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Project Tracking Software – Video

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

This video shows you the entire process for using project tracking software (Microsoft Project®) from start to finish. Reporting project progress is an important part of every project manager’s weekly routine and using software makes your job much easier and efficient. You’ll see how to enter the status reports from your team members, spot variances and plan corrective action.  How to Write a Weekly Status Report

Project Tracking Software Video 

You’ll see how the software uses the data about the actual work completed and the team’s estimates of the remaining work (work-to-complete). If there are overruns on any tasks, the software adjusts the schedule to show the  start and finish dates of the remaining tasks in the plan. It also updates the project budget and the earned value data. You’ll also see click-by-click instructions for analyzing the variances and modeling corrective action to bring the schedule back into line with the approved project plan.

Tracking & Status Reports in MS Project

After the project schedule  had been updated with the team members’ status reports, the project manager will analyze the variances and identify those that require corrective action and those variances that do not. Then the project manager will model corrective action for each of the variances and test the impact of that corrective action on the schedule and budget. Finally the project manager will prepare the reports he will distribute to the project sponsor and stakeholders. These reports show what has happened, the consequences if nothing is done about the variances, and the corrective action the project manager proposes. The corrective actions will help bring the project schedule and budget back in line with the baseline of the original project management plan. As you can see, project tracking software is a powerful tool. Project Tracking Reports Main Page

You can learn how to use project tracking software in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with an expert project manager who is your instructor and coach. You begin whenever you wish and control the schedule and pace. You have as many phone calls and live video conferences with them as you wish.

At the beginning, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from business, or marketing,  or construction, or healthcare, or consulting.  That way your case studies and project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your desired specialty.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management

 

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Scheduling Software

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

We don’t sell project management software, nor accept fees or commissions to recommend software.  

We use project scheduling software, teach project managers how to use it and help our clients pick the software that is right for them.  The number of choices in project management software has exploded; there are thousands of packages. Many are free (at least at the beginning), others are crap and they give it to you in exchange for your email and phone number so they can sell you more crap.

Project Manager Role and Tools Required

Our review criteria are based on how we see, and what we teach our clients, about the role of project managers in organizations.  That role begins with providing management with decision making data on the alternative costs and duration required to produce the project deliverables management wants.  Once a decision is made on a cost, duration and deliverable combination, the project manager and team produce go to work. As the project is executed, the project manager asses progress and reports on changes to the expected cost and duration as well as corrective action the will keep the project on track.  The project manage also quantifies the impact to the planned cost and finish date of any additions/deletions to the plan that stakeholders want to make.  So both weekly tracking and managing changes require the project manager to give solid decision-making data to executives.

Required Features of Scheduling Software That Make PMs Effective

To fulfill the project management role I described above, project managers need, regardless of project size, a software tool that allows them to calculate the cost and duration of each task and the project as a whole from:

  1. Estimated hours for each task,
  2. Availability of the team member to do that work (# of hours a week devoted to the project
  3. Hourly Cost of the team member(s) doing the work and and materials required to produce the deliverable
  4. Sequence of the tasks in the project.
  5. Software also needs to calculate the impact of changes to any of the above

Few packages provide all those capabilities.  It is the opposite of the “pluck the due dates from the sky” approach that most of them give purchasers

1. Produce a Gantt chart that clearly communicates the start and finish date for each task and the sequence of tasks.
2. Display the name of the person accountable for each task and its duration.
3. Allow you to generate graphics and data comparing actual performance to the baseline project schedule.
If those criteria are all you need, then there are plenty of packages that will give you that capability for $25 or less. You could also spend thousands of dollars for packages that don’t do much more than the above three capabilities; they just do it fancier.

In addition to the above criteria, there are other capabilities that even beginning project managers on a small project should have in their project scheduling software:

  •  Allow you to control task sequencing with predecessor relationships, rather than having to reenter start and finish dates every time something changes in your schedule. An astounding number of the packages we reviewed did not do this. This capability will allow you to update your schedule in 10 minutes a week rather than spending hours on data entry.
  • Allow you to enter “estimate to complete” data into the software. This capability lets you gather data from your project team on when they’re going to finish their tasks and then use the software to forecast when the project will finish. This makes your status reports much more complete and lets you communicate that you are in control of what’s happening on the project.

The two scheduling software packages we suggest to our students are;

Gantter – is free and works within your gmail account.

Microsoft Project – This software has been the top ranked tool for professional project managers for years.  The standard edition costs $589

At the beginning, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from business, or marketing,  or construction, or healthcare, or consulting.  That way your case studies and project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your desired specialty.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management
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Scheduling Software

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Using the right Scheduling Software is key to consistently finishing your projects on time and within budget. Project Scheduling Software lets you do the critical steps more efficiently than using ineffective options like scheduling in Excel or on a yellow notepad. Those waste too much of your time and don’t help you complete these critical steps:

  • Spotting problems early, not after it’s too late to fix them
  • Optimizing the use of resources so you finish as early as possible
  • Updating the project schedule in a few minutes each week so you know where you are
  • Updating everyone’s schedule in minutes when things change.

There are many more benefits that Scheduling Software can provide when you’re building a project schedule. But those four items are the minimum tools that every project manager needs. Managing a schedule in Excel or on a yellow notepad give you none of those items. Let’s explore what a you need in a software tool, depending on the scale of the projects you manage. Shorten the Project Duration

Scheduling Software Capabilities

Small Project – Done within your organization for the manager or your boss
Medium Project – Affects multiple departments within your organization or done for customers/clients
Strategic Project – Organization-wide projects with long term effects  Software Review

Scheduling Software Capability #1: Draw visual charts like Gantt and PERT charts of your projects

Small Project – These visual charts are useful for communicating with the sponsor and your team.
Medium Project – As the scale of the project increases, you want visuals that compare actual to baseline schedule and cost performance. You also want to display slack and delay for optimizing the schedule and resources. Earned value reporting is also valuable for this level of reporting.
Strategic Project – At this scale, you require sophisticated reporting by task, major deliverable, resources and the lending department. Earned value, cost and time variance reports are also required.   Buying Project Softwarescheduling software

Scheduling Software Capability #2: Calculate duration based on resource availability and work required (resource-driven scheduling)

Small Project – Basing the schedule on work and availability, not just start/finish dates, is a best practice. Skip it if finishing on time is not critical.
Medium Project – Resource-driven schedules are a must at this level. So is automatic resource leveling to ensure that no resource is assigned more work than they can do.
Strategic Project – You need resource-driven schedules and software that can allocate people’s time based on the priority of the task or project to which they are assigned. Project Portfolio Management

Scheduling Software Capability #3: Schedule dynamically using predecessor relationships, not start and finish dates

Small Project – This is not needed on small projects with 2-3 people.
Medium & Strategic Projects – When matched with resource-driven scheduling, this combination saves you substantial time. It also gives you tools to quickly quantify the impact of changes the project sponsor wants to make. This can be a life saver for guarding against silly ideas that don’t support the projects’ scope.

Scheduling Software Capability #4: Schedule people for a portfolio of projects based on project priorities

Small Project – Not needed
Medium & Strategic Projects – Helps the organization complete a large volume of projects by ensuring that people work on the most important projects.

Scheduling Software Concepts

Scheduling Software will provide you with time-saving scheduling and analysis tools and will archive data for use on future projects. These tools include analysis of the critical path using slack and delay data. This lets you optimize the use of your resources to finish as early as possible. The critical path should also be used to identify problems early and quickly model alternative solutions. Critical Path Technique

The value of an archive is that it makes future project estimates easier and more accurate. With the appropriate project Scheduling Software, tracking actual performance in terms of hours of work and completion dates builds a database for estimating on the next projects.

Even a small project can waste a lot of a project manager’s time if these tasks are done manually.

Scheduling Software: The Reality

Too many project managers don’t have the tools or the training to track actual performance versus plan, optimize their schedule or make efficient use of their resources. They are regularly surprised by problems that a bit of data would have helped them anticipate. They are unable to provide decision-making data to executives on ways to finish the project early. They also can’t tell executives the cost of changes they want to make. As a result, the project is guided by guesses so the company’s financial and human resources are used inefficiently and project failure rates are high. Keys to Successful Project Scheduling

Scheduling Software: “Best Practices” In the Real World

Project managers routinely deal with sponsors who are several organizational levels above them or who sign their paycheck. In this situation, a project manager can’t really argue with the sponsor about the best way to do the project. What a project manager needs is data from Scheduling Software that quantifies the impact of changes and models alternative ways of solving problems. Having that data gives the project manager more credibility with the sponsor and executives. It also gives executives solid data on which to base their decisions. They can stop plucking project due dates and budgets out of the air.

scheduling softwareScheduling Software Overview

Scheduling Software comes in many different levels of sophistication with prices ranging from $50 to $20,000 or more. The software itself doesn’t make you more effective; it just makes you more efficient. Scheduling Software doesn’t teach you how to define the scope, communicate with the project sponsor or make clear assignments to your team members. It just lets you accomplish these and many other tasks more efficiently. So before we look at the different kinds of Scheduling Software, let’s talk about the kinds of projects you manage and the levels of PM skills. This will enable you to pick a Scheduling Software tool that’s appropriate for you and the organization in which you work. You can decide which of the following three categories of project manager fits you best.

Managing Smaller Projects

PMs in this category often plan and schedule with only durations rather than work estimates and resource capacity. Many times these PMs have no need to develop or track a project budget because status reports are limited to tracking the completion date. At this level, the organization usually does not consolidate or “roll-up” all of the projects into a portfolio. And it doesn’t manage the overall utilization of the people who work on projects.

In this situation, the range of Scheduling Software choices is very broad and many packages will provide Gantt and PERT charts. For project managers who want to automate the process of building plans, preparing occasional status reports and producing some simple Gantt and PERT charts, the low end Scheduling Software tools are fine. There are plenty of packages that will automate the basics for you. There are also a host of web-based products that operate at this capability level. For under $100 there are products like: Gantter or ZOHO Projects and others.

Managing Larger Cross-functional Projects for Executives or Clients

As the scale of projects grows and their impact reaches beyond one functional unit, the demands on the project management techniques grow. So does the required capability of the Scheduling Software tool. Software that is a static representation of start and finish dates isn’t enough. You need software tools that simulate the project and optimize the schedule every time you make a change. The budget is an important issue in planning and tracking. So you must build project plans based on the estimated hours of work required and the sequence of tasks, not start and finish dates. You need Scheduling Software that gives you the capability to budget and schedule internal employees as well as external consultants, vendors, equipment and travel expenses. The Scheduling Software should provide more sophisticated earned value reporting, slack and delay reports for fine tuning as well as the critical path and resource level capability.

The software cost jumps in price to the $300-$500 level and the learning curve for these software tools are much steeper than the first level. The big market shares belong to Microsoft Project and Primavera (Oracle).

Managing in a Multi-project Environment

At the high-end are PMs managing multiple projects or operating in a mature project organization where resource utilization is managed across all projects. Executives are accountable for portfolios of projects. In this environment, you need project management processes to bring consistency to project planning and tracking. While Scheduling Software never ensures a consistent project management process (despite all the people who think it can), this environment adds to the software requirements. You now need to consolidate (roll-up) multiple projects and provide consistent information so decision-makers can prioritize projects, allocate resources and schedule and track a pool of people working on multiple projects.

This process is a lot more complicated than it sounds. It requires organization processes for portfolio management and Scheduling Software that can identify conflicting demands for the same resources. The data it provides will allow the executives to set priorities among projects that require the same resources. They usually want detailed project budgets and have the software come close to mimicking the company’s cost accounting system. But they want actual cost data a lot sooner than the accounting department provides it. Project managers often need sophisticated risk assessment tools and resource loading features as well as detailed performance tracking.

If you want a lot, you’ve got to spend a lot. Scheduling Software for these multi-project users runs from $4,000-$20,000 with network versions to run on your LAN and lots of team communication capabilities. There are dozens of products in this range and some of the packages from the second level also provide the needed capabilities. They include: Microsoft Project, Primavera, and other products.

You can learn how to use Scheduling Software in our basic and advanced project management software courses.

At the beginning of your 4pm course, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from business, or marketing,  or construction, or healthcare, or consulting.  That way your case studies and project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your desired specialty.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management
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Critical Path Resources – Early Warning on Variances

The critical path is the longest sequence of tasks through your network. Therefore, the critical path tasks control the duration of the entire project. One day of slippage on a critical path task means your project will finish one day later. With that definition in mind, I’d like to talk about managing your critical path resources. That is, the people who are assigned to work on your critical path tasks.

We want to assign proven performers to critical path tasks. Other tasks in your project may have slack or float which allows those tasks to finish later than currently scheduled without affecting the duration of the entire project. But as I said before, if a critical path task finishes later, the project finishes later. If you have the flexibility to assign different people to critical path tasks, you should assign trainees to tasks that are not on the critical path. And the best people are your critical path resources. These people should be your early warning system about problems on critical path tasks. You want every team member to report a problem as soon as it comes to light. But on the critical path tasks, you want to be notified as soon as the faintest glimmer of a problem shows up so you can act to fix it.

Accordingly, managing critical path resources efficiently is a key design issue. Here is an example from my experience. I am an IT Project manager and during a planning phase, I was trying to write a perfect plan for a project to upgrade a system. There was a task on the critical path called “Final Upgrading System on the Live Server.” The duration of this task was two days and during that time, users would not be able to work on the system. Project Schedule & Software Main Page

Critical Path Resources To investigate, I spoke to the upgrading system implementer who said during those two days, we would enable the backup system on the backup server and make it ready for users to enter their daily work. However, he added, users would need to redo their work transactions on the live production once it was ready. Redoing transactions might require users to work more hours to enter the back load. I was thinking about utilizing the weekend to finalize this task so I contacted the Human Resources manager. I explained the issue and asked him for a solution. The HR Manager suggested paying overtime for the implementers. I said over time is a bad idea for managing projects because it increases the budget and the project management methodology does not recommend it. But I continued, I could talk with the implementers and suggest we give them with another two days off that they could add to another weekend. That would give them a long weekend vacation. We would count the business hours they spend during the weekend. The HR manger said it was a good idea. I told him I would also get approval from their direct manager. I got approval and commitment from the critical path resources, the HR Manager, and the functional department manager and documented all those commitments.

Consequently, the project plan was executed successfully within its planned budget, duration, scope and risk. Users did not redo their data entry work load and implementers went for a long weekend vacation. The case was archived as a lesson learned.

Learn how to use the critical path tool to quickly identify problems, efficiently use resources and cut the project duration in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager via live online video conferences, phone calls and e-mails. You control the course schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with your instructor as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty.

[button link=”http://162.144.114.198/~jwkdwgmy/it-project-management/it-project-basics-111/” style=”info” color=”red” window=”yes”]IT Projects[/button]

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Critical Path Tasks

criticalpath-1

People who manage projects, either full-time as a project manager or part-time as a department manager, know that the critical path is the longest path of tasks in a project. It determines the duration of the entire project. They also know which of the tasks in the project are Critical Path Tasks. But knowing the definition and actually using it to finish your projects earlier are two entirely different things.

How to Manage Critical Path Tasks

When you actively manage critical path tasks you can do these important things:
  • find ways to shorten the duration of the project without increasing costs or risks
  • quickly identify variances you don’t have to do anything about
  • spot places where you can decrease the assigned resources and make better use of them elsewhere.

To actively manage the critical path tasks, you need to identify which tasks in your project are on the critical path. You also need to know how much slack (float) the no-critical tasks have.  The slack number tells you how many days the task can slip before it becomes a critical path task and increases the project’s duration. You can shift resources off tasks with significant slack and move them onto critical path tasks. That should shorten the duration of the project without adding costs or risks. This fine tuning or optimizing of the project plan takes minutes and can yield important decreases in the project duration.

Identifying the plan variances you have to do something about is as valuable as identifying variances where you don’t have to do anything. Obviously a variance or slippage on a critical path task is going to ripple all the way through the project and affect your finish date. However, if you have a variance of 3 days on a task that has 13 days of slack , you don’t need to be terribly concerned. You want to make sure that the 3 day variance is not symptomatic of a larger problem. But if, for example, it is a minor error in the estimate then you don’t need to take time to solve the problem because you still have 10 days of slack left on that task. This allows you to use under-estimating as a teaching tool with the team member when it occurs on a non-critical path task.

Additionally, you can look at tasks with slack as a pool of available resources. Let’s look at a simple example. If we have a task with 21 days of slack and three team members assigned to it, you might be able to reduce the staffing by one or two team members. If their skill sets are compatible, you can add those people to a critical path task during the weeks when they were scheduled to work on the task with all the slack. Obviously, this kind of fine-tuning depends on staff compatibility. You’re not going to transfer two engineers to a task that requires a graphic artist. But moving available resources gives you the ability to shorten the duration without increasing the project’s risks or costs.

Critical Path Tasks – A Real Example

As an IT project manager in the planning phase of a system upgrade project, I had been trying to write a perfect plan for managing the critical path activities. There was a task in the critical path called “Final Upgrading System on the Live Server.” The duration of this task was two days and users could not work during that task execution. Project Schedule & Software Main Page

I spoke to the upgrading implementer who said during those two days we would enable the backup system on the backup server and have it ready for users to enter their daily work. However, he added, users must redo their work transactions on the live production system once it is ready. Redoing transactions might require users to work more hours to enter the backlog. I was thinking about utilizing the weekend to finalize this task. I contacted the HR manager, explained the issue and asked for a solution. The HR manager suggested paying overtime for the implementers. I said overtime was a bad idea for managing projects because it increases the budget. The PM methodology does not recommend it. But I suggested talking with implementers and asking them to work an additional two days, then letting them add two days to a future weekend so that they could go for long weekend vacation. We would  count the business hours they work during the weekend. The HR manger thought it was a good idea. I got approval & commitment from their direct manager, the HR Manager, and the functional Department Manager. I documented all these commitments.

Consequently, the project plan was executed successfully within its planned budget, duration, scope and risk. Users did not redo their data entry work load and implementers went for a long weekend vacation. The case was uploaded as a project lesson learned.

Learn how to use the critical path tool to quickly identify problems, efficiently use resources and cut the project duration in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager via live online video conferences, phone calls and e-mails. You control the course schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with your instructor as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty.

[button link=”http://162.144.114.198/~jwkdwgmy/it-project-management/it-project-basics-111/” style=”info” color=”red” window=”yes”]IT Projects[/button]

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Project Schedule – How To Finish Earlier Video

Requests to shorten the project schedule and finish earlier are a regular part of managing a project. The first requests to shorten the schedule come almost immediately after you release the first draft of the schedule, when the project is still in the planning phase. The sponsor and stakeholders all come to you with reasons why the project needs to finish earlier. You need the correct techniques to address these requests or you will wind up promising durations that are impossible to deliver. Project Schedule & Software Main Page

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

The second batch of requests to shorten the project schedule come shortly after you launch the project. That’s when executives and other stakeholders begin to realize how your project may affect other projects in the organization. That’s when the new requests for an earlier finish date arrive on your desk. Again, you need to know the proper techniques. The objective is not to deny all of these requests to shorten the project duration. If you take that approach, your relationships with the stakeholders will go downhill fast. Plus you will usually get overruled. Project Status Reports

You need to focus on preserving the feasibility of the project in the face of these requests to finish earlier. There’s nothing wrong with shortening the duration of the project if you secure additional resources to do it or you can get approval to reduce the scope of the project to allow shortening of the duration. Finally, you can shorten the duration if you get additional budget to pay overtime or hire outside contractors.

Successful project managers don’t just promise to shorten the duration and figure out how to do it later. They develop the data to show the sponsor and stakeholders alternative ways of shortening the duration. These are never free. There are always trade-offs in the project scope, cost, duration or risk for shortening the duration. Let’s look at how you develop the data for trade-offs.

Project Due Date - Finish Earlier

Project Schedule: Critical Path to Model Changes

You use the critical path method to identify the most efficient way to shorten the project duration. The first step is to use your project software to calculate the duration of every path (sequence of tasks) in the project. The path or sequence of tasks with the longest duration is the critical path and controls the project duration.  All the other paths have slack or float. That is, they can finish later than currently scheduled and not delay the overall project completion date.  This is significant because when you need to shorten the project duration, you do so by shortening the critical path. Reducing the duration of tasks in the project that are not on the critical path will allow those tasks to finish sooner but will not shorten the overall project duration. Critical Path

Once the project software identifies the tasks that are on the critical path, you can consider various options for shortening the duration of that path. Those options would include “crashing” the project by adding resources to critical path tasks so they finish sooner. As you are adding resources to the critical path tasks, you need to check to see if the critical path has changed. As you add resources to the tasks on a given path, the duration of that path decreases. Once another path has the longest duration, it becomes the critical path. Adding more resources to any tasks not on the critical path will not affect the duration of the project.

Let’s summarize everything we’ve covered.

When Do You Use the Critical Path?

You use the critical path technique when you need to shorten the duration of the project. The most common situation is when the initial draft of the schedule takes longer than the sponsor wants. You also use it to develop solutions for variances and to handle change requests.

Why Do You Use the Critical Path?

You use the critical path technique because it identifies where to add resources to reduce the project duration. Adding resources to the critical path tasks, (the longest path in the project) is much cheaper than adding resources to all of the tasks. The reason is that the other paths have slack; they can finish later than scheduled without delaying the project completion. It’s always useful to identify the critical path as you near the end of your project scheduling process. By knowing the critical path and how much slack the other tasks in the project have, you can identify opportunities for shortening the duration.

Project Schedule: Finish Earlier Example

Let’s examine a project with three paths. Each task in the path is identified with an alphabetic letter so the path ABDE starts with task A, then goes to B, then to D and ends with E. Here are the durations of each of the three paths and the amount of slack they each have.

Path ABDE: 10 days duration, 4 days of slack
Path ACFE: 14 days duration, 0 days of slack
Path ADGE: 13 days duration, 1 day of slack

You see that path ACFE has the longest duration, which is 14 days. You also see that path ACFE has no slack. When the path has no slack, the tasks on it cannot finish later than the baseline schedule without increasing the duration of the project. When they have slack, they can increase their duration until they use up all of their slack. At that point, that path becomes the critical path.

Chris Pimbock was a new project manager in his organization and he was preparing the schedule to present to the project sponsor. The sponsor was very clear during the initial planning session that the project had to be finished within 45 days. When Chris checked the first draft of the schedule, the duration of the project was 50 days. Chris knew he had to shorten the project duration. Chris calculated the duration of each of the four paths through the project and found that the critical path was indeed 50 days long. However, the other three paths were all less than 40 days. Chris then examined the five tasks that were on the critical path and found that one task, the engineering work, had 20 day duration. That told Chris that the easiest place to shorten the project duration by 5 days was the task with the 20 day duration. Chris looked at the resources assigned to that task on the critical path and found that one engineer was assigned to do 160 hours of work.

Chris contacted the engineering department and asked if a second engineer might be available to help on the task. In discussing options with the manager, Chris also specified that if they added a second engineer, both engineers could be finished within 10 days rather than the original 20 day schedule. The engineering department manager agreed to supply a second engineer to the project and Chris rescheduled the whole project. The duration was now 40 days and that allowed Chris to present a schedule that had 5 days of slack. That meant that the critical path tasks could slip by 5 days and the project would still finish on time.

Chris Pimbock was able to meet the project sponsor’s requirement without promising a duration that was faster than he could deliver. The key here was using data to show the sponsor exactly what had to happen to shorten the duration. This wasn’t a matter of leadership or inspiration of the project team, it was a matter of mathematics.

You can learn all of those skills in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish.  Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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Project Management Software

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Project Management Software comes in many degrees of sophistication and prices range from $50 to $20,000 or more. The Project Management Software itself doesn’t make you more effective; it just makes you more efficient. The software doesn’t teach you how to define the scope, communicate with the project sponsor or make clear assignments to your team members.  It just lets you do these and many other tasks more efficiently. Let’s talk about the types of Project Management Software available for the kind of projects you manage.  This will let you pick a Project Management Software tool that’s right for you and the organizational setting in which you work. Project Schedule & Software Main Page

Why Use Project Management Software?

Picking the correct Project Management Software product to build your schedule is a key to consistently finishing your projects on time and within budget.  The software lets you schedule the critical project management steps more efficiently than using a yellow notepad or an Excel spreadsheet. It allows you to quickly and efficiently complete these critical steps:

  • Spotting problems early, not after it’s too late to fix them
  • Optimizing the use of resources so you finish as early as possible
  • Updating the project schedule in a few minutes each week so you know where you are
  • Updating everyone’s schedule quickly when things change.

No matter what size your project is, you should use Project Management Software to save time and get the data you need. It is valuable on small projects and a necessity on larger projects. There are thousand of project management software packages on the web, in the cloud or that to you can install on your PC or Mac. Even the free Project Management Software products that are available are worth using. Software will save you hours making your plan and schedule and reporting actual progress to the boss. The time you save will allow you to manage the project team and anticipate/solve problems. That makes you a more effective and successful project manager. People who try to manage projects using a yellow note pad or spreadsheets like Microsoft Excel waste hundreds of hours, even on a small project.

How to Use Project Management Software

First, you will use Project Management Software to develop the schedule. You’ll enter data about the deliverables in the work breakdown structure (WBS) and the people who will be doing the work. This includes the hours of work each task requires and the availability of the team members assigned to teach task. With that data, the software can calculate the duration of the tasks and the entire project. It also produces a schedule for each team member. The schedules show the team members when they are supposed to start and finish each task.

project softwareYou’ll also use Project Management Software to track progress on the plan that the project sponsor approved. The software compares how the project is actually doing versus the plan. To do this, the software uses the data you enter every week from the project team members’ status reports. It will automatically compare what’s actually happened to what should have happened. This lets you spot variances to the plan and take corrective action to fix the negative variances.

Project Management Software Survey

As project management has become more important in organizations, the number of Project Management Software products has increased. In our latest survey of Project Management Software products, we found over 500 legitimate products. (By the way, we don’t sell any software.) There were hundreds more products that didn’t meet the following minimum criteria:

  1. Produce a Gantt chart that clearly communicates the start and finish date for each task and their sequence.
  2. Calculate the duration for each task and the entire project from work and availability data
  3. Generate graphics and data comparing actual performance to the baseline project schedule.

If those three criteria are all you need, there are plenty of Project Management Software packages costing $25 or less that will meet your needs. You could also spend thousands of dollars for packages that don’t do much more than those three features; they just do it fancier. Before buying any software, you need to decide what you want it to do for you. There are additional capabilities that even a new project manager starting out on a small project should get from their Project Management Software.

So let’s explore which of the following categories fits you best.

Project Management Software For Small Projects

Project managers in this category often plan and schedule with only durations, not estimates of work and resource capacity.  Many times they don’t need to develop or track a project budget and status reports only track completion dates. At this level, the organization usually does not consolidate or “roll-up” all the projects into a project portfolio. It also doesn’t manage the total use of all the people who work on projects.

The low-end Project Management Software products are fine for project managers who want to automate the process of building plans, preparing occasional status reports and producing simple Gantt and PERT charts . There are plenty of packages that will automate these basics for you. There is no need to invest the time to master the more advanced products. For under $125, there are products like: Gantter or Quickbase. Most computer and business supply stores carry these less expensive products. There are also a number of web-based products at this capability level.

Project Management Software for Medium-size Projects

As the scale of projects grows and their impact reaches beyond one functional unit, demands grow on the project manager’s techniques and the Project Management Software capabilities.  Software that is a static representation of start and finish dates won’t meet your needs. You need to use software tools that simulate the project and reschedule and optimize it every time there is a change. You can’t re-enter start and finish dates every time something changes in the schedule. You need Project Management Software that can control the sequence of tasks with predecessor relationships. Predecessor relationships connect tasks that must be done sequentially, concurrently or consecutively.  As an example, Task A must finish before Task B can start. Or Tasks A and B must finish at the same time (or begin at the same time). The software helps you build project plans based on estimated hours of work and predecessor relationships, not just start and finish dates. Those dates change frequently throughout the life of the project. Project Management Software that uses predecessor relationships lets you update the schedule in 10 minutes each week. No more hours spent crunching calculations and doing data entry.

Project Management Software at this level also gives you the ability to enter estimate-to-complete data. This allows you to gather data from your project team members about when they’re going to finish their task(s). Then you use the software to forecast when the entire project will finish. This makes your status reports more complete and lets you communicate to the boss that you are in control of what’s happening on the project.

Budget is now an important issue in planning and tracking. You require software that gives you the ability to budget and schedule internal employees was well as external consultants, vendors, equipment and travel expenses. These products include critical path and resource leveling tools. And because you are building more precise work-based plans, the Project Management Software will produce more advanced earned value reporting and slack and delay reports for fine-tuning the schedule and resolving variances.

The cost of this project software takes quite a jump in price to the $300-$500 level. The learning curve for these software tools is much steeper than the prior level. The big market shares belong to Microsoft Project and Primavera (Oracle) products.

Project Management Software for Larger Projects 

On larger projects, you will need the ability to schedule and track progress using work estimates. You also need to track actual work completed versus the baseline plan. You shouldn’t use estimates of start and finish dates. You should be scheduling and tracking with estimates of the amount of work and the duration, not finish dates. This allows you to avoid surprises, especially those surprises that come just before the scheduled finish date. Then t’s too late for you to fix them. You have an early warning system if you estimate both the amount of work required to do the task and the amount of work remaining on a task. The latter is reported by your team members in their weekly status reports. It’s important to have the software track resource utilization and the workload for each team member. This gives you the facts needed to shift resources between tasks as problems arise and more resources are needed.  You need the ability to display critical path, slack (also called float) and delay for each task. This allows you to quickly shorten the duration and decide what tasks you should assign to people when changes occur. You need to make weekly adjustments to resource assignments as new projects start and old ones finish or slip. All professional project managers use Project Management Software with these capabilities. Microsoft Project has all these capabilities in the desktop version and it is an excellent Project Management Software program for larger projects.

Project Management Software for Multiple Projects

The requirements for sophisticated Project Management Software products grow when you start managing multiple projects. In this situation, you are probably operating in a mature project organization that manages resources across all projects. There are executives who are accountable for portfolios of projects. You need a set of Project Management Software tools to consistently plan projects, set priorities, allocate resources to projects based on those priorities and track their progress through completion. You now need to consolidate (roll-up) multiple projects and provide consistent information so executive decision-makers can prioritize projects. You must also allocate resources and schedule and track a pool of people working on multiple projects. This process is a lot more complicated than it sounds. It requires organization processes for portfolio management and Project Management Software that can identify conflicting demands for the same resources. It must allow the executives to set priorities among projects that require the same resources. Here are other requirements the Project Management Software must provide:

  1. Visuals that compare the actual to the baseline schedule and budget. Display slack and delay for schedule and resource optimization.
  2. Report by task, major deliverable, resource and the department the resources came from. Earned value, cost and time variances are also required reports.
  3. Base the schedule on work estimates, not just start/finish dates. (You can skip it if finishing on time is not critical in your organization.)
  4. Calculate duration based on resource availability and work required (resource-driven scheduling).
  5. Schedule people for a portfolio of projects based on project priorities.
  6. Automatic resource leveling to ensure no resource is assigned more work than they can do.
  7. Archived database for future project estimates.

At the strategic project level, you need Project Management Software that can allocate people’s time based on the priority of the task or project to which they’re assigned. Resource-driven scheduling uses predecessor relationships, not start and finish dates. This combination of features saves you lots of time. It also gives you the tools to quickly quantify the impact of changes the project sponsor wants to make. Project managers routinely deal with sponsors who are several organizational levels above them or who sign their paycheck.  In these situations, you can’t argue with the sponsor about the best way to do the project.  What you need is data to quantify the impact of changes and model alternative ways of solving problems.  Having that data gives you more credibility with the sponsor.  It also gives the executives solid date on which to make their decisions. They don’t have to pluck due dates and budgets out of the air.

In addition to time-saving scheduling and analysis tools, Project Management Software should also archive data for use on future projects. Incredible value comes from archiving data on every project. The right Project Management Software tracks actual performance in terms of hours of work and completion dates and builds a database for estimating on the next project. The archived data makes future estimates easier and more accurate.  Microsoft Project also has all these capabilities in the desktop version.

Project Management Software Summary

Project Management Software products come in many levels of sophistication with prices ranging from free to $20,000 or more. No matter what size your project is, you should use Project Management Software to save time and get the data you and the project sponsor need. It is valuable on small projects and a necessity on larger projects.

You can learn how to use project management software in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with an expert project manager who is your instructor and coach. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with them as you wish. Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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Work Breakdown Schedule

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.co

The work breakdown schedule (WBS) is the spine of your project plan. The most important function is to communicate clear performance expectations about the project. For executives, the work breakdown schedule communicates exactly what they’re going to get from the project. That is what the business result will be. The WBS entries, from the scope down to the smallest team member’s task, are measurable deliverables.  Each clearly communicates a performance expectation with numbers so it is measurable.  As an example, the scope of a customer service project might be, “Less than 5% of customers have to contact customer service a second time about the same problem.”  That number is a measurable deliverable, it’s acceptance criterion. Specifically the project is successful if 5% or fewer customers have to call back about the same problem.  When you communicate that expectation to the executives, they know what they’re going to get from the project. As importantly, they know what they’re not going to get. It clearly tells them that the result will not be perfection. They will still have 5% of the customers calling back about the same problem.  Main Work Breakdown Structure Page

Work Breakdown Schedule: Trade-offs

The work breakdown schedule is how project managers control expectations. It communicates to executives that they cannot change the project’s scope without compensating adjustments, called trade-offs, to the project’s duration and/or cost. Dealing with those trade-offs is a key to managing the expectations of sponsors and other executives. Consistently successful project managers use those trade-offs during the initial planning of the project to communicate expectations about scope, time, cost and risk. However, the scope and major deliverables must be defined in measurable terms so that those trade-offs can be quantified. If the scope isn’t defined in this manner, the project will have overruns and dissatisfied sponsors and executives.

Work Breakdown Schedule: Deliverables

The work breakdown schedule also shows the executives how the project team is going to deliver that result. The project manager and sponsor decompose the overall scope deliverable into 4 to 7 high-level deliverables. They also define each of those with measured acceptance criteria. Those deliverables are the best way to communicate how the project team will deliver the results defined by the scope. It also gives executives unambiguous checkpoints to measure the progress of the project after work begins. The project manager will also decompose work breakdown schedule down to the level of individual assignmecomm21nts for the project team members.

Those lower level measured deliverables are the foundation for assigning work to the team members and tracking progress. You should define each task in the work breakdown schedule with a metric and link it to the scope through a network of deliverables. As I said above, you create that network by decomposing the scope into 4 – 7 high-level deliverables.  You continue to decompose the high-level deliverables into smaller deliverables, down to the level of deliverables that an individual will be accountable for producing. A work breakdown schedule developed this way gives the project sponsor, stakeholders and the project manager objectively defined checkpoints against which to measure progress. That is a powerful tool for keeping the project on track and for communicating to everyone that you, the project manager, know what’s going on. Using this technique, you can avoid difficulties with defining and tracking team member assignments when the work breakdown schedule is merely a “to do” list.

Work Breakdown Schedule: Team Member Assignments and Estimates

If you do the work breakdown schedule correctly, every team member can look at it and know what a good job on their assignment is before they start work. The work breakdown schedule will also tell them how you will evaluate their deliverable when they finish producing it. Because your expectations are clear, a good work breakdown schedule is an excellent tool for developing accurate estimates with the project team members. That’s because they have less need to pad their estimates since the assignment is very clear. Team members pad their estimates because they are accustomed to receiving vague project assignments that change frequently. The usual process of making changes to their vague assignments doesn’t allow the team member to accurately estimate the required work and duration. So the team member prudently protects themselves by inflating the estimates they provide the project manager.

When the project manager develops a work breakdown schedule with measured deliverables, the problem of padding estimates largely goes away. That is particularly true if the project manager uses work packages and makes an agreement with the team members that when their assignment changes, the PM will reexamine their time and duration estimates. That sounds very simple but operating that way gives team members lots of confidence in the commitment process so the project manager gets better estimates from the team members.  Additionally,the work breakdown schedule is the tool the project manager uses to identify the skill set of the people they should assign to each of the entries in the WBS.

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How To Use Dynamic Project Scheduling

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

Dynamic project scheduling and the diagram of a predecessor network show us the sequence of tasks and let us design concurrent or parallel tasks. This can significantly shorten a project’s duration. Project Schedule & Software Main PageDynamic project Scheduling

Successful project managers use dynamic project scheduling because it saves them significant amounts of time and lets them quickly model the impact of changes to resources, work or cost. Dynamic scheduling automatically recalculates the duration and budget for the project every time you make a change in the resources, hourly rates, hours of work and predecessor relationships.

Dynamic Project Scheduling Tips

Many commercial scheduling software products allow for dynamic scheduling. But you must be aware of the critical elements required for the dynamic schedule to work.

Element number 1  –  your schedule must be based on the use of predecessor relationships between tasks, not the use of fixed start and finish dates. There are three primary kinds of predecessor relationships and the entire schedule must be built on these relationships. Predecessor Relationships

  • First is the finish-to-start predecessor relationship between tasks A and B. That tells the software that task B can’t start until task A has finished.
  • Second is the start-to-start predecessor relationship between tasks A and B. That tells the software that tasks A and B can start at the same time.
  • Third is the finish-to-finish predecessor relationship between tasks A and B. That tells the software that tasks A and B must finish on the same date, even though they may not start at the same time.

Element number 2  –  your schedule must be based on work durations that are calculated from resource availability and work estimates. You enter the amount of work and the resource’s availability, that is, how many hours a day each resource can work. As an example, say there is 80 hours of work for a team member who works on the project half-time, or four hours a day. The software calculates the task duration as 25 working days because the half-time team member can only complete four hours of work a day.

Dynamic Scheduling to Control the Task Sequence

You use dynamic scheduling with predecessor relationships to control the sequencing of the tasks in your project plan. As an example, you may specify a finish-to-finish predecessor relationship. That tells the project management software that you want to schedule two tasks and their resources so both tasks finish at the same time. When you are finished specifying all our predecessor relationships, your project plan becomes a network of tasks, linked by the predecessor relationships. The result is often called a PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique) chart. It displays your project plan and its network of tasks.

Each of the task bars is linked to the project network which allows our dynamic scheduling to control the sequencing of tasks based on the predecessor relationships and the amount of work in the task.

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How To Use the Project Critical Path Technique

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

The critical path is the longest sequence of tasks in a project. It determines the project’s duration and completion date. It’s easy to use project critical path analysis to determine the duration and optimize your project plans to finish as quickly as possible. Let’s see an example of how to correctly use the critical path technique. Project Schedule & Software Main Page

Chris Pimbock, the Impudent Project Manager, walked over to a vacant seat the crowded passenger boarding area at gate #63. Chris joined two sullen business travelers waiting to fly home on a Friday evening. They were staring out through the big plate glass windows of the terminal at a mechanic standing atop an aluminum ladder working on the jet’s port engine.

The blue-suited professional sitting to Chris’ left muttered, “The gate attendant better wake up. Those dopes have to get another mechanic working on that engine pronto!  That’s a critical path task. Without working engines, we won’t go anywhere!”

The thoroughly-wrinkled passenger across the aisle growled, “Naah, that captain and his crew all keep looking at their watches. I bet they are about to go off duty. Without a crew, we won’t go anywhere. Getting a new crew is what that gate attendant should be working on instead of reading a magazine. That’s the critical path.”

Feigning ignorance, Chris Pimbock asked, “How do you know what’s on the project critical path?

With an exasperated sigh, the guy in the blue suit said, “Experience. Hey, I do this stuff for a living and I know a critical path task when I see one.” The other man nodded agreement.

Chris casually looked over the boarding area at gate #63 and the tarmac. The fight crew was still sitting in the corner chatting. The food truck was parked on the tarmac with the driver reading a magazine A fuel truck waited with the driver watching the mechanic. The gate attendant had left her station and gone to help at the next gate, #61, to get the passengers for that flight checked-in and on board.

The rumpled guy shouted at Chris, “Is that stupid gate attendant gonna get more mechanics? Wait, look the food truck just drove off. That gate attendant is an idiot; ignoring us and working at another gate! Now we’ll have to wait even longer for another food truck while she helps her buddy at the next gate.”

Chris said, “Ahh, give the woman some credit, she knows what she is doing.”project critical path

“That’s crazy. Look the fuel truck is leaving too!” the wrinkled PM snorted. “All she cares about are the passengers at gate #61!

Chris frowned and asked, “So the gate attendant should be assigning more mechanics to the critical path task and getting another fuel truck. Is that critical too?”

The two PMs sneered at Chris. One muttered, “Duh.”

The other PM nodded sadly and said, “Sure. You’ve got to really watch the project critical path tasks like a hawk. And when you add more people you get the tasks done faster.”

Just then the first PM said, “Look,” and pointed out the window at the mechanic who was waving frantically at the gate attendant and holding up a broken wrench and mouthing the words, “Need a new wrench!”

The gate attendant was too busy at the other gate to look out the window. Failing to catch the attendant’s eye, the mechanic picked up his broken wrench and tried to work with it, shaking his head in frustration.

Chris said, “What happened?”

“Thanks to that moron at the gate, this whole thing will be delayed even longer. The mechanic needs a new tool and she couldn’t see him because she has abandoned us and gone to gate #61. I’m gonna tell her what a dope she is!”

As the wrinkled PM rose to walk to the counter, Chris noted that the plane at gate #61 was leaving. He said, “I would give it a minute or two before you make a jerk of yourself.”

The wrinkled PM slumped back down and said. “That gate attendant has really botched this flight. We’re going to be here for hours.”

They settled back into their chairs and in a moment the gate attendant picked up a black microphone and cleared her throat.

The blue suit predicted, “Now, that dope is going to cancel the flight.”

The loud speakers in the waiting room hissed as a new food truck arrived and the attendant said, “Our new airplane will be pulling up to gate #61 momentarily. Please move to that gate now. We will board in 5 minutes, the plane is fueled, the food is on board and we’re ready to go.”

Chris said, “I guess that gate attendant did the calculations and decided that the sequence of tasks involved in fixing the plane, fueling it, provisioning the food and replacing the crew was longer than getting us a new plane that was ready to go. She used the duration data, not just guesses about what task was critical. She kept her eye on the right critical path the whole time. Most importantly she focused on the correct scope; getting us home tonight, not just fixing the plane.”

Project Critical Path Summary

To learn to identify and optimize the project critical path, consider taking one of our online, instructor-led courses. In these courses, you’ll get coaching from an expert instructor as you practice applying the “best practice” techniques to realistic project case studies. You can work at your own pace to fit your schedule.