How to Create a Calendar in Project (and Why)

When setting up a plan in Project, it’s very important to get the calendar organized first, before adding tasks, resources, assignments, or almost anything else. Why? Because a project timeline dictates many of the scheduling details, and the calendar controls the schedule.

Calendar first step

Getting to the dialog is easy—we click the Project tab, slide to the Properties group, and click Change Working Time. Once there, we usually want to click Create New Calendar at the top right, since copying an existing one and modifying it leaves the originals for later use.

Create new calendar

We can then change the name of the copy, say, to the company name or the project name (since calendars are file-specific).

Calendar holidays

Then we need to add the usual holidays. The good news is, it’s rather like doing so in Outlook; if you use that program for scheduling, the technique is similar. Select the day, go down to the Exceptions tab, and put in the name. Selecting multiple days is fine, too.

Calendar repeats

Clicking the Details button on the right lets us set the holiday, Labor Day for example, to repeat. It’s a good idea to keep the number of repeats fairly low, no more than ten, because (unless the project is REALLY long-term) it’s not necessary…unless you want to have the file turn into a template for other projects. Even then, going for more usually isn’t required.

Although it’s possible to edit a calendar later, just before or even during the run of a project, it’s highly advisable to get it as polished as you can beforehand, and to avoid editing it later, if at all possible. Any changes during the execution of the project will almost certainly change the schedule, and often in a way we can’t predict.

This is one part of any project which really needs close attention, because it can critically affect almost every other part to some degree.

How to Use the Critical Path in Microsoft Project

The use of the critical path in Project is a vital part of getting a project to finish on time. This is especially true if any juggling of the tasks, resources, and allocations has to be done once the majority of tasks are in place. It allows refinements to be done where they can have the best effect—what is sometimes called a “force-multiplier” (no Star Wars jokes, please 😉 ); it simply means to make the most of what one has.

The critical path is that series of tasks in which there’s no slack, time-wise. Think of a group of boxcars on a railroad siding, all coupled together. If another comes down the track, and bumps into them, they all have to move. If the last one is right next to the bumper at the end, there’s only so much maneuvering room. This is sort of the situation on the critical path.

Turn On Critical Path

Once a good chunk of the project has been composed, showing the critical path is easy. It used to involve going through a three- or four-step wizard, but now it’s just turning on a checkbox. The critical tasks turn red on the right side of the Gantt chart—non-critical tasks stay blue. (These can be reformatted, if necessary.)

Critical Before

We can then see, if we start making changes to the project “flow”, that any changes not on the critical path may not affect the timeline much, or at all. And this is not good. We want changes to do something—shorten the timeline, or allow two or more tasks to run at the same time, or otherwise make things go more efficiently.

Critical After

If there are any tasks which we can inactivate, or reassign resources on, or otherwise fine-tune, again, always better to do it on the critical path. Making alterations to other tasks can be helpful, but this is the place to do it which will have the most effect on the schedule.

Using Dependencies, Lag, and Lead in MS Project

Setting up dependencies, or task relationships, is an integral part of working in Project. But many newer users ask, Which relationship should I use, and What are these “lag” and “lead” things about?

The choice of dependencies, as well as using the two other items, derives from the nature of the tasks. This is the one thing you have to bear in mind, because there’s no all-inclusive formula for determining these. That said, there are a couple of general pointers you can use to figure it out.

Usual dependencies

If Task A has to be completely finished before Task B can start, such as demolishing a house before building a new one, the relationship will be Finish-to-Start.

Say you’re writing a book and want to make sure the illustrator gets started more or less immediately along with the writing. A Start-to-Start relationship might be in order. The artwork can happen pretty quickly once you have a decent chunk written.

If you’re building a house or office, the framing has to be complete before the plumbing and electrical, the drywall, etc., can be finished. So a Finish-to-Finish relationship would work for this.

(The fourth type, Finish-to-Start, is so rarely used I won’t go into it here. Suffice to say in the twenty-plus years I’ve taught the program, I’ve seen maybe two occurrences of it. No offense.)

Okay so far. Now, what about lag and lead?

Those come into play when two tasks have to have a time gap between them (lag), or can partly overlap (lead); the dependencies still matter, but this is something else. Start-to-Start and Finish-to-Finish can overlap entirely, if the nature of the tasks allow, but lag and lead usually come in with a Finish-to-Start. (By the way, it’s pronounced “leed”, as in “lead or follow”, not “led”, as in a pencil.)

Dependencies - lag

If you pour concrete, even the quick-setting stuff needs a few days, minimum, to be ready to walk on etc. A lag—a delay—would go in there to indicate a setting time is required regardless. You could include it in the task time, but the lag makes the situation clearer to anyone who looks.

Dependencies - lead

In the book-writing example, if the author wants to get about a third of the book written before the illustrator starts sketching, it might help the artwork to have a solid direction to go in. So a Start-to-Start with a lag, or a Finish-to-Start with an overlap, or lead (sometimes known as negative lag) would be the natural thought here. (And the lag—or lead—can be written as a percentage of the predecessor task’s time, which is helpful as it doesn’t require one to do the calculation in one’s head.)

As you can see, the nature of the work, and of the tasks, and their “natural” relationship, will often determine how one hooks them together in Project. I’ve often pointed out that it can help to work on a legal pad and pencil or pen first—some people find figuring dependencies on paper before sitting at the computer can make it easier.

How to Create Custom Fields in Microsoft Project

MS Project has a LARGE number of fields set up by default, for almost anything the program can track. But even with all the feedback the design team gets, they can’t anticipate everything a user might need to monitor during a project. So the team built in the ability to create, or rather modify, “custom” (unnamed generic) fields which are held in reserve for just this situation.

Resource fields

One example might be which resources belong to which department in a company. The Group field in the Resource Sheet could be used to contain this information, but some users already employ it for, say, internal versus external, or a non-company-related item. So setting up a resource field for this would make some sense.

Custom fields dialog

Bringing up the dialog box is easy—Project tab on the Ribbon, Properties group, and click the Custom Fields button. We then choose from the fields what we want to create; in this case, the Resource (at top), along with what kind of data it will hold (Type: on the right), namely text (as in department name). We rename the field (Text1), call it Department or DeptName, or similar, as we like.

Department list
The next step is to bring up the place where we can write in the department names. Almost right in the center of the Custom Fields box, we click the “Lookup…” button. And in the second dialog box, the Value and Description columns make this part easy. Values and descriptions can match, or not, as we see fit; as long as we understand what we’re selecting, it’s fine.

Custom field inserted

Finally, we OK out of the boxes, navigate (in this case) to the Resource Sheet, and add the column on the end, or wherever we feel appropriate. A lookup table allows us to choose from a drop-down list, saving at least a little time for the user/manager, and giving the manager a little flexibility on what can go into a project in the way of fields.

Using the Cost Tables in Microsoft Project

The Cost Tables feature in Microsoft Project reflects a point which is particular to this program—it is, basically, time-sensitive. Since a business project takes a minimum, usually, of several weeks to run, the things that happen in a project must take time into account. And, no pun intended on this phrase, accounting for costs which might change during the run of the project is therefore an integral part of the resource data we can (and often must) enter.

Fortunately, the first part is pretty easy. When creating a resource, one can (in the Resource Sheet) start by entering standard and overtime pay rates for a work resource (usually a person or group of people).

Resource Sheet

If, however, one knows the resource’s pay rate will change at some time during the course of the project, opening the Resource Information dialog box and going to the Costs tab gets us to the cost tables. (Just double-click the resource to get in.)

Cost Tables 1

There are no less than five Cost Tables in any resource’s info box. We usually look at just the first, as each contains twenty-five rows, so there are 125 slots for cost table data. If there are going to be that many changes of rate, it’ll be WAY out of the ordinary.

So in Cost Table A, the default, we enter the initial standard and overtime rates, if they aren’t already in the Resource Sheet. The assumption is, these rates are in effect at the start of the project.

Cost Tables 2

In the next row, we enter the date at which the rate will change, up or down, and then the changes themselves. We can even enter a percentage change (+15%, say), instead of a straight number, if someone doesn’t actually know the amount but does know how far up or down it should go. And repeat as needed.

The project manager has to be conscientious about entering the info ASAP, preferably before the project start date, to make sure the budget numbers stay current. But the actual entry of the data is pretty straightforward, thanks to the cost tables.

 

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.

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.