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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About Steve Hart
Practice Manager responsible for project leadership & delivery services for the Cardinal Solutions Group in the RTP area. I am a PMP with 25 years of project management and technical leadership roles, have developed an extensive practical knowledge that spans a wide variety of industries, and project delivery approaches. As a practicing PMP, I am a member of the North Carolina PMI chapter. I am an avid sports fan, particularly the Miami RedHawks, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns, and most recently the NC State Wolfpack.

7 Responses to Using MS Project to Improve Project Performance

  1. Pingback: Using MS Project to Improve Project Performance « PMChat

  2. Angelique says:

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  3. Mike Meister says:

    It is also possibly to attach a hyperlink of a detailed Sprint, outlined in Excel, into MS Project.
    MS Project would just list the task as: Sprint 1 – the hyperlink would then take you to the Excel spreadsheet of the two week Sprint Phase with a daily breakdown.

  4. Steve Hart says:

    Mike- That is a great tip on how the sprint fits into the framework of the overall project schedule. I have also used TFS to manage the details of the sprint activities (tied to the sprint phase, but not uploading the details of the sprint into the schedule).

    Thanks for the input.
    Steve

  5. pafferreira says:

    Steve, great article with many tips. Congratulations. What do you think about I translate your post to Portuguese and make a cross reference between blogs?
    Feel free to answer me.
    Regards, Paulo A F

    • Steve Hart says:

      Paulo- You are more than welcome to translate the post to Portuguese, as long as you say you make a cross reference between blogs.

      Thanks for your great support.

      Steve

  6. Pingback: Usando MS Project para melhorar o desempenho de seu Projeto | Blog do PAFFERREIRA

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