Microsoft Project

This article is the second of four articles designed to provide an introduction to this popular project management solution. “Microsoft Project tutorial: Duration and task types” explained Microsoft Project’s core formula and task types. You can also read part 3 and part 4 online.

Today, I’ll cover how to build a plan in Microsoft Project. Building a plan—defining how you and your resources will achieve your project goals by laying out the tasks—is the heart of your project planning process.

In this article, I’ll examine each of the following:

  • Entering your tasks
  • Making work estimates
  • Assigning task types
  • Creating dependencies between tasks

Entering your tasks
You’ll begin by entering your tasks. Many people take this step for granted and hurry though it, but it’s worth your while to give it the time and attention it deserves.

There is no hard-and-fast rule for how long this step should take. If you’re entering tasks for a type of project you’ve done before, you may breeze through this step because you already know what has to be done. If you’re entering tasks for a type of project that’s new to you, give yourself more time to research the requirements. Talk with people who may have done the project before. This information can be invaluable in creating a good task list. Don’t be afraid to ask around if you’re unsure.

MS Project makes it easy to enter your task information by providing forms that you can quickly tab through to enter all the important data. Figure A shows the Task Details form in the lower pane of the Gantt Chart view. This form can be very helpful when entering your task data.

Figure A
The Task Details form

To access this form, simply click on the Split command on the Windows menu bar. Click into the lower pane and then click View | More Views | Task Details. Now when you select a task in the upper pane, the lower pane will show data that pertains to the selected task.

Figure A shows two sets of summary tasks, each with three subtasks. Summary tasks provide a great way to group tasks together. For fields such as Work or Cost, the summary task field will show the sum of the subtasks. For dates, the summary task dates will be the earliest start date and the latest finish date of its subtasks. Use summary tasks to gather your tasks into logical groups. Doing so will make your plan easier to read.

Making estimates
The next step is to create work estimates for your tasks. These estimates will drive much of your work on the project.

You should make these estimates without thinking about how many resources you have. This will be hard at first, because it’s natural to think in terms of how many people you can assign to a certain task.

Instead, think in terms of work hours. How many work hours will each task take? This number should be the same regardless of whether you have one person or 100 people working on the task. Later, when you assign resources, you’ll determine how many people the job requires. But what’s important now is entering the most accurate work-hours estimate you can into the Work field of each task.

You should note that, by default, this field is not displayed. To display it, right-click on the Duration field in the Gantt Chart view and click on the Insert Column menu item as shown in Figure B.

Figure B
Gantt Chart context menu

This will bring up the Column Definition dialog box, shown in Figure C.

Figure C
Column Definition dialog box

In the Field Name drop-down box, select Work. You can also use this dialog box to edit the column’s title, set the alignment of the title and data, and specify the column width. Click OK, and you’ll see the Work column displayed between the Name field and the Duration field.

Deciding on task type
As discussed before (see “Microsoft Project tutorial: Duration and task types”), Task type will play an important role in how MS Project reacts to changes you make to your plan.

First, determine what factor drives your tasks. In other words, what is the key element in the equation “Duration = Work/Units”?

If the duration must remain constant—for example, if your primary consideration is meeting a deadline—then Fixed Duration would be the right choice.

But perhaps your task, or even your whole project, is a bid depending on a certain number of hours. In this case, Fixed Work might be the best choice, so that changes in units (resource availability to work on your tasks) or duration will not affect the work values.

You might choose Fixed Units if, for example, you’re borrowing resources from a different department and this loan is available only half-time. In this case, you would want Project to adjust Work or Duration to keep the Units values (in this case 50 percent) constant.

You can enter this information in the Task Details form as mentioned above and shown in Figure A, or you can double-click on any task and see the Task Information dialog box. Click on the Advanced Tab of this dialog box, shown in Figure D, and choose the task type from the drop-down menu in the lower section.

Figure D
Advanced Tab of the Task Information dialog box

Creating dependencies between tasks
All but the simplest projects are driven by the relationships, or dependencies, between the component tasks. These dependencies determine when certain tasks can begin.

Figure E demonstrates this. The sample Gantt chart shows that the task called Butter Bread depends on the task called Toast Bread. The butter task cannot start until the toast task is complete.

Figure E
View of dependencies

Your project will most likely contain many relationships like this one. Microsoft Project can help ensure that these dependencies and their effects on your schedule are correctly updated and displayed.

Microsoft Project calls these Predecessor and Successor links. These terms refer to the fact that the first task in a link (the predecessor) drives the second task (the successor). In other words, the successor depends on the predecessor.

The most common link is a Finish-to-Start link, in which the finish of the predecessor drives the start of the successor task. (There are other link types, but they are much less common, and we won’t cover them here. You can find more information on these links in Project’s online help.)

The easiest way to create links is to use Project’s drag-and-drop functionality. Simply hover over the predecessor task until you see the cursor, shown in Figure F.

Figure F
Creating a link: Cursor

Then drag the cursor onto the Gantt bar of the successor task and release the mouse button. While dragging, you’ll see the image shown in Figure G.

Figure G
Creating a link: Drag and drop

When applying these links, remember that they almost always make a project duration longer. Use them only when a task absolutely cannot start until another finishes. Unnecessary links will make your project longer than it needs to be. Use links with care.

Next: Assigning resources
At this point, you’re ready to build the foundation for your project’s plans. In the next article in this series, I’ll discuss assigning resources.

Tracking your accomplishments?

How do you keep track and quantify your accomplishments during the year? We’d like to hear your tips and tricks for documenting what you do before evaluation time. E-mail us with your suggestions.