Tools & Techniques – Microsoft Project Best Practices (2)

Tracking Gantt
Tracking Gantt

Project Conference 2009 continues through this week in Phoenix, AZ.  As Microsoft prepares for the release of Project 2010, it’s a good time to reflect on some additional best practices that project managers should keep in mind when using their current version of Microsoft Project.

Know the Limitations of Critical Path Methodology – CPM was developed by the DuPont Corporation over 50 years ago as an effective method to identify activities with no tolerance for delay.  You can use the Gantt Chart Wizard function to display the critical path in Microsoft Project.  One significant limitation with the Critical Path Method is that it does not account for resource constraints, only task dependencies.  Project managers who are dealing with limited resources often find that not all projects can be managed to the critical path schedule.  Incorporating the Resource Leveling feature can help a project manager identify resource bottlenecks in addition to the critical path.  Using the Leveling Delay column and the critical path helps to pinpoint which resources and tasks are the ones to focus on first when optimizing the schedule.

Learn to Compress Schedules Effectively – Project managers are always trying to save time and often utilize many schedule compression techniques.  It’s important to practice each technique in Microsoft Project in order to become as efficient as possible when optimizing the timeline.  One of the best places to start optimizing is in resource reassignment.  When working in a resource constrained environment, reassigning a leveled critical task to an available resource is a great way to save time.  Other compression techniques include applying concurrency (negative lag in Microsoft Project) and shortening duration.  Both of these methods should include documentation (I always recommend on Task Notes) to identify the assumption(s) made in order to fast track or crash the activities.

Achieving Consensus and Understanding Baselines – This is always an interesting topic.  Saving a baseline in Microsoft Project is a simple mouse click – a 5 minute feature review to go over the menu command and which fields are affected.  But it represents a fundamentally important point – the consensus achieved between project sponsor and the team over what will be delivered, who will do the work and what is the agreed upon schedule and budget.  The project manager is responsible for reaching this agreement as a result of the project planning process.  Setting a baseline essentially takes a snapshot of the planning data and saves it for future reference in the tracking and control phase of the project.  The importance of this step within the process of using the tool cannot be understated.

Controlling Projects by Variance Analysis –Here’s where Microsoft Project shines.  Once an effective planning process is completed and a good baseline is set, the Tracking Gantt View and Tracking Table can be utilized to collect actual status and provide quality decision making data for corrective actions.  Fields like Actual Start, Actual Duration and Remaining Duration are far more effective than % Complete.  Team members are much more accountable to task updates when asked for remaining duration or work as opposed to % complete.  Good project managers will go around and gather actual status from team members prior to any status meetings and then use the team meetings for more important activities like problem solving, risk management, scope change control and additional planning.

Supporting Multiple Project Managers –Whether it’s a large well established PMO or a single project manager who wants to improve the way projects are managed in the organization, there are many best practices in supporting a group of project managers.  The easiest place to start is by standardizing many of the useful objects within Project and replicating them to other plans or templates with the Organizer feature.  These objects usually include tables, filters, views and calendars (e.g. to establish working time for various countries).  Organizing a regular company user’s group meeting can be an effective way to share lessons learned and keep everyone on the same page.  Other useful techniques that support project management in the enterprise include Shared Resources, usage of master and subprojects, project-to-project dependencies and portfolio resource management.

For a more in-depth look at Microsoft Project Best Practices at UCSC Extension in Silicon Valley check out the Elective Course link in the left menu for Managing Projects with Microsoft Project.    *** NOTE: Space is still available for the next class starting  Sat 9/19 ***

Coming up next time, a closer look at…  PMI and the PMP credential – why it’s finally time for many project managers to consider certification.

Thanks for reading.  Your comments are always welcome!

– Jim Park, PMP
Instructor, Project and Program Management certificate program
UCSC Extension in Silicon Valley


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