Managing deadlines in Microsoft Project 2007

In this Microsoft Project 2007 tutorial, Andy Makar shares some ways to manage a schedule using deadlines with milestones and the project baseline.

My previous Microsoft Project 2007 tutorial showed how to add deadlines to your project schedule to validate that a desired end date was realistic. Depending on how you set up your project schedule, it may be acceptable to miss a baseline end date for a specific task as long as the major deadlines are not missed. Once management buys in to the established timeline, the deadline field can still alert you to late tasks and missed deadlines. In this tutorial, I will share some ways to manage a schedule using deadlines with milestones and the project baseline.

Managing deadlines across the critical path

The critical path is a good place to start with identifying deadlines. Deadlines can be assigned to project milestones, and usually key project milestones are found on the critical path. In a project, there may be other tasks that are not aligned to a company's standard set of milestones but still need to be tracked using a deadline.

1. Identify the critical path for your project: For refreshers about critical path, read my TechRepublic articles "Why Critical Path Is Critical to Project Management" and "View the Critical Path in Microsoft Project" (or watch the video version of this article). 2. Review the key milestones and tasks along the critical path. Remember that a one-day delay to any tasks on the critical path will extend your project end date by one day. By reviewing the tasks along the critical path, you can identify the key tasks that require deadlines. 3. Assign deadlines to the key milestones and tasks. As a recommended practice, you can assign the deadline column the same date as the baseline finish date for specific tasks. As the project executes, any tasks that will finish past the baseline finish date will trigger an alert for the task deadline. Based on the project environment, you may have additional days of float available that are not reflected in the project schedule. Deadlines allow you to recognize a commitment without necessarily enforcing the same baseline finish date.

Teams may manage the project to their baseline project data but communicate around a set of deadline dates for their sponsors. I've worked on several programs where our baseline dates were considered internal team data, and deadlines were used to communicate with the executive sponsors; it helped us to manage the project execution and the corporate politics and perceptions from external viewers.

Figure A depicts a sample project schedule with a few deadlines assigned to the critical path. Figure A

Deadlines along the critical path. (Click the image to enlarge.)
4. Track project progress and monitor the Indicator column. With deadlines assigned along the critical path, the project can continue to execute, and the project manager can record progress against the project schedule. As the project is updated, the Start and Finish dates will adjust based on the project performance. The project manager can monitor the project baseline and monitor the Indicator column for any late deadlines.

By filtering on all the deadline dates, the project manager can identify all the specific deadlines across the project.

In Figure B, you see several tasks that have exceeded the task and the project deadline. The Gantt chart will still shift past the deadline indicators and further indicate where progress is impacted. Figure B

Missed deadlines. (Click the image to enlarge.)

Using deadlines for internal commitments

During project initiation and the initial project planning weeks, it is common to develop an initial project schedule that leads into the formal project schedule. (It shouldn't be a surprise to have a plan for the actual "plan" -- after all, we're project managers). During this time period, scope definition can change and, although baselines can be established on a rolling basis, the planned set of tasks can change quickly.

In these situations, I use deadlines to reinforce internal team commitments and specific dates to complete important tasks. On one project, the team was working with multiple vendors that required many documents and presentations to be prepared before the vendors could be engaged. The project team had high-level milestones identified but wanted to set up a series of internal commitments to track the progress of developing the key documents. By using deadlines, the team was able to record the target promise dates and use the graphical indicator feature to identify delays.


Remember that project deadlines are not always stakeholder dictated, and the project team can establish their own internal commitments. A task's project baseline finish date may occur before the task deadline, as teams may use these days to provide additional "float" when a completed milestone is planned to be communicated and not just completed.

Deadline indicators provide an alert system when the team needs to react and replan in case of slippage. Graphical indicators are useful tools in schedule management, and deadlines are a good way to use prebuilt indicators in Microsoft Project.