Using MS Project to Set-up your Project for Success

Project managers that are not as familiar with using tools like MS Project to create a project schedule often “dive in head first” creating their project schedule. These project managers open a new file, start furiously loading project tasks, and the project schedule evolves as project planning progresses. After the project schedule baseline is established, and project execution begins, these project managers begin the weekly battle to maintain the project schedule in a manner that keeps it close to reflecting reality. Some of the telltale signs that your schedule is difficult to maintain include:

  • You change the dependency on a task and the dates do not change
  • You extend the duration and the work hours do not change
  • You add a new resource and the dates change unexpectedly
  • Your schedule shows people working on Thanksgiving and Christmas
  • Durations are displayed in hours, and work is displayed in minutes

I was working with a project manager whose schedule had become so difficult to maintain that he declared that his “tool had become compromised”. This created much frustration for the project manager, but the even worse result was that he was not sure that the milestone commitments established in the schedule were correct or achievable (and he did not know how to fix it).

Obviously, how well the WBS is organized has a significant impact on the ability to effectively and efficiently maintain the schedule throughout the project life cycle. In addition, there are several set-up activities within MS Project that allow the project manager to tailor the project schedule to meet their needs. Paying attention to these set-up activities when the project is first created allows you to better understand and control the behaviors within the schedule as you update the project schedule to reflect progress. The set-up tips described below include defining the project start date and project calendar, establishing default schedule options, and entering your project resources.

Defining Project Information

The first MS Project set-up feature I look at is Project Information. This feature establishes the start date for the project. This feature is also utilized to link the default project calendar to the project. If you are using MS Project Server, the project office has most likely established predefined project calendars. When using MS Project 2010, I generally start with the standard project calendar (see below for setting up the project calendar).

Setting up the Project Calendar

One of the most embarrassing things during a schedule review is when someone points out that you have scheduled resources to work on a holiday. That is why it is a best practice to early on tailor the calendar to accurately reflect your project environment. The project calendar is accessed from the function “Change Working Time”. This function provides the ability define non-working days (e.g., holidays). Again, if you are using MS Project Server, the non-working days are likely predefined on the project calendar you selected from the server configuration.

Setting up Schedule Defaults

One of the most important MS Project set-up functions (and also one of the most commonly overlooked) is Project Options. The Project Options lets you tailor many features based upon your personal preference, but the Schedule Options contains settings that will impact the day-to-day behavior within your project schedule. There are two primary components of the Schedule Options:

  • Calendar Options: These setting are used to define the work week (start and end of the week, hours / day, hours / week, and start and end of the work day). The calendar options may also be configured for specific project calendars.
  • Scheduling Default Settings: These options are utilized to define default settings associated with new tasks. I always recommend that durations are set-up as “days”, and work is set-up as “hours”. Unless there are special circumstances associated with your schedule, these are the most logic units of measure for managing the timeline and work effort. If you are creating a resource loaded project schedule, you should set up new tasks as effort driven. The option that seems to be confusing to project managers is the “task type”. The “task type” is utilized to define which task elements are updated when another element is updated (duration, hours, and resource unit allocations). The table below helps illustrate the update behavior associated with the different “task type” options. My personal preference is “fixed duration”. This option allows you to effectively control / manage the timeline (duration) when making updates to the schedule.

Note: Units refers to the % that a resource is allocated to the task. Fixed duration locks in the timeline and recalculates either units or work.

Defining Resources

Before getting too far into creating the schedule, it is important to define your resource pool in an organized manner. The following are the key elements associated with the resource pool:

  • Name – Use the standard naming convention for loading names in the schedule. It is important to be consistent.
  • Initials – Allows you to abbreviate the resource names for viewing in the schedule (takes up less space on specific views)
  • Group – Allows you to group the resources in a logical manner, either by organization or resource grouping. I generally use this field to define the different type of resources assigned to the project (e.g., project manager, business analyst, developer, QA).
  • Std. Rate – Defines the cost / hour for the resource. This is a key element for project budgeting purposes.
  • Max Units – Defines to what level the resource is working on the project. This is a key element used for resource leveling purposes.
  • Base Calendar – Establishes the working calendar that is used for this resource (may have specific resources with different work times).

If you are using MS Project Server to load projects into your project schedule, you select project resources associated with your project from the Global Resource Pool (vs. entering resources to create the project resource pool).

Note: This is a bit of a milestone on my blog – my 50th post. Hope you enjoy the content as much as I do creating it.

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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.

3 Responses to Using MS Project to Set-up your Project for Success

  1. Pingback: Using MS Project to Set-up your Project for Success

  2. Pingback: MS-Project® tip: How to customise text fields to calculate RAG Status | Brilliant Baselines

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