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Is Microsoft Project a Project Management Tool?

In an October 2009 article, “Best Practices for Microsoft Project, Part 1,” author Jim Park makes the statement: “Microsoft Project isn’t a project management tool. Let me repeat that last sentence: Microsoft Project is not a project management tool. It was developed as a schedule tracking application, but has become accepted over the years as a comprehensive project management tool. It is not the most effective tool when it comes to brainstorming activities like project planning…”

MPUG member Vincent McGevna, PMP, took exception to Park’s statements: “I have been using Project since it was first released, and I can assure you that it is not only a project management tool, but it is the project management tool. Clearly, it is not a standalone tool, but given the complexities of project management, there cannot be a standalone tool. That’s why we have an Office suite…”

MPUG asked McGevna to offer his counterpoint to Park’s assertion. This article is that counterpoint.

The project manager is responsible for creating a project plan, tracking progress against that plan, and updating the plan when necessary. According to PMI’s PMBOK, there are eight areas that might be addressed in a project plan. Of these, the schedule is the single most important. It’s built on the work breakdown structure (WBS), identifies the resources needed, and will have tasks to carry out the quality plan. Risks are best identified during schedule creation, and all effort to mitigate risk as well as contingency buffers, must be added to the schedule. The schedule then identifies the timeframe for each risk. Procurement must be included in the schedule, especially lead times and pre-procurement activities. Costs are reflected by the assigned resources, by procurement and by activities such as travel, and thus closely tied to the schedule. The communication plan is the only area not reflected in the schedule. However, the key dates and their status are among the most important pieces of information to be communicated.

Thus, the scheduling tool is the most important tool in the project manager’s toolbox. It must be robust and configurable to deal with the broad range of project types, sizes, and complexity. As an engineering project manager I have found that Microsoft Project fills this need nicely. Having used Project since its initial release, I have created and managed schedules with hundreds, even thousands of tasks.

Many of the features of Project that seem complex are, in fact, well thought out, and give the project manager the power to manage any schedule. By using custom fields, groups, and filters, I can slice and dice the schedule to focus on a specific aspect, such as an individual resource, one or more deliverables, or an integration phase. Flags and custom fields are useful to identify risk and quality related tasks, and with filters or AutoFilter, it’s easy to check on their status or create custom reports to share the information with stakeholders.

Resource views along with network diagrams are great for resource leveling. Dealing with schedules of 500 to 2,000 tasks and with 20-plus resources, I have never needed to level with Project’s leveling feature. However, I have found the leveling feature useful to split tasks when team members have to work on short, high priority tasks such as document reviews.

By using the capabilities provided by Project, I’m able to build most of my project plan into my schedule. When done scheduling, I have a very good understanding of the project I’m managing. Then the real fun starts — managing the project. For this Project provides additional, customizable views and tables, along with earned value calculations. This makes tracking the project straightforward. Then, the same features I use for planning are invaluable for the inevitable replanning.

I also rely on two add on tools, both from Critical Tools. WBS Chart Pro is an essential Project utility I use to create the WBS as a tree diagram. (Some people use mind mapping software for this.) The tree diagram is more useful to share and review than an indented list. PERT Chart Expert produces network diagrams. While these can be created within Project, I prefer the format in PERT Chart Expert.

Every project manager should have a tool like Project in his or her toolbox and should know how to use it effectively. Too many project managers fail to take advantage of the power it provides.

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Written by Vincent McGevna

Vinent McGevna, PMP has over 25 years of engineering project and program management experience, and has been using Microsoft Project for almost 20 years. During this time, as Project evolved, he learned to turn it into a powerful and versatile planning tool. He recently published a book: Schedule Centered Planning: An Incremental Approach for Plan Driven Projects. An appendix shows how he has used fields, filters, groups and views to create a schedule that is a plan, and then manage the project using that schedule. Contact him at Vincent@pmsuccess.com or check out his website.

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  1. After using the software for the entire life of the program (and an author on the subject), I see both sides of the argument. I believe Mr. Park is correct in that it is not always the best tool, and I believe Mr. McGevna is correct in his assertions as well, as it is the application that has the highest level of acceptance. My assessment is that since these gentlemen come from different industries (one from IT and one from engineering), this tool is viewed completely differently – as it has for many years. My 35 years of PM experience has shown me that no one tool exists that is a “one-size-fits-all”. My theory is that major changes released in Project 2010 (primarily, manually scheduled tasks) was aimed at the making the tool more appealing to the IT industry. These new features made Project a more adaptive planning tool for those working in an agile environment – and made the tool less rigid.
    On the opposite side I would say that each of writers are somewhat incorrect in their individual assessments of the software. For example, Mr. Park states that the software is not “a tool”. In fact it is a tool – one of many that we as PMs use everyday. If Mr. Park said “Microsoft Project is not project management software”, I would support his statement 100%. There is no such thing as “project management software” – if there were, there would be no need for Project Managers, PMP’s and such. There is project scheduling, estimating and forecasting software – which is the category MS Project falls under. As far as being a tool… MS Project, when used properly, can hold information such as the three main project baselines (time,cost, scope), documentation needed for quality, a copy of the project management plan, stakeholder information, etc. I have given presentations on how to use the software for risk management (analysis and budgeting).
    Mr. Park also states that (in Project) “there has never been a built-in WBS feature.” This is 100% false. MS Project has used the tabular format for the WBS (indenting the sub-tasks). A graphical, box-type WBS is not the only type of WBS. Mr. McGevna uses one of the most popular add-ins for developing graphical WBS’ – WBS Chart Pro from Critical Tools.com
    As far as Mr. McGevna comments, my opinion is that it is a bit short-sighted to say that it is THE tool for project management. Of the 120-plus software packages and online SasS products available, that market themselves as “PM software”, several of them are much less complex than Project and, often, they more than meet the needs of their users. Each organization is different, and from a pragmatic viewpoint, the needs of the project, organization, project manager and the project team often have an impact on the tool required to meet these needs.
    In conclusion, after managing dozens of multiple-year projects with several thousand activities and several hundred resources, I find that MS Project is the best tool for the money. This does not mean that it is the only tool. I also have found organizations who have attempted implementation of the tool have done so without little regard to the requirement of a formal, focused training on both project management processes and the tool of MS Project itself. Trying to use Project with little or no knowledge of project management is similar to a ship’s captain taking a voyage without little or no knowledge of navigation.

    BIO: Gregg D. Richie, PMP, CNP, MCTS is an international project management consultant and trainer and has over 34 years experience in the engineering, construction, facilities and project management field. He has managed, worked or consulted on more than 1500 projects in the United States and other locations around the world, including Japan, Italy, Spain, Philippines, British West Indies, and Guam. He is the founder of P8, LLC, a consulting firm that specializes in the implementation of MS Project for small to medium sized companies. He is the author of Microsoft Project 2010 (and 2013) in the Microsoft Official Academic Course Series, published by Wiley Press.

  2. I agree completely with Mr. Park’s original assertion… MS Project is (much like Clarity, Jira, Primavera, SmartSheets, and a whole host of product flavors out there), an accounting platform… it provides the WBS, the Gantt, and Resource leveling, to be sure (and most of the other apps mentioned do as well), however, it is for presentation purposes only (Triple Constraint), and discrete calculations must be captured and performed in other platforms.

    I strictly use MS Excel — and I haven’t used MS Project for years, and I don’t miss it (have been forced to use Clarity, Jira and SmartSheets, because functional staff are too lazy to use Excel). I teach my PM’s to use Excel, and to tolerate all other platforms if necessary.


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