Home > Agile, Microsoft Project, planning > Are you planning a project or just drawing a Gantt chart?

Are you planning a project or just drawing a Gantt chart?

I guess the main reason for most project managers to use Microsoft Project is drawing the traditional Gantt chart. It’s kind of obvious, since the Gantt chart view is the default view of the program. This view is also confirmed by the default fields that are visible. A task is in Microsoft Project described by over a hundred fields but only eight of these are visible using the default settings.

If you just start up a default session of Microsoft Project and don’t change any setting, this is how you define a Task:

· Name (Text)

· Duration (Days)

· Start (Date & time, even if only the date is visible)

· Finish (Date & time, even if only the date is visible)

· Predecessors (Numbers – ID of tasks which the task directly depends on)

· Resource Names (Names of Resources)

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If you open one of the templates provided by Microsoft, they all look something like this:

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There are all these tasks where one leads to the other and where the assignment is already done. You’re supposed to enter the Duration (in Days).

What is important is to understand what Duration is and what it’s not. In agile methodologies such as scrum, when defining tasks during sprint, you estimate how much work a task should result in. In other words; how many man hours it is estimated that a task will result in. This attribute is in Microsoft Project referred to as Work. And that is not the same as Duration. You cannot even see Work with the default settings. Work is what you get when you add resources to a task. But why is this? I believe that it all comes back to what I assume is the basic use for Microsoft Project; drawing the Gantt chart.

The Gantt chart is made up of all these blue bars, all connected to each other and leading to the end of the project. So the assumption of the Gantt chart is that if you make a Gantt chart, you can calculate when the project should be completed. That sounds great! Just what my stakeholders want.

The individual bars in the Gantt chart have a length and a place in time. The length is the attribute Duration, and therefore it makes sense to have the attribute Duration clearly visible and editable. And to place the bar in time you can use two methods, you can either link them together or you can place them on a specific date. The linking information is saved in the field Predecessors and you can specify a date by changing the Start or Finish Columns.

The final touch to the Gantt chart is the displaying of the resources names and that is stored in the field Resource Names.

So, there you have it; the columns in the default view of Microsoft Project are the ones which you need to draw the Gantt chart.

But does this mean that you can calculate the finish date of the project based on this? Well I think that experience talks against this. Just the fact that you cannot see the assumed workload makes the planning blind. And as I’ve previously discussed; since the focus factor is 100%, no holidays are in the system and the slack is 0, we all know that this is an illusion. Looking at the Gantt chart, I see the similarity with stairways and you get the feeling that all tasks are individual steps on the stairways. You just have to walk down that and you’re done. You can just check of the steps as you fly by them. Right.

Another problem with having the Gantt chart as the objective of your planning is what you want to do with that Gantt chart. Yes, you want that planned end date but you also want to show the chart to your steering group. And then you need to print it or take a screen copy and enter it into your PowerPoint presentation. Let’s see what happens when we open one of the templates:

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But hey, I can’t see all those bars, and I cannot see all those rows! But then I need to collapse the heading tasks and change the timescale:

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But then I’m missing out on my nice blue bars and it looks strange. So, to keep my project nice and clean, it’s better to keep the number of tasks down. Also, linking in the Chart view is a pain if you cannot see all the tasks at the same time.

And here, we also see a conflict with agile values. In most agile methodologies, you want to keep the tasks as small as possible to enable more accurate estimates. But this clutter up the Gantt chart, making it hard to read and linking becomes complicated.

Finally, we have another problem with having the Gantt chart drawing as the objective of our planning. The product backlog does not fit into this scenario. A product backlog is a prioritized list of requirements but this does not mean that the product backlog items are interlinked. So you cannot link them in the Gantt chart. But if you don’t link them, you don’t get your Gantt chart.

Next time you start Microsoft Project, ready to create the plan for you next project, keep your objectives clear; is your goal drawing a dreamy Gantt chart or do you have higher goals?

I’ve on this blog posted a tutorial on using Microsoft Project as a planning tool. I cannot say it’s easy but neither is planning. Thinking that you’ve planned your project just because you have a Gantt chart to show your steering group is a first step towards a challenged project.

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