Does Microsoft Project make schedule building seem too easy? Can this powerful tool be dangerous in the wrong hands, and if so, why is that? This article explores the pros and cons of easy-to-use scheduling software and how it can mask the need for proper training and a thorough knowledge of the underlying scheduling principles it supports.
The good old days
I’ve been a working stiff long enough to actually remember typing pools. For those of you who don’t, that’s a room full of highly trained typists, all of whom had unimaginable typing speeds. They could copy-type your hand written scrawl into a beautifully presented memo or letter in less time than it took to go get a coffee. It was truly impressive.
Then came the move towards PCs on everyone’s desk and tools like WordPerfect and Microsoft Word soon appeared, giving everyone access to a usable word processor. Almost overnight the typing pool disappeared and a specialized skill was dispersed to anyone who could finger-peck a keyboard and work the spell-checker. Suddenly, thanks to the electronic office, everyone was typing for themselves, and doing a wide range of other new things as well, all with very high quality output.
So why the trip down amnesia lane and what has any of this got to do with Microsoft Project? Well it puts into historical perspective how software such as Microsoft Office makes everything easier and makes everyone more productive. The quality and quantity of output that can be achieved by one individual today is mind-blowing compared to 30 years ago. We’re so used to it now that we don’t notice the enormous leverage it provides.
Now thinking about project software: prior to the advent of computers, project scheduling was a massively labor-intensive process. Entire rooms were put by for the project team. Like some bizarre war room, the walls were strewn with huge hand-drawn network charts. The critical path of a precedence network, or activity-on-arrow diagram had to be calculated manually by trained specialists. The overhead was enormous and it typically limited this level of scheduling to only the largest capital projects.
With the advent of scheduling software however, the same results could suddenly be achieved in a fraction of the time and cost, and usually by just one individual. Like the typing pool, the project room, in that form at least, is all but extinct.
The early days of Scheduling Software
Microsoft Project is something of a latecomer to the computerized project management market. The earliest systems to emerge in this pioneering new age ran on mainframes, and later mini-computers. Tools with names such as Artemis and MetaPlan allowed the schedulers to load all the pertinent activities and relationships into a series of database tables. Once that process was complete, it was possible to do your forward and backward pass by running the appropriate commands at the terminal. Only then was it possible to plot out your precedence or Gantt chart so see your critical path.
The full history of Microsoft Project is too intricate to capture in this article, but suffice to say it was originally a DOS based software application released in 1984 by Microsoft Application Services and later sold to Microsoft. The first Windows version was released in 1990 as version 1 for Windows. It quickly became the prevailing project management tool for PCs.
The Ubiquitous Microsoft Project
Microsoft Project’s prevalence and relatively low cost has put it within easy reach of most companies. Therefore it is often the first choice entry level too when the need for more formal project management process arises. It is also branded as part of the Microsoft Office suite, further insuring its position as the most widely used and available tool on the market today.
The issue is, while Microsoft Project may be considered a commodity, project scheduling skills are not. And it’s position as the go-to entry level tool undoubtedly explains why the bulk of the poor quality schedules I see have been produced using Microsoft Project.
Indeed Microsoft Project’s prevalence seems to be something of a double-edge sword. On the one hand its ‘office suite’ genetics more or less guarantee that its interface will be familiar, predictable and thus an easy tool to use. On the other hand, this ‘ease of use’ perception can mask the fact that Microsoft Project is a simple interface to a complex and highly specialized discipline. Microsoft Project is essentially a software version of that bygone project room, but the user still needs to understand the same principles that his project room counterparts understood 30 years ago.
Scheduling done right is a tremendously powerful aid to the management team throughout the project lifecycle. Scheduling done wrong can produce misleading, confusing and possibly dangerous misrepresentation of project conditions – regardless of the tool you choose.
Other than what you may have learned in college; many folks have mastered Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint more by osmosis than by any formal training. Indeed these tools are all fairly intuitive, their purpose obvious, their functionality accessible and almost any co-worker can likely give you pointers if you get stuck. However for many companies, project management is a business process that evolves as the company grows so the necessary skillset can be a little thin on the ground. As projects become larger and more complex, simple budget plans and task lists in spreadsheets become insufficient and must give way to more formalized, robust and strategic planning, tracking a reporting processes.
Unfortunately many organizations believe that choosing a good scheduling tool is all that is required to start producing good schedules. Microsoft Project is an office tool and therefore is good, and will allow us to build a good schedule – right? Yes it is a good tool. No it won’t allow you to build good schedules without a good understanding of the scheduling discipline. Like most things in life, there is way more to scheduling that at first it might appear; the devil truly is in the details.
Great Looking Junk
In my 25 years of project controls, I have encountered my share of atrocious and completely unusable “junk” schedules. Part of my job as a consultant is to help contractors get their schedules in a good state of compliance before they submit them to their customers. Unfortunately by the time I get a call for help, all too often their schedule has already been rejected by an important client; accompanied by a long list of corrective actions. To the unfamiliar, these fix-it lists might as well be written in hieroglyphics.
Here are some real examples of very typical ‘revise and resubmit’ items that I have helped new schedulers navigate. These are taken from multiple sources.
Example 1 – “Several activities that are not milestones have constraints dates which affect the critical path of the schedule. These need to be corrected so a true critical path and total float for the project can be realized.”
Example 2 – “Some activities have zero duration. Each activity included in the baseline schedule is to include start date, end date, and duration. A list of these activities is attached.”
Example 3 – “Per Section 00123-D [of the contract], the Work shall be planned, executed, reported and accomplished using the Precedence Diagramming Critical Path Method (CPM). The baseline schedule does not correctly include the required elements of Section 00123-D (as described in more detail below) and does not illustrate the Critical Path to the Contract Completion.”
Example 4 – “Precedence Network: The schedule reflects tasks that are open ended and independent of logically sequential tasks. Open ended and independent activities do not generate a logical precedence network.”
Before these types of comments arrived, the schedule looked great; indeed Microsoft Project is capable of producing some very pretty output. But technically and functionally the schedule itself was little more than a cartoon, if anyone tried to calculate the schedule, it would fall apart. And already the contractor has a project management credibility issue, before they even get out of the planning phase.
Without a critical path, realistic dependency logic, a good WBS, a baseline and other basic characteristics, the customer will not believe the schedule, and will be concerned about the contractor’s ability to deliver. So often this happens because people are laboring in the belief that little training is required to use Microsoft Project. For the person new to scheduling, the complexity of the subject is masked by the familiar and friendly office interface.
Had the company standardized on a more specialized solution, say Primavera P6 or Deltek Open Plan, there is little doubt that this scheduling ‘newbie’ would have been sent on a training course (or courses) before being thrown in at the deep end. There would be no assumption that this person can just pick it up as they go along. But because Microsoft Project is an office tool, the company, or perhaps the individual felt that the tool would make scheduling easy and assumed little or no training would be required.
Common Scheduling Mistakes
Common defects I see in schedules include: no critical path, no baseline, a WBS not based upon project deliverables, multiple tasks with the same duration, missing relationships between activities, overuse/incorrect use of constraints, incorrect or incomplete status reporting, and levels of detail so inadequate as to make accurate progress reporting nearly impossible. Sometimes I can find all these issue in the same schedule. If I can find them, you can be sure the key stakeholders will find them too.
This list of defects underlines the fact that scheduling is a specialized skill that takes some investment in time and training to truly master. No matter how good the tool is, it can never be a substitute for good fundamentals training in scheduling principles. Microsoft Project will not teach you good scheduling, but it will always support it.
There are countless companies offering Microsoft Project training. However not all courses are created equal. And you get what you pay for too. An inexpensive class will teach you the features and functions of the tool, but typically assumes you already know how to construct a good schedule. If you are new to scheduling, you should always make sure that the training class you are considering covers these three areas:
- Scheduling Principals – the fundamentals and mechanics of building and maintaining a schedule
- Scheduling Best Practice – how to apply principles to create realistic and believable schedules
- Scheduling Tool – how to apply scheduling principals and best practice using the functionality of Microsoft Project
To save you some time pounding Google for good training in this specialized area, Ten Six has recently added Microsoft Project training to our suite of services. We were meticulous in our search for experienced and highly professional instructors; instructors who have worked through the management of major projects using Microsoft Project and lived to share their stories. If you’re looking for the best Microsoft Project training, we can help. Click this link for more details, there are classes being scheduled now.
Microsoft Project is no replacement for good scheduling principals. As an office tool, it may be easy to use, but you have to know the rules to get a good schedule out of it. If your project team is not well versed in the nuances of scheduling, your project could be at risk and you will not enjoy the full benefits that a well-planned and well maintained schedule has to offer. In short, in the hands of an unskilled operator, Microsoft Project’s power will remain untapped.