Once you've started to use Microsoft Project you'll have realized that the application has a variety of screens which help you plan a project very methodically in clear specific steps. You first define the project tasks, link tasks to create the project schedule, add resources and then monitored and correct the plan as appropriate. Printed reports on particular topics can also be created for different interest groups. Once complete the project can be evaluated for overall effectiveness and recommendations can be drawn up for future similar projects. So what are the key steps used in creating and running a project plan involving these activities? This article describes the four key steps and associated Project screens to accomplish this.

Planning in steps; objectives to tasks

The first project planning phase covers converting project objectives into clear discreet steps broken down into tasks. This can involve taking lots or written notes, revising objectives and seeking agreements on the tasks list you produce. Doing this requires excellent knowledge of what the steps are to be carried in what order and to what timescale. When you launch Microsoft Project the first screen you see is the Gantt chart view with the Table Entry on the left and the Gantt chart on a timeline on the right. This Project view is usually used when you first enter task data consisting of task titles and durations.

As you enter tasks you can arrange them in groups or phases rather than in a single long list. To do this you can create summary tasks in Project by highlighting several tasks and using the indent command to indent the selected tasks under the one immediately above, which becomes the summary task. Many project plans consist of several summary tasks and you can have one summary task containing other summary tasks depending on the overall project complexity.

Defining the Project; task relationships and a timeline

As you develop your project plan you also create links between tasks and between summary tasks. Such links create task relationships such that one task controls the start or finish of another task. So the project develops as a set of linked tasks within an overall timescale. You can view these linked tasks on the Gantt chart and see task and summary task details in the various task tables. You can then use Project's autofilters to create different Gantt and table views to show only certain tasks such as summary tasks, or tasks for one phase only, or all the tasks. You can these views or corresponding task tables for different interest groups as appropriate. On occasions there may or course be too much data to show neatly printed, particularly for Gantt chart views. So alternatively you can use Project's built in preset reports to create tabular project summaries. You can also export the filtered or unfiltered task details to applications such as Excel.

Working with resources including costs

Once the project schedule has been completed you can add project resources. This can include people, equipment, facilities such as rooms, and contractors or subcontractors as appropriate. Such resources are entered into Project's Resource Sheet view and details entered include resource name, cost details and availability. Cost details can be entered as amounts per hour or a single amount for the entire project or entered on a task by task basis. Availability can be entered by creating one or more resource calendars and adding availability details. If you subsequently assign a resource to a task and the resource is not available on a particular date as defined in its resource calendar then Project will delay the task until the resource is available.

Recording actual versus plan

Once the project schedule is complete and all resources are assigned to tasks you set a project baseline. This saves all task and resource data for the project which can then be used as a yardstick to track actual project progress. To do this you use Project's Tracking Gantt view. You then enter the percentage completion of the project on a task by task basis. You might decide that the actual project progress has become too far removed from the original yardstick, so you can use Project's facility to save a new baseline, and resume tracking.

So in this article we've covered the key steps you can use in creating a project plan in Microsoft Project. The steps are Planning objectives to tasks, defining the project in terms of task relationships and timescale, working with resources including costs, and recording actual project progress versus the baseline plan. Hopefully this article has given you a brief insight into how to use Project in an effective manner. You might like to consider attending a training course to build your skills in Project further, and really reap the benefits in using Project.