Best Practices for Microsoft Project, Part 2

In this continuation of my previous article, I offer five additional best practices that project managers should keep in mind when using their current version of Microsoft Project.

Know the Limitations of Critical Path Methodology

Critical Path Methodology (CPM) was developed by DuPont over 50 years ago as an effective method to identify activities with no tolerance for delay. You can use the Gantt Chart Wizard function to display the critical path in Microsoft Project. One significant limitation with the Critical Path Method is that it doesn’t account for resource constraints, only task dependencies. Project managers who are dealing with limited resources often find that not all projects can be managed to the critical path schedule. Incorporating the Resource Leveling feature can help a project manager identify resource bottlenecks in addition to the critical path. Using the Leveling Delay column and the critical path helps to pinpoint which resources and tasks are the ones to focus on first when optimizing the schedule.

Learn to Compress Schedules Effectively

Project managers are always trying to save time and often use many schedule compression techniques. It’s important to practice each technique in Microsoft Project in order to become as efficient as possible when optimizing the timeline. One of the best places to start optimizing is in resource reassignment. When working in a resource constrained environment, reassigning a leveled critical task to an available resource is a great way to save time. Other compression techniques include applying concurrency (negative lag in Microsoft Project) and shortening duration. Both of these methods should include documentation (I always recommend Task Notes) to identify the assumptions made in order to fast track or crash the activities.

Achieve Consensus and Understand Baselines

This is always an interesting topic. Saving a baseline in Microsoft Project is a simple mouse click — a five-minute feature review to go over the menu command and which fields are affected. But it represents a fundamentally important point — the consensus achieved between project sponsor and the team over what will be delivered, who will do the work, and what is the agreed upon schedule and budget. The project manager is responsible for reaching this agreement as a result of the project planning process. Setting a baseline essentially takes a snapshot of the planning data and saves it for future reference in the tracking and control phase of the project. The importance of this step within the process of using the tool can’t be overstated.

Control Projects by Variance Analysis

Here’s where Microsoft Project shines. Once an effective planning process is completed and a good baseline is set, the Tracking Gantt View and Tracking Table can be used to collect actual status and provide quality decision-making data for corrective actions. Fields like Actual Start, Actual Duration, and Remaining Duration are far more effective than % Complete. Team members are much more accountable to task updates when asked for remaining duration or work as opposed to % complete. Good project managers will go around and gather actual status from team members prior to any status meetings and then use the team meetings for more important activities such as problem solving, risk management, scope change control, and additional planning.

Support Multiple Project Managers

Whether it’s a large well established PMO or a single project manager who wants to improve the way projects are managed in the organization, there are many best practices in supporting a group of project managers. The easiest place to start is by standardizing many of the useful objects within Project and replicating them to other plans or templates with the Organizer feature. These objects usually include tables, filters, views, and calendars (for example, to establish working time for various countries). Organizing a regular company user group meeting can be an effective way to share lessons learned and keep everyone on the same page. Other useful techniques that support project management in the enterprise include Shared Resources, usage of master and subprojects, project-to-project dependencies, and portfolio resource management.

This article first appeared the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) Extension blog, The Art of Project Management.

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Written by Jim Park

Jim Park, PMP, provides training and consulting services focused on developing methodology, tools, and a PMP credentialed workforce. Companies benefiting from Jim’s PMO support include Oracle, Hitachi, PG&E, Lockheed, Kaiser Permanente, ALZA Pharmaceuticals, Ingersoll-Rand, Symantec, and the U.S. Air Force. He’s an instructor at UCSC Extension in Silicon Valley and has taught public courses in project management since 1998. Jim has over 15 years of experience in the software development, information technology, pharmaceutical, and medical device industries primarily focused on managing projects and developing better project management organizations, processes, and tools. Contact him at

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