to click” training. However, explaining how the software works as a scheduling tool is a better way for them to learn Project, and can help you learn how to get Project to work for you.

The following provides the “how it works” information and business application behind various features and gives insight into the best application of those features. To implement any of these ideas, your copy of Microsoft® Project should be either the Standard or Professional edition, and ideally the 2003 or 2007 version. Excluded are features only available in Microsoft® Project Server.

How It Works in Project

Dependencies

The concept behind dependencies is to create logical relationships between tasks to generate an effective schedule model (Project Management Institute, 2007, pp. 13-14). Although this process takes some time to set up initially, you save time managing the schedule later because the schedule responds globally to changes. In other words, you have a dynamic schedule that allows you to apply one change and the software will automatically forecast the change to any impacted tasks (Ambriz, 2008, p. 183). How much time you save will vary, but here is an example of someone I worked with. Alicia (name changed for privacy) worked in an IT department at a major manufacturing company. Her job was to maintain the schedule for one IT project related to rolling out an update to the company's internal product management software. Every week, she sat in a meeting with other IT members and collected changes to the expected start and finish dates on individual tasks. Following the meeting, she would enter the start and finish dates for each task that had a change reported and then she would determine if any other tasks in the schedule might be affected. Using a large calendar, she would place objects from her desk (eraser, staple remover, etc.) on the previous start and end dates of the changed task and count the number of days from the end of the task to its new ending date and record that number on a sheet of paper. Next, she would look at the schedule and see if there were any tasks that needed to be moved as a result of the change. Using the number she recorded, Alicia would apply it to the next task and count forward to a new start date. She would continue to repeat this process until every impacted task was updated. Team members who missed the weekly meeting would give Alicia last-minute date changes and all her work would have to be recalculated. In addition to the frequent recalculations, another problem with this method was that often times Alicia would not be finished with the numerous changes prior to the next meeting.

By the time I met with Alicia, she was frustrated, worried about losing her job, and hated Project. After some detailed explaining, I was able to help her understand that she was not utilizing Project's scheduling engine. To get her on the right path, we looked at a printout of the existing schedule, including all the start and finish dates, as well as a large calendar. We counted the days on the calendar from the start date to finish date of each task and recorded that number as the task's duration. Next, we removed the constraints on all the tasks. (For more information, refer to the next section and also use Tasks with Fixed Dates filter.) Then, we began the detailed process of linking tasks to represent relationships. As in many schedules, we created all Finish to Start links using the Link Tasks icon (Ambriz, 2008, p. 197). This option requires that each task finish before the next task can start. Overall, this process took about 10 hours, but I ensured her the time spent would pay off later.

Alicia was overjoyed the next week when she revised the schedule in only one hour, as opposed to more than 50 hours, which is how much time she used to spend. Although her team members did not provide her with duration information, Alicia was able to figure out the duration change for each task and simply change that value. Then, she watched as the rest of the schedule responded. The project I worked on with Alicia was still in the planning stages and no work had actually started, but because team members were doing advance research on the anticipated work, Alicia had to make changes every week. Imagine how much time your company could save if you use the dependency feature the way it was designed.

Another benefit of changing the schedule was that Alicia then understood how the critical path was calculated. She was able to see that it came from the longest path of related tasks throughout the schedule (Project Management Institute, 2007, p. 91). Refer to the Critical filter or Gantt Chart Wizard (Ambriz, 2008, pp. 348-349). During future meetings, she was able to instantly alert someone when their change would impact the finish date of the project because she had a separate printout of only critical tasks. What Alicia was doing wrong in initially working with Project was setting constraints. Constraints will be explored next.

Constraints

Accidentally, constraints are created by typing in dates in the Start or Finish fields or by dragging Gantt bars left or right. Purposefully, constraints are set through Task Information on the Advanced tab. Regardless of what the scheduling software has planned based on the dependency information, using constraints is a way to say, “I am ignoring the logic in the plan.” In Project, Constraints work by allowing you to override Microsoft's scheduling engine for a specific task or group of tasks and tell the software, no matter what the calculation is, you need the task to occur at a specific time (Ambriz, 2008, pp. 221-230). Contrast this with Excel. In Excel, when a number changes in a formula, the results of the formula automatically change and continue to change as needed. In Project, you have the option to create a hard start and/or stop point for a task. Depending on how you use this feature, it can represent an external factor in your schedule that has control, regardless of the schedule makeup, or it can be used as a warning to individuals modifying the schedule (2008, pp. 221-230). Individuals often make the mistake of using too many constraints because they want control over their schedule. The purpose behind Project is not to give you control, but to give you a model to assist in managing the project (Project Management Institute, 2007, p. 13). The model responds as you manipulate information and shows you schedule alterations (2007, p. 13). If you leave constraints out of your schedule, you are letting the model respond appropriately, which is typically the reason people use scheduling tools (2007, p. 13). Constraints should not replace milestones, which are discussed next.

Milestones

Some people mistakenly think critical check points that need to be visible in the schedule should be created by typing a date in a start or finish column. Previously, it was explained why this is a bad idea. Milestones will display a delivery date automatically on your Gantt chart if you simply type a zero in the duration column (Ambriz, 2008, pp. 172-173). The concept behind a milestone is that you are creating obvious points in your schedule that can represent the end of a phase, meeting with a customer, or completion of a deliverable. In addition, using milestones makes the schedule easier to read because you are breaking up the display of Gantt bars with black diamonds (2008, pp. 172-173). Refer to Exhibit 1: Milestone and Deadline Illustration. If instead you need to show both a scheduled check point date and a target date for the milestone, you should use deadlines, which are discussed next.

Deadlines

Businesses need to keep track of targets they set internally or provide to customers. While Excel keeps track of that information in columns, the concept behind that feature in Project is different. In Project, the targets overlay the schedule. Think back to transparencies and the overhead projector. The deadline feature in Project works like Xs marked on a transparency on top of the schedule. The deadlines are frozen at a specific point. Many people incorrectly create a deadline in their schedule by typing a date in either the start or finish column, which represents the deadline. Previously in this paper you learned why this is a bad idea. The suggested method for creating a deadline is to decide which activities should have targets on them and, using Task Information, go to the Advanced tab and enter the deadline date (Ambriz, 2008, pp. 221-223). Refer to Exhibit 1. The advantage of using the deadline feature is that Project will visually alert you in several places if you are in line with your target or falling behind. If the deadline feature notes that you are falling behind, perhaps you need to apply a task calendar. Task calendars are covered next.

Milestone and Deadline Illustration

Exhibit 1 – Milestone and Deadline Illustration

Task Calendars

The task calendar is used when you need a task to occur at a specific time, while ignoring everyone else's calendar (Ambriz, 2008, pp. 238-242). During a project, you may discover you have missed a deadline, but will be able to make the deadline if a few tasks are completed over the weekend. The difficult way to accomplish this is by figuring out which resources are allocated to those particular tasks and change their calendar to allow for weekend work during those time periods. The problem with doing this is you may accidentally allow other tasks to also be assigned to weekend work. The simpler solution is to create a new calendar only for weekend work and apply it selectively to any tasks that should be completed on the weekend. To do this, open Task Information and choose Calendar on the Advanced tab (2008, pp. 238-242). Now Project knows to allow Saturday and Sunday as working days, but only for specific tasks. The final section for discussion is the concept of task types.

Task Types

Task Types is a frequently-confused feature in Project. To access this feature open Task Information, on the Advanced tab, and notice the Task Types. The options available include Fixed Duration, Fixed Units, Fixed Work, and the related option of Effort Driven (Ambriz, 2008, pp. 296-306). With Task Types, Project will calculate in a particular manner whenever you apply or change resource assignments. First, we will explore the meaning of duration, work, and units. Duration is the length of time for a task. Duration appears as a Gantt bar in Project while work is the number of hours needed to complete that same task (2008, pp. 296-306). Units represent the number of resources on a task and can be a portion of a resource when that resource is working part-time (2008, pp. 296-306). Effort-driven means that a particular task can be done faster (i.e., shorter duration) if more resources are available to do the task (2008, pp. 296-306). Project allows you to turn on or off the effort-driven option with all task types except Fixed Work. In Fixed Work, the effort-driven option is always on. The business application of the task types feature is that you decide the limitations that exist on your schedule and choose the task type and effort-driven options that represent those limits. An example is a machine that cuts a pattern out of a metal plate to create a part for installation in a computer. If you only have one of these machines, you have a resource limit of one unit. Another example is the inspection of pieces of bulletproof glass before they leave the manufacturing plant. If only one person is available, this task will take 50 hours; however if you have another person available, this task will take 25 hours. This example illustrates an effort-driven task.

Merging the task type concept with effort driven is designed to help you control the decisions Project makes regarding when a calculation is necessary. Refer to Exhibit 2: Task Type Table.

Task Type Table

Exhibit 2 – Task Type Table

Project uses task type and effort-driven options that you provide to drive its calculations (Ambriz, 2008, p. 300). Because you know the business application surrounding each task, you are in the best position to indicate what limitations exist for every task and can select options that enforce these limitations. Particularly with this function, you can see that being able to click a feature does not mean that you understand its purpose.

Conclusion

Throughout this document, you learned that dependencies create logic for dynamic models, constraints may restrict the schedule, milestones provide check points throughout the schedule, and deadlines help you monitor targets. You also learned that task type and effort-driven options help apply business restrictions to a task and control Project calculations. Applying features in Excel to Project and expecting great results is like a skilled tennis player expecting to be a great golfer because the sports have similarities. Instead, seek out training that provides “how it works” instruction over “clickercise” training and you will “Get Project to Work for You.”

Note: You may obtain more information about topics discussed by connecting with a registered education provider (www.iil.com) or by joining a group of international Project users (www.mpug.com).

References

Ambriz, R. (2008). Dynamic scheduling® with Microsoft® Office Project 2007: The book by and for professionals. Ft. Lauderdale, FL: J. Ross Publishing, Inc.

Greenberg, S., & Clark, R. (2002). 503: How Microsoft designs e-learning environments that build complex mental models – RLS. Retrieved on July 8, 2009, from http://www.elearningguild.com/content.cfm?selection=doc.142

Project Management Institute. (2007). Practice standard for scheduling. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2009, Cindy Lewis and Rodolfo Ambriz
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida

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