Our 30 second Microsoft Project health check

A large part our services is helping our clients in a scheduling capacity, where we help build their Microsoft Project files.

Occasionally, we’ll do this from a cold start – one where we’re starting fresh, as there’s no existing Microsoft Project file to work with.

Most commonly, though, we’re taking a client’s existing file and building it into a well-structured schedule that’ll work correctly as a forward-looking management tool. Where this is so, the first thing we need to know is if there are any problems with the clients’ files that need to be fixed.

Here’s what to look for to check if your Microsoft Project file is in good shape. Once you know what to look for it’ll take you less than a minute.

1)  Too many constraints, for all the wrong reasons

microsoft project constraints

In the illustration above, we can see a large number of constraints have been placed against tasks. They’re circled in red within the Indicator column. Every project is different, but you should expect to see only a few constraints within a file – perhaps as few as 1 per 20 tasks.

Where you see this many it means 1 of 2 things; firstly, it could mean that the user wasn’t quite sure how to link their tasks correctly and tried to make their tasks line up by changing the dates in the Start or Finish columns. That won’t have the effect they were after and will only cause their tasks to be “locked” into place.

Secondly, the user may have tried to track their actuals by changing the dates in the Start or Finish columns, and that’s not the correct method of tracking progress.

2)  Non-working dates not specified

MS project calender

Public holidays and other non-working days haven’t been entered into the Project calendar shown above. Because of this, Project thinks that tasks can be conducted on Good Friday, Christmas Day and other gazetted holidays. The nett result of this is that Project will presume tasks can be performed on these days, giving an unrealistically optimistic schedule. Don’t forget to load in those non-working days!

3)  Missing predecessors and successors

predecessors and successors

Here are 2 rules that are necessary to ensure that your Microsoft Project plan will work correctly as a forward looking management tool rather than just a drawing of a plan.

Firstly, all tasks and milestones, except for those at the beginning of the project and driven by the project start date, should have predecessors.

Secondly, all tasks and milestones, except for the final project milestone, should be a predecessor to another task or milestone.

In the illustration below you can see that tasks 2, 3 and 4 (Task B, Task C and Task D) have missing link lines.

Here are the specific issues with each of these tasks:

Task B doesn’t drive any other task. It’s a hanging task, and this means that if this task blows out it will not automatically affect the start date of Task C.

Task C has no predecessor, and its start date is driven by a constraint date that has been manually entered, circled in red at left. It is also a hanging task as it doesn’t drive any other task.

Task D has no predecessor and, like Task C, its start date is driven by a constraint date that has been manually entered, circled in red at left.

Our problem with this is that should any durations or actuals change, they will not affect the start dates of Task C, Task D or the end milestone.

4)  Actuals underway, but no baseline present

MS project actuals

The image above shows the Tracking Gantt view with actuals recorded against tasks. The problem is that no baseline has been set for the project.

Why is a baseline necessary? Without a baseline you’re not able to tell where you are versus where you should be for any task, whether unstarted, started or complete. In other words, you won’t easily be able to say “Task X is complete, but it finished 9 working days later than the original plan said it should have” or “Task Y is still 9 weeks away but at this rate it’s going to start 14 working days late”.

In other words, you can see progress without a baseline but you won’t be able to quantify slippage. And that’s key to the successful management of your project.

Paul Silverman is a Director of ProjectTMA Pty. Ltd. As well as being a senior Microsoft Project training consultant he works with clients to help them incorporate Microsoft Project into their project management methodology. For more information call 1300 363 822 or email him at paul.silverman@projecttma.com.au.

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