Microsoft Project Lessons

Here are some tips for using MS Project in par­tic­u­lar and project man­age­ment in gen­er­al that I picked up, which have either proven use­ful or which sound rea­son­able and which I plan to try out in the future. Feel free to add yours in the com­ments.

Leave Buffers

Since no project ever goes accord­ing to plan, it’s sen­si­ble to plan ahead by insert­ing buffers which can eat up some of the delay. Buffers shouldn’t be added to every task, but at the end of project phas­es or before mile­stones. A buffer of 15% of the phase dura­tion was rec­om­mend­ed in [1]. A buffer can be added by

  • insert­ing a ded­i­cat­ed buffer task between project phas­es, or
  • using pos­i­tive Lag between tasks (phas­es) that are depen­dent on anoth­er (see below), or
  • cre­at­ing a man­u­al­ly sched­uled sum­ma­ry task for the project phase to which the buffer is added. In this case MS Project sep­a­rate­ly keeps track of the sub­tasks’ dura­tion whose progress bar turns red when it exceeds the sum­ma­ry task’s set dura­tion.

Beware of Slack

Don’t cal­cu­late with 100% pro­duc­tive-towards-the-project resources (peo­ple). Nobody works with­out dis­trac­tions. This can be account­ed for by

  • set­ting Max Units of the resources to less than 100% (Resource sheet, Max Units cell), or
  • using short­er work­days in the project (Project OptionsSchedule)

The first option is more flex­i­ble and more vis­i­ble.
If you also sched­ule equip­ment resources, you can prob­a­bly leave Max Units at 100%. Don’t use the sec­ond option in this case.

Use Hyperlinks

If you have doc­u­ments describ­ing a task / work pack­age in detail, link the tasks in Project to these doc­u­ments by choos­ing Hyperlink in the con­text menu of rel­e­vant tasks.

Understand Task Types

When you make changes to a task’s dura­tion, resource units or work, Project will cal­cu­late the oth­er two quan­ti­ties auto­mat­i­cal­ly accord­ing to these rules:

Task Type User Changes Pro­gram Adjusts
Fixed Units Dura­tion Work, based on Units
Units Dura­tion, based on Work
Work Dura­tion, based on Units
Fixed Dura­tion Dura­tion Work, based on Units
Units Work, based on Dura­tion
Work Units, based on Dura­tion
Fixed Work Dura­tion Units, based on Work
Units Dura­tion, based on Work
Work Dura­tion, based on Units

It’s a good idea to change the task type only while you are mak­ing changes to a task, and after­wards reset­ting it to the stan­dard Fixed Units type, in order to avoid unex­pect­ed behav­ior and con­fu­sion in the future.

Equipment is a Work Resource

This may sound counter-intu­itive, but mate­r­i­al resources are con­sum­ables that are planned by quan­ti­ty, not by avail­abil­i­ty. If you have two pieces of some par­tic­u­lar equip­ment, set Max Units to 200%, and anal­o­gous for more. Equip­ment resources like­ly don’t need slack adjust­ment to their Max Units (see above).

Use Task Dependencies and Lag

When you use Automatic Scheduling (and you should), make use of the dif­fer­ent task depen­den­cy options. These are

  • Fin­ish-to-Start (FS): Successor task starts when Predecessor task has fin­ished. Most com­mon option. Pos­i­tive Lag cre­ates a delay between tasks, neg­a­tive Lag leads to over­lap.
  • Start-to-Start (SS): Successor task starts when Predecessor task starts. Pos­i­tive Lag delays the start time of the Successor, neg­a­tive Lag advances it.
  • Fin­ish-to-Fin­ish (FF): Successor task fin­ish­es when Predecessor has fin­ished. Pos­i­tive Lag delays the fin­ish time of the Successor, neg­a­tive Lag advances it.
  • Start-to-Fin­ish (SF): Successor task fin­ish­es when Predecessor task starts. Pos­i­tive Lag leads to over­lap, neg­a­tive Lag cre­ates a delay between tasks.

Successor and Predecessor mere­ly describe the depen­den­cy (which task con­trols the oth­er), not the tem­po­ral order of the tasks, which can cer­tain­ly cause con­fu­sion in the SF case.
Lag can also be entered as a per­cent­age of the dura­tion of Predecessor, which can be use­ful for cre­at­ing buffers (see above).

Fin­ish-to-Start depen­den­cy with­out lag (top) and with 50% lag (bot­tom).

Start-to-Start depen­den­cy with­out lag (top) and with 50% lag (bot­tom).

Fin­ish-to-Fin­ish depen­den­cy with­out lag (top) and with 50% lag (bot­tom).

Start-to-Fin­ish depen­den­cy with­out lag (top) and with 50% lag (bot­tom).

Use Summary Tasks

Sum­ma­ry tasks are a help­ful visu­al aid when the project is divid­ed into dif­fer­ent phas­es, each with its own set of tasks. With a sin­gle click all sub­tasks can be hid­den from view when a par­tic­u­lar phase is no longer rel­e­vant or when the struc­ture of sub­tasks is of no cur­rent inter­est, e.g. indi­vid­ual acqui­si­tion tasks before the start of assem­bly.
Also, chang­ing a sum­ma­ry task to Manually Scheduled in Project adds a dura­tion indi­ca­tor for the con­tained sub­tasks as part of the task bar. Should the dura­tion of the sub­tasks exceed the dura­tion of the sum­ma­ry task, e.g. because of unfore­seen delays, this dura­tion indi­ca­tor turns red, warn­ing about the prob­lem. Man­u­al sched­ul­ing also allows for insert­ing some buffer time as described above by mak­ing fol­low­ing tasks depend on the fin­ish of the sum­ma­ry task instead of a par­tic­u­lar sub­task.

Auto­mat­i­cal­ly sched­uled sum­ma­ry task (top), man­u­al­ly sched­uled sum­ma­ry task with remain­ing buffer (mid­dle) and with exceed­ed buffer (bot­tom).

Save your Favorite Views

If you find your­self using sim­i­lar views over and over again, save your set­ting as cus­tom view(s) and make it avail­able to your oth­er projects.
To show e.g. a Gantt / Entry Table with cus­tom columns and bar styles, and with the Task Details Form in a sec­ond pane below the chart, fol­low these steps:

  • In the View rib­bon, select the Gantt Chart view.
  • In the View rib­bon, select DataTablesEntry (or your favorite table) and use the Format ribbon’s Columns sec­tion to for­mat the table to your lik­ing. Often, less (columns) is more and you can also get e.g. Start and Finish data by hov­er­ing the mouse over the task bars in the Gantt chart or in the Task Details Form that we’ll set­up lat­er.
  • In the Format rib­bon use the Bar Styles sec­tion to for­mat the task bars to your lik­ing.
  • Go to FileInfoOrganizer, select the Tables tab, select the appro­pri­ate table on the right side and click << Copy. In the pop-up warn­ing box, click Rename... and give the table a new name in the glob­al tem­plate (do not first rename and then copy). Do the same with the view in the Views tab of the Organizer (as the table to use is saved in the cus­tom view).

  • In any of the drop-downs in the View rib­bon, Task Views sec­tion, select More Views...
  • In the dia­log box, click on New... and select Combination View.
  • Give the view a new name and select your cus­tom view for the Primary View and e.g. the Task Details Form for the Details Pane.
  • Go back to the Organizer and copy your com­bi­na­tion view to the glob­al tem­plate to make it avail­able in your oth­er projects.


[1] Bon­nie Biafore, Microsoft Project 2010: The Miss­ing Man­u­al, O’Reilly Media, 2010.

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