How to Analyze an MS Project Plan
By Tamzin Morphy
Read and analyze a Microsoft Project schedule at a glance.
MS Project is a professional project planning/scheduling tool for Project Managers. It is the industry standard software for software and IT projects and is very widely used to schedule many types of project and programs. The latest version is MS Project 2010. Because MS Project is a professional tool, MS Project Plans can be daunting to read and understand.
Who is the guide for?
This is a guide for anyone who is involved in project, but who isn’t a project manager or is new to project management. You will find this guide useful if you are a
- A sponsor of the project or a member of the project board
- A senior member of the project team
- The holder of the budget
- A team member with tasks to deliver
- A Client working with a 3rd party project manager
- A Supplier with products or tasks to deliver
- A stakeholder with an interest in the project outcome
- A person who is or will be impacted by the project
- Why you need to understand MS Project plans
All of the people in the list above need to understand the project plan, but often don’t have a background in project management or aren’t familiar with MS project. Not engaging with the project plan can have devastating consequences for the project. To use MS Project successfully Project Managers need a strong foundation in Project Planning concepts and techniques. They are not infallible they make mistakes, they get influenced to cut corners and they can easily miss activities and dependencies. If you are reading this guide then you are likely to be involved in a project and will be impacted by the project’s success or failure, it is in your interest to analyze the project plan and feedback to the project manager.
The project plan at first glance
As part of the MS Office suite MS Project uses a similar navigation as Word, Excel etc. Underneath the toolbars the plan itself will be split into two areas. On left hand side is a table view. Running from left to right you should see columns for tasks, duration, start and finish dates and resources. There may be additional columns, but these are the key areas. On the right hand side is the Gantt Chart view, named after Henry Gantt. This views shows the project tasks as bars mapped to a calendar.
Task IDs and Indicator column
The grey column at the far left is the unique identifier for each task, similar to the row numbers in Excel. Next to it is the Indicator field, which is used to show information about a particular task. For example if a task has notes associated with it or contains a hyperlink.
Tasks and task durations
The Task Name column contains the description of each task. Tasks names should be detailed enough so that you can clearly understand what each task will deliver. Note that the tasks will be organised logically into Summary and sub tasks. Summary tasks are used to order groups of task. In the image below the Functional, Technical and Design/artwork and specifications form a logical grouping entitled Specifications and designs.
If you look across to the Gantt view you will notice that the summary tasks appear as black lines illustrating the start and finish of the sub-tasks.
Next you will see the duration column. Durations can be entered in months, weeks, days, hours and even minutes. The summary tasks will show the total duration for the tasks beneath. Look out for ‘1 day?’ this is the default duration so you will want to check if the duration is correct.
Start and finish dates
The Start and Finish date columns follow. These are automatically calculated by MS Project using the task duration, working times, resource allocation and task dependencies. The Project Manager should avoid entering start and finish dates manually as they will interfere with the calculation of the projects end date. I mentioned constraints earlier. Constraints fix a task’s start or finish to a particular date. When a start or finish date is set by the Project Manager a constraint will be set. You can check for constraints by looking for this symbol in
the indicator column.
Finally there should also be a column for Predecessors and Resources. Predecessors, aka task links or dependencies, are very important in project planning. To calculate the end date of your project and to understand the Critical Path each task should have a:
- Predecessor, a task that links to it, and a
- Successor, a task that it links to.
Ideally the first task on the plan is the only task without a predecessor and the last task is the only one without a successor.
The Resources column records the people, teams or machinery that will complete the task. Multiple resources can be assigned to a task. Some resources may work part-time and Project handles this by allowing the Project Manager to adjust the Units – percentage of a resource’s time assigned to a task. Check that the resource column contains identifiable owners for the work. Generic terms like ‘Supplier’ or ‘Developer’ should be clarified and ideally replaced with a named resource.
Gantt/bar chart view
The Gantt Chart view is named after Henry Gantt who, in the 1910s, developed a method of planning projects that showed tasks as rows with corresponding bars showing the duration of each task against a calendar. Tasks are represented by rectangular bars that correspond to the task duration. Depending on how you choose to format your Gantt bar chart the resource names and task names may also by shown.
It is the Gantt chart view combined with the task table that makes MS Project so powerful. The Gantt view makes it very easy to understand the project timeline and dependencies between tasks, which are shown by an arrow linking tasks.
The project plan should take into account working days and hours. By default MS Project assumes that working time is Monday to Friday 08:00 to 17:00pm with 1 hour for lunch. Resources can have specific calendars so it is worth checking that your resource aren’t scheduled to work during non-working time. If you have MS Project you can check this via View > Resource Usage or View > Resource Sheet (double click the resource). Finally check the Project Plan takes into account Christmas and other holidays. This sounds obvious, but MS Project doesn’t contain holidays by default so it is well worth checking the plan doesn’t assume 100% working time over Christmas.
The Critical Path is the series of tasks that must finish on time for the entire project to finish on schedule. Each task on the critical path is a critical task. You can also think of it as:
- the longest path from start to finish,
- or the path without any slack,
- or the path corresponding to the shortest time in which the project can be completed.
It should be easy to identify the Critical Path from the Gantt Chart view. Tasks on the path may be highlighted in red.
The Critical Path drives the project end date. The project plan and predicted end date may be inaccurate if the Critical Path is not correct. Task durations, links, constraints, resources and working time all impact the critical path check you are happy with each of these areas and if you can’t easily identify the Critical Path raise this with the Project Manager.
I hope you have found this guide to MS Project plans useful. This is a high-level view we haven’t looked in any depth at resourcing, working and non-working time, managing costs, % effort, reporting or many other areas of MS Project functionality. However, this does arm you with the information you need to understand the key parts of a MS Project plan and to identify areas that need deeper investigation. I haven’t explicitly stated, but if you receive a plan that doesn’t show the areas mentioned here this should also be a flag for further discussion. To do lists or excel spreadsheets with start and finish dates are not project plans!
Tamzin Morphy is a Program and Project Management Professional at Oracle. You can read more from Tamzin on her website.