Back in 1910’ish, Henry Gantt invented the Gantt chart. The Gantt chart became the standard bearer for how project managers view and track their projects. When technology got good enough, the Gantt chart could be found in software products like Microsoft Project.
Sample Gantt chart, courtesy Wikipedia.com.
The Gantt chart requires a project scheduler to build out all the tasks the project team requires to do the work. The tasks are then connected together using what we called predecessor/successor relationships. This approach to managing a project can certainly be onerous, but it lets you lay out the tasks, budget them, estimate resources, and generally know how to plan your work.
Channeling the concepts created by Henry Gantt so long ago, Microsoft Project allows you to develop detailed schedules. In this post, I explain how the Gantt chart and other basic project management methodologies form to create a scheduling engine.
What is a scheduling engine?
Imagine you are a project manager and you want to track a whole bunch of tasks. What are some tools you might reach for? Chances are, you might choose Microsoft Project’s largest competitor: Microsoft Excel.
Choosing Excel, or any popular spreadsheet for that matter, is a very good choice. You can list out all the tasks in various cells, add some notes, punch in a few dates, and assign some people’s names. This spreadsheet choice works great. Great, that is, until things like this start happening:
- Certain tasks cannot overlap each other.
- No tasks can happen over weekends.
- You are double-booking resources because certain tasks are starting at the same time.
The list can go on, but my point here is once those types of challenges present themselves to you it may not be as simple as you think to make that spreadsheet work for you. For example, you could create scripts that check dates for weekends and move the tasks out automatically. You could write more scripts to see if the same people are working on the different tasks at the same time. To make sure tasks do not overlap, you would probably have to use special cells, formulas, and scripts to address those issues.
If you choose to go the spreadsheet route, ask yourself this question:
Do you want to be a software programmer or a project manager?
If you want to be a project manager, you need to reach for an app that helps you schedule work, not an app that remains static until you write custom software scripts and formulas. Once a project takes more than a month and 2-3 people, spreadsheets are much more painful than they are useful and this is why we turn to Microsoft Project.Microsoft Project will greet you with a
Microsoft Project will greet you with a Gannt chart view where you can start entering tasks using a user interface very similar to Microsoft Excel. In this view, you start typing tasks. After you get those tasks into Microsoft Project, you can then start estimating the duration, and then linking them together.
As you can see in the following image, Microsoft Project is already providing you with some powerful features that spreadsheet or task management app on your phone is not that good at.
Here are some things to point out in this simple project plan with only two tasks:
- Task A has a duration of 6 days. Microsoft Project notices the duration will go over the weekend, so instead of the task finishing on Saturday, it finishes Monday.
- By using a predecessor relationship to link Task B to Task A, Microsoft Project automatically calculates when Task B will start and finish.
- Take a look at the top of the project (line zero), and you will notice Microsoft Project even calculates the total duration, start, and finish dates for the entire project.
- The visual elements of the Gantt chart are on the right side of the screen, giving you a real-time visualization into the project.
What I have just shown you is the tip of the iceberg (as they say) in how Microsoft Project uses a scheduling engine to make your life as a project manager more efficient.
This article is meant to introduce you to the concepts of a scheduling engine. Of course, there is much, much more, such as:
- Resource management (people, costs, materials).
- Custom calendars.
- (and as I said earlier, much, much more.).
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