Have you ever heard the line, “if it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done?” This refers to the tendency for procrastinators and those managing multiple priorities to put off work until it’s due. For some people, there’s nothing like seeing a task status of “Late” to drive home the need to complete the assigned work — especially if their work is on the critical path for the project.
Scheduling tools such as Microsoft Project typically allow the saving of baseline schedules with a current schedule that’s dynamically updated by applying actual and remaining work. So it’s handy to know if a given task is late compared to the baseline or the current schedule.
I’ve heard plenty of reasons — some more dubious than others — for not saving or adhering to a baseline, including these:
- If I don’t save a baseline, then I won’t be held accountable for not completing my project on time or on budget!
- I can’t control estimates from resources over which I as project manager have little or no control, such as external vendors.
- There are many unknowns regarding the project scope. Projects depending on new technology or those with fickle clients and/or minimal sponsor support are good examples of this.
- No one is asking for a baseline, so why should I provide one?
It’s also possible that a particular project is low priority and is being performed around other more important work and that the organization has agreed that this project will take a “back seat” to the more significant efforts.
In some cases scope trumps schedule. The finish date isn’t as significant as completing the total scope of the work. This rationale is often combined with the low priority project described above.
Finally, sometimes the scheduler doesn’t have the skills or training required to properly save and maintain a project baseline.
Whatever the reason for not involving the schedule baseline, there are situations where comparing the task to the current schedule (vs. the baseline) is desired. This article explores the tools available in Project to review the task status as compared to the current schedule.
The Importance of Task Status
One of the primary concerns of the project manager during execution is keeping the project on schedule. In order to do this, you must identify those tasks that aren’t getting completed on time, especially those that are on the critical path. Given a dynamic schedule and regular task status updates (Project Server timesheets can help automate this), Project can identify these tasks for you in the current schedule.
For the purposes of tracking, a task is one of the following statuses based on the current date (or the Status Date, if it is set in the Project Information function):
- Future. The task is scheduled in the future and no work has begun on the task.
- In Progress. The task has had Actual Work applied to it or the start date has passed. There are two possibilities for this status:
On Schedule — Based on the time-phased scheduling data calculated by Project, the number of work hours scheduled to be completed by the current date (or Status Date) has been met or exceeded by the assigned resources.
Late — The number of work hours scheduled to be completed by the current date (or Status Date, if set) hasn’t been met by the assigned resources.
- Completed — The task is 100% complete based on the Percent Complete field.
If the Status Date for a project is set, then it will override the current date, which is the default for determining the status of the tasks. To set the Status Date for a project, use the following procedure in Project:
1. Pull down the Project menu and select Project Information. This will open the Project Information dialog box in Figure 1.
2. In the Status Date field, enter the date for which you want the task status to be displayed. To clear the Status Date, enter “NA”.
3. Click the OK button to close the Project Information dialog box.
Viewing Task Status in the Datasheet
Two fields are available in task-level views of Project to identify which of the above statuses apply to individual tasks: Status and Status Indicator. Both fields show the same information in different forms as shown in Table 1. Either of these read-only fields can be added to task-level views (such as the Gantt Chart view) using the following procedure:
1. Right-click on the heading of any column and select Insert Column. This will open the Column Definition dialog box as shown in Figure 2.
2. Pull down the Field name list and select Status or Status Indicator.
3. Click the OK button to insert the field.
The status field has the advantage of allowing the use of the Autofilter function on the column; the Status Indicator column doesn’t allow the use of this feature. To use Autofilter for the status field:
1. Click the icon on the Formatting toolbar. This will display drop-down selection arrows for each column within the datasheet.
2. Click the drop-down arrow on the Status field that you inserted in the previous procedure and select “Late”. This will display all of the incomplete tasks in your current schedule whose start date has passed and the number of work hours scheduled to be completed by the current date (or Status Date, if set) has not been met by the assigned resources.
3. Tasks that are on the critical path are especially sensitive to being late, since they have the potential to delay the project end date or other hard constraints in the schedule. To see the late critical tasks, pull down the Filter selection list (also on the Formatting menu) and select Critical.
4. To remove all filters instantly, press the F3 key.
Viewing Task Status in the Gantt Chart
Like many features in Project, there’s overlapping and/or equivalent functionality in the Gantt Chart since it’s designed to serve as a “sanity check” to information displayed in the datasheet. For task status in the current view, progress lines represent this equivalent purpose.
Progress lines are a graphical representation of whether a task is on, ahead, or behind schedule. It shows as a vertical line in the Gantt Chart from either the current date or the Status Date, if it is set. This vertical line will touch only completed or in-progress tasks; no line will touch future tasks.
Progress lines angled to the left indicate late tasks.
To display progress lines on your Gantt Chart view in Project for the current schedule:
1. Pull down the Tools menu and select Tracking, and Progress Lines. This will display the Progress Lines dialog box as shown in Figure 3.
2. Select the Always display current progress line checkbox.
3. Select whether you want to display the progress line at the project status date or the current date. If the project status date isn’t set in the Project Information function, then the current date will be used.
4. Click the OK button. If the status date was selected in step 3 but wasn’t defined in the Project Information function, the message box in Figure 4 will display. Click the OK button to close the message box under this circumstance.
Figure 5 shows how progress lines appear on the Gantt Chart view.
As you can see, there are many more options on the Progress Lines dialog box that are beyond the scope of this article, including:
- The ability to display progress lines at recurring intervals and on specific dates.
- The ability to display progress lines in relation to the saved project baseline.
- The ability to format the progress lines on the Line Styles tab of the dialog box.
Experiment with these functions to discover the options that best help you communicate schedule progress to your stakeholders.