Project Management

Microsoft Project tutorial: Tracking progress

Sound planning is one key to project success, but sticking to the plan and keeping the project on track is no less critical. Learn about some Microsoft Project features that can help you monitor progress and keep small slips from turning into landslides.

Tracking your project and ensuring that it stays on target are the real guts of project management. Building a good plan is not nearly as hard as keeping that plan on track after reality sets in and starts taking your wonderful plan apart. Once your plan is set up and your resources assigned, you are ready to start your project. This brings you to a different set of Project features, which can help you track your progress and compare this progress to your original plan. In this article, we’ll examine the following methods of tracking progress:
  • Baselines
  • Status using percent complete
  • Status using actual work hours

Using baselines
After you have your resources leveled and everything is set to begin, you might want to baseline your project. Baseline is a common project management term. It refers to a set of data about your project that represents its state before the work actually began. In Project, a baseline is a copy of the Start, Finish, Work, and Cost for all the Resources and Assignments, plus Duration for all the Tasks in your project.

Together, this data represents the state of your plan at the time the baseline is saved. The baseline will be a valuable tool to use as your project progresses, and after it completes, to compare how the real life of your project matched up with what you projected during the planning stages.

To save a baseline, click on Tools | Tracking | Save Baseline. This brings up the Save Baseline dialog box, shown in Figure A. Click OK, and you’ve saved your baseline.

Figure A
Save Baseline dialog box


The best way to see how your project’s progress matches up to the baseline is to switch to the Tracking Gantt view. Just click View | More Views and then select Tracking Gantt from the list.

As you can see in Figure B, this view uses Gantt bar styles to show how the current state of the plan compares to the baseline.

Figure B
Tracking Gantt view


The dark bars under the red or blue bars show the baseline start and baseline finish dates, while the blue and red bars show the current start and finish dates. From this, you can see that Task One is now 2.5 days in duration rather than the one day that the baseline shows. Also Task Two is starting half a day late and Task Five a full day late.

This view can be a great tool for locating your project’s trouble spots and to alert you to how a slide in one task might affect your original estimates. You can use this comparison to figure out what changes must be made to other tasks or resource allocations in order to bring the project back on track with the baseline.

Using percent complete and actual work done
There are two commonly used methods of updating a project plan in Project with the status of your project work. The first uses percent complete to take a general measure of how “finished” a task or assignment is. The second uses a collection of actual work done by resources.

The percent complete method is faster than the actual work method, but it gives a much more general, higher-level view of status. The actual work method takes a bit more time and requires more detailed communication between the project manager and the resources, but it also provides much more detailed information about where the work is being done and where trouble might be.

Percent complete
The percent complete method uses the general feelings of the resource or the project manager about how complete an assignment or task is. You are asking your resource to tell you what percentage of the work is complete. You then enter this information into the Resource Usage view by adding in the Percent Work Complete field, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C
Resource Usage with Percent Work Complete


So when Resource One tells you that it’s 25 percent finished with Task One and 50 percent finished with Task Four, you would enter this information as shown in Figure D.

Figure D
Percent complete for Task One


Actual work
The actual work method is basically the same as percentage complete, except it offers more detail. The actual work approach is normally used when a resource uses a timecard to track how many hours are spent working on each task for a given time period.

Depending on your own processes, these could be daily or weekly time periods. The reporting of the work done for these time periods is typically handled on a weekly basis. So every Friday, your resources turn in some kind of document that tells you how many hours they spent on each task per day or for the whole week.

Again, the Resource Usage view is typically where the project manager enters this information. This view allows you to enter actual work on a time-period-by-time-period basis. So if you ask your resources to submit their actual work on their tasks day-by-day, you can set up the view to display Actual Work, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E
Resource Usage view set up to record actual work


You can add the actual work row by right-clicking in the yellow area and selecting the Actual Work menu item. Notice that in Figure E, we’ve entered Resource One’s actual work for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday for Tasks One and Four. This process should be repeated for all resources and assignments. Now the project is updated.

A key point to remember here is that the application of actual work can change the duration and therefore the finish dates of tasks. An example of this is shown in Figure E, where Resource One worked Monday for seven hours on Task Four and one hour on Tuesday. The original plan called for Resource One to work eight hours on Monday. Applying seven hours on Monday and one on Tuesday extended the finish date out to Tuesday.

The same kind of thing occurred with Task One. It was planned to have eight hours of work done on Tuesday, eight on Wednesday, and four on Thursday. But the hour on Tuesday for Task Four meant that Resource One could work only seven hours on Tuesday on Task One. Then, they worked eight hours on Wednesday but had to work five on Thursday to make up for the hour not worked on Tuesday.

This scenario is a perfect example of how one task slipping even a little can affect other tasks. And this example is a very simple one, with no dependency links. If it had been a large plan with many links, that one hour would likely have rippled through the plan. It is important to pay close attention when applying actual work that does not match up with the original plan. After applying your actual work, switch to the Tracking Gantt view and examine the effects. Figure F shows the Tracking Gantt view for our little project.

Figure F
Tracking Gantt view of example project


We can see that the application of actual work to the tasks has moved them out from their original baseline positions. The solid blue lines are the Actual Start and Finish dates, and the gray lines are the baseline dates.

As your project progresses, you will use this view to see how the application of actual work changes your plan. If the actuals for your task threaten to delay the completion of the task or the project, this view will help you identify the problem, and then you can decide how to correct it.

The solution may be to move resources from less important or ahead-of-schedule tasks to work on the problem areas. Another option might be to borrow resources from other departments or projects. A third option might be to decrease the scope of tasks so that the amount of work done to date makes them complete.

These actions are the bread and butter of project management. They are also where Microsoft Project’s work stops and yours starts. Project can help you see the problems, but you must make the decisions to change the course of a slipping project. Project is just a tool and, like any other tool, it requires an educated user.

Additional resources
This series of articles is a small step on the road to learning all the ins and outs of Project. We have just barely scratched the surface of its features and abilities. To learn more, check out Project’s online help. It has some great information. You should also look at the Microsoft Project Web site, where you will find white papers, articles, and tips concerning the basic and advanced uses of MSP.

The Microsoft support newsgroups are also a good source of continuing education and problem solving. Point your NNTP newsreader (Outlook Express or Netscape are the most common) to the server msnews.microsoft.com and search the group list for the word project. You’ll find several groups about MS Project. Post your questions there and you will usually get answers back within a few days. You can also browse through and see if someone else has asked the same questions you have.

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