Late Tasks: Starts and Finishes

The Background Story…

I have been a project manager for over forty years. Over that time, I got into the habit of checking my projects for late starts and finishes two or three times a month. This would help me to flag task problems that I needed to research and try to get back on schedule. Originally, I would take my plan and sort the % Complete field which gave me three major groups: 0% (Not Started), 1% – 99% (Started), and 100% (Completed). My initial focus was to drill-down on the first two groups and highlight potential task problems. For the first group (Not Started), I would highlight the tasks that had a start date that was less than or equal to the current date at that time. Keep in mind these late starting tasks could eventually turn in late tasks. For the second group (Started), I would highlight the tasks that had a finish date that was less than or equal to the current date. On large projects, this exercise was time-consuming, and I felt like a kid using a flashlight at night as I drilled-down to find tasks that had late starts and finishes.

Highlighting A Better Way

Within Microsoft Project, there are multiple ways to find tasks that have late starts and finishes. They include using multiple filters, reports, and/or using a macro. I typically chose to use a simple filter to meet my needs, and Figure 1 below shows a small project plan that I will use to demonstrate my approach using highlighting. Applying a routine filter hides information that does not meet your criteria and applying a highlight (a yellow format) to information that does meet your criteria. Otherwise, the two approaches are nearly identical. When a highlight is applied, the Highlight Filter Applied message appears on the bottom left side of the status bar.

Figure 1: Project Plan

To create this new filter, go to the View tab > Data section > Highlight’s drop-down menu > More Highlight Filters > New (Figure 2). To see the result, reference Figure 3. Initially name your filter (e.g., Late Starts and Finishes) and define your filter logic. For the first line, I didn’t use % Complete because it represents the duration that is complete, not the progress that’s been completed on the work. Instead, I used the more accurate % Work Complete ((Actual Work/Work) x 100)) that equals 0% And (logic operator) Start that is less than or equal to “Enter status date:?” (interactive prompt for later) to find the late starts.

Figure 2: More Filters Dialog Box

Figure 3: Filter Definition Dialog Box

Next, I used the Or (logic operator) Status that equals Late to find the late finishes. There are four types of Status – Late, Complete, On Schedule, or Future Tasks. When finished, click Save. Then click Highlight from Figure 2. When you select this filter from the Highlight pull-down arrow, the interactive “Enter status date:” dialog box will pop-up (Figure 4) for you to enter the selected date and click OK. This brings you to Figure 5, where you can now see the highlighted late start and finish tasks. You can tell from the % Work Complete column that the task IDs 1 and 6-7 are late finishes (> 0%) and the task IDs 13-14 are late starts (= 0%).

Figure 4: Enter Status Date Dialog Box

Figure 5: Highlighted Late Starts and Finishes


Using filters to create your specific information requirements can be extremely helpful. This coupled with using the already built-in filters can up your game as a project manager. Sometimes, you might copy a built-in filter as a foundation for creating your own. Your comments on this topic are appreciated below.

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Written by Ronald Smith

Ronald Smith has over four decades of experience as Senior PM/Program Manager. He retired from IBM having written four books and over four dozen articles (for example, PMI’s PM Network magazine and MPUG) on project management, and the systems development life cycle (SDLC). He’s been a member of PMI since 1998 and evaluates articles submitted to PMI’s Knowledge Shelf Library for potential publication.
From 2011 – 2017, Ronald had been an Adjunct Professor for a Master of Science in Technology and taught PM courses at the University of Houston’s College of Technology. Teaching from his own book, Project Management Tools and Techniques – A Practical Guide, Ronald offers a perspective on project management that reflects his many years of experience. Lastly in the Houston area, he has started up two Toastmasters clubs and does voluntary work at various food banks.

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