Creating Cost Resources in Microsoft Project

There’s a quirky thing about Microsoft Project, having to do with resources—more specifically, Cost resources. The other two types, Work and Material, are pretty easy to understand and use, but Cost takes a little bit of extra work to make do its thing.

A Work resource is a person or a piece of equipment, someone or something that stays around. A Material resource is a consumable, such as reams of paper or toner cartridges—something that gets used up. Even gasoline might be looked at this way. But Cost resources, at first, seem a little more indescribable. And where to put the actual cost?…

The basic definition, though, is not too hard once you understand it. A Cost resource is an intangible, like an airfare, a hotel rental, or a software download. It’s something you use, but can’t exactly hold in your hand.

Cost Resource

So how do we use it? First, we have to create the resource, say, Advertising Money. We can’t insert any numbers in the Resource Sheet, because—and here’s the key thing—a Cost resource has to be attached to a task in order to enter a number. In other words, you have to specify where the money is going.

Assigning Resource

Then, in the Task Information dialog box, we set up the assignment of the resource, and there we can enter the amount. Since the program tracks all the costs, it’s not really too big a deal where we enter the numbers, as long as we enter them.

Total Cost

Later, when we need to know what all the Cost resource numbers add up to, the information is pretty easy to get. One simple way to check it is to add the Cost field to the Gantt chart. The Project Summary Task gives us the overall amount in that column.

Once you understand it, dealing with it is routine. It’s a good thing, because it gives the project manager a means of keeping better track of the money. Never hurts….

How to Create Subprojects in Microsoft Project

Microsoft Project was designed with the idea that one might need to set up subprojects, or projects within projects. If you think of a set of manuals, or a company-wide reworking of hardware and software, or a movie (such as Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) where many departments have to coordinate their efforts  to  all be ready for filming at about the same time, you have an idea of why this might be. But Microsoft set the feature up with a couple of hidden little bonuses, which I’ll talk about in a moment.

Project

To start with, one simply sets up regular projects. Whatever they might be about, whatever one does normally. Add tasks, resources, assignments, calendars, and so on. Save them, polish them, etc. They can sit on individual drives or shared, but if you know you’re going to be creating a set of subprojects to be parts of another project, best to put them on a shared drive so all concerned can work with them, as individuals and together.

Master Project

The next step is to open a blank project, to use as a container. This is referred to as a “master project” in the program’s terminology. Make sure you’re in the first task row; then, in the Project tab, over at the left, click the Subproject button in the Insert group. Navigate to the project you want as part of the master, and double-click it.

Subprojects

For additional subprojects, click the next task row down on the left side of the Gantt chart (where one usually sets these things up) before inserting the next one. Turning on the Project Summary Task from the Gantt Chart Tools Format tab is usually a good idea too (Show/Hide group on right). Save the master as needed, just like any other project.

Linked Tasks

But the bonuses are interesting. First, you can link tasks from different subprojects within the master. To use the movie analogy, if the wig-makers, clothing-makers, and sword-makers all have to finish for wardrobe within a day or so of each other, linking the end milestones for all those projects is done the same way as within a single project—select the tasks and click the Link button.

Second, and even cooler in my opinion, if you modify a subproject and save, the individual project will reflect the change if you open it separately—master and sub are linked. And the same goes for the other end—open a project at the individual end, change and save, and the master/subprojects will update accordingly! As in its brother program, Access, changes and updates in Project are a two-way street when working with native-format files. So all concerned can see everything going on, whether single project manager or multi-project supervisor.

The Resource Usage View in Project

When planning a project, one of the problems we run into fairly commonly is overallocation of resources. It’s not impossible to fix, but it sometimes helps to know exactly where the overallocation is. The Resource Usage view is one place we can see it fairly easily.

Resource Usage button

With the project open, go to the View tab and click Resource Usage. The view switches immediately. Then, find the overallocated resource(s), usually a person, on the left, click a task, and select Scroll to Task in the Task tab, Editing group (Ctrl-Shift-F5 works too, if you prefer).

Scroll to Task

One other trick is to use the Zoom feature (also in the View tab) to zoom out to the entire project’s schedule, then in to the specific trouble area. This can save some time. If the overallocation is there, it’ll show up in red on the right side, as a number of hours (usually) greater than 8 (per day) or 40 (per week).

Zoom to Project

Knowing what the overallocation is about can sometimes suggest how to tackle the re-allocation more efficiently.

But there’s another thing the Resource Usage view can provide, and it relates to a feature which was dropped after Project 2010. One of the reports in that version was called Who Does What When. It allowed the project manager to view the project almost like a script for a play or musical, and see (as the name implied) which resources were assigned which tasks, and on what day(s). If everyone on the project received a copy, they’d all know the essentials of the project and would be better informed about the entirety of what was going on. Printing the Resource Usage view, zoomed out, gives something close to the Who Does What When report, and allows all the project staff to have a better idea of what’s afoot.

One of the best things about the Resource Usage view is that it’s so easy to get to, and easy to understand. I kinda wish the Who Does What When report could be reintroduced into Project, but the Resource Usage view doesn’t look as if it’s going anywhere, so it’ll provide a workable alternative.

Auto vs Manual Scheduling in Project

One small but important feature in MS Project is the Auto versus Manual Scheduling popup, in the Status Bar at bottom.

Here’s how it works:

Manual Scheduling allows the user to control start date, finish date, and therefore, duration. And the program will not change the dates of a manually scheduled task. Period. It might let you know if there are potential conflicts or problems with other tasks, but that’s up to you, as far as the program’s concerned. (If you can look at the project plan, especially in Gantt Chart view, most of those kinds of problems are fairly easy to spot, especially on adjacent or nearly adjacent tasks.)

Some people wonder, if this can become an issue so easily, why one might want to use it. The answer is, most project managers will start building the structure of a plan in Manual mode because it’s simpler, initially, not to have to worry about scheduling when the first goal is to get things written down and the basic sequence arranged. From what my students have told me, it’s often quite helpful to simply write the whole kit and caboodle down immediately, THEN worry about organizing and sequencing. (As one of my favorite literary characters said, “If you don’t write it down, it never happened.”)

Once that’s done, though, and the high-level tasks (or phases/stages) are in, switching to Auto mode is usually better. Because once you start linking tasks, and the plan starts really taking shape, you may still have some adjusting to do on dates and durations, but if the program can handle the basics, you the project manager can focus on the real trouble spots. “Which is, of course, the entire point.” (As Agent Smith said in THE MATRIX.) Auto mode, as you may gather, will allow more flex to a task and be more aware of adjustments that need making based on what’s going on around it—calendar specifics, constraints, and so on.

And since any task can be switched from Auto to Manual or vice versa at any time, you can fiddle with them whenever. You may not need to, but the program will not lock you in on this.

Using Effort Driven in Project

Even though Microsoft Project is fairly easy to use at the basic level–entering tasks and resources, assigning the one to the other, and fine-tuning a schedule–there are a few parts of the program that seem quirky, and can take a little practice to use comfortably.

One of these is the checkmark in the Task Information dialog box called “Effort driven”. The name is fairly self-explanatory, in that a task’s duration (the thing we normally concern ourselves with) can be affected by how much effort we want to put into the task, in the form of resources. Specifically, how *many* resources.

Effort driven checkbox

There is the quirk, though. This is how it works:

When the project manager first creates the task, it defaults to Fixed Units of work (stuffing envelopes for a wedding, or laying bricks for a wall would be good examples), and (if one chooses in the Program Options) Effort driven being on. The first time resources are assigned to the task, whether it’s one person, three, seven, or more, the duration won’t change. The program is assuming you know it takes, say, four days for six people to build a garden wall, and simply goes with the original duration. BUT…if, from then on, you change the number of resources (people, in this case), the program recalculates the number of days/weeks/etc. involved, as it assumes more people can do the task in less time, and vice versa. Not totally illogical.

Add resources and change duration

Nevertheless, there are some kinds of tasks for which the relationship doesn’t apply. If someone wants to interview a subject matter expert for three days prior to writing a manual, having one or two more people involved in the interview might help develop information, but probably won’t take substantially more time, or less.

So the trick, when one wants to add or remove resources without affecting duration in Project, is to open the Task Information box, go to the Advanced tab at top, and uncheck Effort driven FIRST. Then, go to the Resources tab, add or remove people or other resources, and OK out of the box. After which, if necessary, one can repeat the process and turn it on again.

On a more general level, depending on the task, the resources, and so on, one can remind oneself that it’s a good idea to go into the Task Information box->Advanced tab, and note the state of the checkbox before making changes.

Is there a suggested default? Hard to say. It depends on the nature of the projects and the tasks a project manager is involved in. A couple of guidelines might be:

  1. If the project will likely involve fairly frequent changes to resource assignment, leaving Effort driven off would probably cause fewer upsets to the schedule, though the manager would need to manually adjust it when needed.
  2. If the project resources are assigned and pretty much left in place, having Effort driven checked by default (again, this is an item in the Program Options which can be changed) would likely work in favor of the manager.

Program Options Effort Driven

Keeping the checkbox state in mind, then, can help avoid trouble when shifting resource assignments around.

Microsoft Project: Formatting a Gantt Chart for Summary Task

Recently a student posed a question during a Microsoft Project class. How does one format the bars of a Gantt chart to look the same for each unique summary task? Something that may look like this.

slide-13

It begins with creating a custom flag field for each summary task. In Microsoft Project a flag field is a basic Boolean value. A simple yes/no field to identify further action. They are created using the Custom Fields button on the Format tab within the Gantt Chart Tools of the ribbon.

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The Custom Fields button opens a separate dialog box with many options. Our first choice will be to select flag from the drop down list of data fields in the upper right-hand corner. We are presented with twenty (20) flag fields. Our example uses five (5) and each one needs a unique name.

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That can be accomplished by selecting a flag, clicking rename, and supplying the new value.

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Once our five (5) flags have been named we can click OK to close the Custom Fields window.

slide-5

Next we need to mark our tasks as active (yes) or inactive (no) using the flags we just created. Insert a new column in the sheet view of the Gantt chart using one of our flag fields.

slide-6

The entire column defaults to no but we will select the first task of our named summary and change its value to yes.

slide-7

Once selected we can use the auto-fill handle (just like in Excel) to copy our yes across the remaining subtasks.

slide-8

We will insert a column for each of our summary tasks and repeat the process described above.

slide-9

The great thing is, once the tasks have been flagged we can hide the additional columns we just inserted.

slide-10

At this point we are in the home stretch. There is only one more step necessary to finish. We need some custom bar styles to match our flagged tasks and that is done by choosing the Format tab within the Gantt Chart Tools of the ribbon and selecting Bar Styles from the Format button in the Bar Styles group. You can also double-click a blank area within the chart side of the Gantt Chart View.

slide-11

In the Bar Styles dialog box we will scroll to the bottom of the list and add a new entry for each of our summary tasks using the name we gave to each flag. Shape, pattern, and color can be applied to each group and of course the flag number will be selected in the Show For … Tasks column.

slide-12

Once complete, clicking OK will supply our newly flagged and formatted Gantt bars with the shape, pattern, and color we just set up.

slide-13

Changing Microsoft Projects Default Task Duration

In a recent Microsoft Project class a question arose concerning the default task duration, which is set in days. This student had recently been working on a deployment project and the default duration was too broad. It needed to focus on a smaller time-frame and it made perfect sense to set the task duration to hours.

An excellent question and the answer couldn’t be easier.

day-default-duration

To change the default duration for the tasks in a project we need to use the backstage options Microsoft Project makes available. By choosing the File tab and selection Options we are taken to the Project Options dialog box.

backstage

Once there we are presented with eleven options along the left side of the dialog box. Scheduling is the third option on the left and the one we are looking for.

duration-is-entered-in

In the Schedule section we will find Scheduling options for this project, and Duration is entered in will reveal the five choices we have:  minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months.

duration-length-options

Also notice that the Scheduling options for this project can be set for only this project or for All New Projects.

Once the duration has been changed simply click the OK button in the lower right corner and you will be returned to you open project. Any value entered in the duration column will now default to hours unless you specify otherwise.

duration-changed

 

Microsoft Project – Display Estimated Durations with a Different Color in a Gantt Chart

When working with tasks in a project, it is common practice to display a duration as an estimate.  Displaying an estimated duration prepares the viewer for possible changes in scheduling.  An estimated duration takes the form of a question mark placed after the declared duration.

Estimated1

The issue is that some project viewers fail to notice the question mark; then when durations are updated, project viewers wonder why things have changed.  One way to ensure that people’s attention is drawn to the estimated durations is to change the color of the Gantt bars to reflect an estimated status.  There is no built-in state for displaying estimated durations in a separate color, but with a few short clicks this behavior can be achieved. (more…)

Understanding Task Dependency Types in Microsoft Project

Dependency Types in Microsoft Project

When creating schedules in Microsoft Project the first thing that a Project Manager would typically do is to input the tasks involved in a project. These tasks then need to be linked to show the relationship between them. These links create task dependencies.

There are 4 different types of task dependency:

  • Finish-to-Start (FS): The finish date of one task drives the start date of another.
  • Start-to-Start (SS): The start date of one task drives the start date of another.
  • Finish-to-Finish (FF): The finish date of one task drives the finish date of another.
  • Start-to-Finish (SF): The start date of one task drives the finish date of another.

(more…)

Missing Resources when Using Microsoft Project Resource Pools

If you work with Microsoft Project and have ever leveraged the power of Resource Pools across multiple projects, you may have encountered a strange behavior when assigning those resources.

missing-resources

When you share resources between a Resource Pool file (a dummy project file that typically has no tasks but is merely a container for holding resources) and another project file, sometimes the resources don’t show up when it comes time to make the resource assignments. (more…)