Using MS Project to Improve Project Performance

People often ask me what I find to be the most useful tool to perform my job as a project manager. I pause when responding to this question, because I prepare my share of presentations in MS PowerPoint, create many project deliverables in MS Word, manage my budget using Excel, and I have expressed in many blogs how to improve your project environment using SharePoint. However, because I view the project schedule to be at the core of good project management (my bias as a Time Management instructor shines through), I generally respond that MS Project is the tool that I rely on the most to do my job as a project manager.

In the enterprise project management space, MS Project Server has a lot of competition, but in the project management tool space it is my opinion that MS Project is by far best in terms of features, flexibility, and ease of use. The focus of this blog is how project management tools, specifically MS Project, can be used to improve your ability to manage project performance, from the perspective of becoming both more efficient and effective as a project manager.

Common Myths about using MS Project and Other Project Management Tools

  • I am too busy managing the project to deal with maintaining a project schedule – My response to this myth is that you are too busy managing a project to NOT create and maintain a project schedule. I have seen plenty of situations where the team has invested time and effort in a very extensive project schedule, and then they do nothing with it once they start progressing through project execution. This generally happens because the project manager does not know how to use MS Project to effectively progress and update the project schedule. The time required to create and maintain the project schedule pays for itself over and over throughout the project life cycle with the information required to understand and communicate what needs to be done when, and by whom.
  • It is just as effective and much easier to use Excel to manage the project schedule – I will admit that if you are creating a list of activities/tasks and assignments, Excel does the trick just fine. However, once you need to sequence that tasks, estimate durations and work, and load resource requirements, you quickly get beyond the capabilities of Excel. The time to required to set-up these capabilities in Excel would be much better invested in leveraging the robust out-of-the-box scheduling features of MS Project.
  • Non-project managers cannot understand MS Project – I agree that most non-project managers have a hard time relating to the details maintained within MS Project. Predecessors, durations, WBS are foreign terms to most non-project managers. However, MS Project provides the ability to tailor views of the schedule in ways that non-project management stakeholders find easy to understand and use. From my perspective, it is much more productive to create useful views in MS Project (one time), than spend the time to reenter schedule information into other tools for presentation purposes.
  • Does not work with iterative delivery approaches, only waterfall – Having been the project manager on plenty of Agile projects, I understand that there are additional tools utilized heavily to manage scope and measure progress (the product backlog and burn down charts). However, as a project manager you still need a project schedule to establish and manage overall timing related expectations. The schedule will not contain the details of the sprint, but it is utilized to put the sprints in the context of the other project related activities (e.g., product releases, training, and knowledge transfer).
  • MS Project has a mind of its own – I was mentoring a project manager one time who told me, “his tool had been compromised”. Admittedly, a certain level of complexity is a by-product of the features and flexibility of MS Project. Therefore if you are not familiar with how to create a schedule that can be easily progressed and updated throughout project execution, the project schedule becomes an enigma rather than an enabler. If you are not well versed in MS Project and/or the construct of your project schedule, the impact of updates to the schedule become difficult to understand and communicate. The simple answer to this myth is to get the training and mentoring required to be proficient using MS Project.

6 Ways MS Project Helps Manage Project Performance

1. Breaking down the work: MS Project provides the ability to easily capture and organize the WBS (Work Breakdown Structure). The use of indentation makes it easy to decompose the work from the highest level (project phases) to the lowest levels (tasks) of the project. In addition, the ability to collapse specific sections of the schedule allows you to focus on specific areas of the work breakdown. Some project teams prefer a graphical representation of the work breakdown. The tasks can be easily be imported/exported from MS Project to tools like Visio to support the desire to review a graphical depiction of the WBS.

2. Sequencing Activities: Dependency relationships are utilized to link two tasks in the most logical manner possible. The default in MS Project is Finish-to-Start (FS), but this may not be the relationship that most accurately defines the linkage between two tasks. This relationship may represent a “hard” dependency (this must happen in a certain manner), or a “soft” dependency (a relationship set up to establish a logical flow of the project activities). In addition to establishing the relationship, predecessors and successors can be utilized to create leads (acceleration or overlap) and lags (delays or gaps) between schedule activities. MS Project provides a lot of flexibility to ensure the Project Manager has the ability to sequence the work in a manner that reflects the way the work will be executed.

3. Creating the timeline: After the project activities, durations and dependencies are loaded, the schedule is starting to take on some shape and form. The Gantt view is one of the most effective tools for communicating the timeline associated with key summary tasks and milestones. Use the MS project filters to limit the tasks to those that convey the appropriate message.

4. Managing resource loading / utilization: The mechanics of loading resources into the project schedule is very straightforward. MS Project provides the ability to either load effort based upon estimated hours to complete or percent the resource is allocated to the tasks. In addition, the resource utilization view displays the effort planned for each team member and the ability to make the appropriate adjustments to “level” the resource utilization.

5. Progressing the project: Maintaining the project schedule throughout project execution is referred to in project manager speak as “progressing the schedule”. In MS Project the project manager has the ability to update the % complete, estimated to complete, and the actual effort worked. In addition, the project manager will make updates to duration & work estimates, dependencies, and tasks to ensure the schedule continues to reflect the way planned work will be completed.

6. Understanding project impacts: Upon completion of the planning process, a baseline “snapshot” of the project schedule is saved in MS Project. This baseline provides the ability to measure current schedule performance against the original plan to understand and communicate actual and planned impacts to the project schedule. These impacts are reflected in the schedule as variances that are captured for the start and finish dates of individual activities, summary tasks (i.e., project phases), and project milestones.

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PM Foundations – Managing Supplier Performance

How you work with and manage a supplier on your project is directly related to the type of products and services you are purchasing from the supplier. These products and services may be resources performing specific services/roles, purchase of tangible off-the-shelf products (i.e., infrastructure, software licenses), or built to order products (e.g., custom software applications). In general, the larger and more complex the purchase, the more time and effort you will invest in the supplier management plan. In addition, the greater the dependence of the project’s success is on the supplier the more focused you will be on building a good working relationship with the supplier. In these cases, your goal is to transition from a pure customer-supplier relationship to a true partnership, where both parties have something to gain from the successful project outcomes.

Supplier Management Approach

Again, the supplier management approach will vary based upon the types of products and services purchased for the project. The following outlines the type of project related purchases, and the different supplier management approaches.

Resource Purchase – The supplier is providing resources to fulfill specific roles on your team for specified periods of time (or to complete specific deliverables). The following are the key elements of the supplier management approach for a resource purchase:

  • Resource(s) are on-boarded as any other team member, with a defined role on the team and a related set of expectations/deliverables.
  • Supplier performance is directly tied to the performance of the resources assigned to the team.

Product Purchase – The supplier is providing a standard product has been selected to meet specific needs of the project. The following are the key elements of the supplier management approach for a product purchase:

  • The product is purchased for a pre-defined price.
  • The product is delivered/installed based upon an agreed upon delivery schedule.
  • The project team validates that the product works as advertised (based upon commitments during the purchase cycle).

Make to Order – Fixed Price: The supplier is delivering a product/solution that will be customized to meet the needs of the project at a fixed price (based upon a common understanding of the product requirements). The following are the key elements of the supplier management approach for a make to order purchase with a fixed price contract:

  • The supplier commits to the timing of the delivery of a set of deliverables, including the final product, for a predefined price.
  • The project team validates that the final product delivered meets the specifications defined in the contract.
  • Any changes to the original specifications must be managed on a case by case basis.

Make to Order – Time & Material: The suppler is delivering a product/solution that will be customized to meet the needs of the project, and the purchase price will be based upon the actual time and materials required to deliver the custom solution. In most cases, the cost of the solution is estimated at the beginning of the project, but the final price is directly tied to the actual effort and resources required to complete the work. The following are the key elements of the supplier management approach for a make to order purchase with a time and materials agreement:

  • The supplier commits to the timing of the delivery of a set of deliverables, including the final product.
  • The project team validates that the final product delivered meets the specifications defined in the contract.
  • Any changes to the original specifications must be managed on a case by case basis.
  • The project team manages the effort and cost associated with the delivery of the product / solution (against the estimated cost/effort provide by the supplier).

The chart below summarizes the different supplier management approaches for each of the different types of purchases.

Project Management Approach

As the project manager you play a major role in supplier management. In the same manner the supplier management approach is aligned with the type of product and services purchased, the project management approach must be adjusted appropriately. The following outlines the key elements of the project management approach for each purchase type.

Resource Purchase:

  • Supplier resources are managed in the same manner as other resources on the team. It is important to define roles, and establish accountability for deliverables/assignments. On an on-going basis progress and completion of deliverables are managed based upon established expectations of the role.
  • Ensure that billings are accurate based upon the rate established in the statement of work, and the time reported.

Product Purchase:

  • Ensure that product is received on-schedule.
  • Ensure that the appropriate product validation is completed (the timing of this validation is managed based upon dependencies in the schedule for the product delivery/installation).
  • Ensure that the amount billed is consistent with the contract/purchase order.

Make to Order – Fixed Price:

  • Monitor progress of interim deliverables, tied to delivery of the custom product/solution. Key supplier milestones are built into the schedule, and tied to dependent deliverables.
  • Ensure appropriate product validation is completed (against product specifications). Product validation deliverables are built into the project schedule.
  • Changes to the product specifications, or the timing or cost of delivering the product, are managed using the change control process established for the project team.
  • Ensure that the amount and timing of billings is consistent with the contract / purchase order.

Make to Order – Time & Material:

  • Monitor progress of interim deliverables, tied to delivery of the custom product / solution. At a minimum, key supplier milestones are built into the schedule, and tied to dependent deliverables.
  • Ensure appropriate product validation is completed (against product specifications). Product validation deliverables are built into the project schedule.
  • Changes to the product specifications, or the timing or cost of delivering the product, are managed using the change control process established for the project team.
  • The supplier effort and costs must be monitored and controlled on a regular interval. Earned value is a very effective metric for monitoring time & material contracts (effort vs. progress).

The chart below highlights the key elements of the project management approach for each of the different types of purchases.

Supplier Management Best Practices

Best practices associated with managing supplier performance include the following:

  • Make sure that supplier work and deliverables are clearly identified in the project plans (project management plan, schedule, and project budget). This includes:
    • Supplier deliverables are clearly identified as sections of the WBS.
    • An alternative to creating separate sections in the WBS for the supplier is to identify the vendor deliverables/activities with a separate activity code in the project schedule (preferably using a field that can be filtered to provide a view of supplier deliverables/activities).
    • Often supplier deliverables and activities are not reflected in as much detail in the project schedule, because the supplier is managing this work in a separate project schedule (this is particularly true if the work is performed off-site at a supplier location).
    • Generally, a separate cost category is created in the project budget (or a sub-category – line item) for each supplier. On the monthly cost updates, supplier costs are grouped together, and compared to the amount budgeted for the supplier.
  • The approach and process for managing each supplier is clearly defined in the project management plan. This approach is mutually agreed upon with each supplier. In addition, the supplier is provided “the big picture” associated with the project, and how they fit into the project plans. Many of these expectations will be defined in the supplier agreement or statement of work. This includes:
    • Other project deliverables that supplier deliverables are dependent upon
    • Supplier deliverables that other project deliverables are dependent upon
    • Success factors associated with the supplier products and services
    • Acceptance criteria for the supplier products and services
    • Other project related processes that the supplier must comply with (status reporting, time reporting, financial reporting)
  • Establish one change management process that is utilized for the entire project. Unnecessary confusion is introduced by establishing processes that are unique to suppliers.
  • Product validation is reflected in the project schedule, with the appropriate level of detail. It is important that the supplier understands the timing of the product validation activities, in case they need to respond to any issues identified during this process.

Using SharePoint to Manage Project Meetings

In one of my previous blogs I talk about establishing rhythm on your project. Rhythm is a best practice area that ensures your team works together in a consistent, cohesive, and collaborative manner throughout the project life cycle. Rhythm involves three important elements of effective project execution:

 

  • Teamwork – People on the project are working together to accomplish a common goal.
  • Cadence – Work is getting done on-time, and in the sequence that it should.
  • Communication – People are informed and engaged at the right time about relevant topics.

Why is project rhythm so important?

The project team works more efficiently and effectively with a common understanding of the goals and the plan to “get there”.

  • Team members are more likely to be well-informed, and actively participate in decision making when strong communication and collaboration processes and tools are established.
  • Team dynamics & satisfaction are improved on a team that understands what progress looks like.
  • Bottom line: Good project rhythm improves project delivery outcomes.

SharePoint provides many features to help enhance the team’s rhythm. One of the most valuable of these features involves management of key team meeting. Efficient and effective meetings improve the interaction amongst team members, and confirm that the appropriate follow-through is executed after the meeting. The use of the Meeting Workspace within your project site helps make certain that the right people show up and are prepared to actively engage in key discussion topics.

The Meeting Workspace is a site template pre-configured to manage key elements of your team meetings:

  • Meeting Objectives
  • Attendees
  • Agenda
  • Pre-read materials
  • Minutes
  • Action items

The Meeting Workspace provides a self-contained and easy to access location for team members to better prepare for team discussions, and continue to collaborate on relevant topics after the meeting. I continue the description of the use of the Meeting Workspace to improve project rhythm context of two types meetings — recurring team meetings (e.g., core team and steering committee meetings) and one-time events (e.g., deliverable and milestone reviews).

Recurring Project Meetings

The project manager is responsible for ensuring that both the core team and steering committee are fully engaged throughout the project life cycle. The Meeting Workspace represents an excellent tool to help engage these teams in important project related discussions. The Meeting Workspace makes sure team members are better prepared for the meeting:

  • Objectives of the meeting are well understood
  • Meeting attendance is up-to-date
  • The agenda is published in advance of the meeting
  • Status of follow-up actions from previous meetings is maintained on an on-going basis
  • Pre-read materials for the meeting are available on the Meeting Workspace site (or links are provided to other locations on the project site)

In addition, the Meeting Workspace is used to continue collaboration on follow-up actions after the meeting:

  • Minutes are published that summarize key discussion topics, and more importantly decisions made during the meeting. How many times have you left a meeting wondering what was really accomplished or decided? Use of the Meeting Workspace to reenforce good meeting related processes helps upgrade the efficiency and effectiveness of your team meetings.
  • Action items are maintained in a list, including person responsible, target date, and current status of the action item. Collaboration continues on this list until actions are closed.

Below is an example of the Meeting Workspace for a Steering Committee.

Milestone / Review Meetings

The Meeting Workspace is also a very effective tool to manage significant team events, such as milestone or deliverable review sessions. These type of sessions are very important to the success of the project, because they are utilized to obtain feedback from key stakeholders and make strategic decisions about the both the project and the product. In addition, these meetings are generally expensive to conduct due to the length of the session and the number of people involved. The Meeting Workspace helps ensure that these sessions are as efficient and effective as possible:

  • Stakeholders understand the objectives of the session
  • An agenda is established that outlines what will be reviewed / discussed, and who is facilitating each discussion topic
  • Documents to be reviewed are available within the Meeting Workspace (or links to other locations on the project site are provided)
  • Decisions made about the milestone or deliverable are recorded
  • Follow-up tasks to complete the review, or make a final decision, are captured and continued to be updated until all open tasks are closed and the review is considered complete.

Below is an example of a Meeting Workspace for a milestone review session.

Integration with Outlook

One of the questions I frequently get asked when talking about using the Meeting Workspace to improve project delivery is, “Isn’t there additional effort to keep the information on the Meeting Workspace in sync with calendars in Outlook?” The answer to this question is that there is excellent integration between Outlook and SharePoint for scheduling the meetings, and managing attendees. Therefore there is no additional effort required to keep your Meeting Workspace and Outlook calendars up to date. When setting up a new meeting on your Outlook calendar, you can link an existing Meeting Workspace or create a new Meeting Workspace using the Meeting Workspace icon (see the icon circled in the screenshot below).

The link to the Meeting Workspace is saved in the body of the meeting notice in Outlook (see below). This makes it easy for team members to access the pre-read materials and other information about the meeting right from their Outlook calendar.

5 Benefits of Using SharePoint to Manage Team Meetings

  1. Establishes structure & organization – We know the right things to do for effective meeting management (agenda, minutes, action items), but we do not always do them consistently. Using the Meeting Workspace to manage meetings helps re-enforce team meeting related best practices and establishes good structure and organization for your team meetings.
  2. Easy access to pre-read materials – From the Meeting Workspace, team members can easily find the information and materials required to prepare for the meeting. These materials can be maintained in a document library on the Meeting Workspace, or provided as a link in the Meeting Workspace.
  3. Integration with Outlook – Using the Meeting Workspace icon when setting up a meeting in Outlook, you can link to an existing Meeting Workspace, or create a new Meeting Workspace within your project site. The link to the Meeting Workspace is maintained within your Outlook meeting notice to provide easy access to additional information about the meeting.
  4. Documents do not get lost in Project Artifacts – Meeting minutes and other key meeting artifacts are maintained in a self-contained document library tied to other information about the meeting (agenda, action items, attendees). These documents often get lost when they are maintained in the project deliverable library.
  5. Collaboration after the meeting – The use of the Meeting Workspace encourages on-going collaboration around key discussion topics, after the meeting is conducted. This collaboration ensures that all team members understand the decisions that have been made, and proactively perform the follow-up actions that were assigned.