In Microsoft Project, Summary Tasks are Misnamed

Microsoft Project has a feature called summary tasks. In Microsoft’s world, you take a bottom-up approach to creating your schedule. You create a list of tasks, and when you realize one can be broken up into smaller activities, you create those smaller tasks and indent them (making them subtasks), and your original task becomes a summary task. Microsoft writes:

In Project, an indented task becomes a subtask of the task above it, which becomes a summary task. A summary task is made up of subtasks, and it shows their combined information.

https://support.office.com/en-us/article/create-and-work-with-subtasks-and-summary-tasks-b3ff64ce-b121-42cc-905b-cb9b8ce0255f

The naming convention (“summary task”) is unfortunate because your original task isn’t a task at all — it’s more like an outline header. Complicating matters, Microsoft Project allows you to edit the data (or cells) in a summary task. You can assign a start date and a resource to it. You can assign predecessors. Do this, and your summary task is technically no longer a summary of the indented information below it.

In other words, a summary task is frequently neither. But by calling it a “task”, Microsoft inadvertently promotes a bad scheduling practice. Worse, changing the “task’s” data interferes with the correct calculation of the critical path. It’s like pouring sugar into the gas tank of a car. Not advisable for the operation of the engine. Our project schedule analyzer checks to make sure that summary tasks haven’t been used improperly, helping the critical path “engine” do its job.

Oracle Primavera, on the other hand, takes a top-down approach. Early in the creation of a schedule, you create a WBS (work breakdown structure). This is a more sensible way to build your schedule. You start with the highest level items (for example, deliverables) and then keep breaking them down until you’re ready to start creating activities. The WBS items and the activities are seen as two completely separate entities in Primavera.

I will point out that it is possible to create a schedule in Microsoft Project using a top-down approach. This is what we recommend. Change your mental model of summary tasks — they are not tasks in any way, shape, or form, and they should be left alone to report (summarize) the tasks that belong to them.

A Must Have Software Utility

I’m kind of obsessed with productivity tools, and they generally fall into one of two categories: the ones everyone should use and the rest.

It’s our company mission to make must-have tools (viewers, analyzersexporters) for people who are writing, updating or reviewing project schedules.  We live in a niche; we design and deliver productivity software products for a specific group of people.

Some tools have a much broader range.  One tool that everyone should use is a text snippet insertion utility.  I use TextExpander, and while I don’t know if it’s the best or the worse, I know that I love what it does and how it does it.  It works well for me.

The purpose of these tools is pretty simple:  you type abbreviations or shorthand, like “fyi”, and the tool will insert a longer set of words, like “for your information”.  I set up “b@s” to be my email address — using the first letter of each side of the @ sign.  I have dozens of abbreviations now, and for me, it’s like typing in fast motion. Filling out forms is almost fun.

Almost.

Occasionally, it expands when I don’t want it to, which means I chose an abbreviation that occurs “naturally in the wild,” so to speak.  Good abbreviations require creativity and practicality.  I tend to use the same three letters in a row like three s’s for Steelray.  (You can bet I didn’t type out the entire “Steelray” just then)

You know you love a tool when you miss it the minute you start using a computer without it installed.  The tool can be habit-forming, but in this case, it’s a good habit.  A tiny little superpower.

There are others in my “must-have” category, and most of them are like TextExpander, in that they do a very specific thing in a very useful way.  If you’re not using one, I recommend you take a week and give it a try.  It takes a little practice, but it’s worth it.

Two New Year’s Resolutions

Today is January 2, the first workday where we get to practice our New Year’s resolutions.  Did you make any?  For Steelray, New Year’s resolutions take the form of annual objectives.  This year, we’ve made two big resolutions.

listeningFirst, we resolve that we’re going to do a much better job of communicating with you.  That includes sharing news about releases and events we’re attending.  Communication is a two-way street, so it also involves listening very carefully to your feedback, ideas, and suggestions.  In fact, the listening part is the far more critical part of communication.

sharing ideasSecond, we’re going back to our roots and delivering groundbreaking software — this time in the area of schedule delay analysis.  I can’t share the details yet, but that day is coming soon.  We’ve been in R&D mode for most of last year, working on the technology.

At times, we encountered roadblocks that made us question whether we’d be able to push through. And we pushed through. (If it were easy, it would have been done already.)  We’re not there yet, but we’re getting much closer.

phone usAnd, in keeping with our first resolution, I’m spending time every day speaking with potential users of the software, understanding how it can best help and how it would be used.  So, if you’re someone who looks at schedules with the purpose of understanding the impact of changes to the schedule, please reach out to me.

Let’s talk!

Comparing Schedule Snapshots

I like when people post old photos on social media, but especially the “then and now” pictures.  My favorite then-and-now pictures are when the people in the current picture wear similar clothes or attempt to strike the same pose as they did in the past. It’s fun to compare the images, noticing what’s different and what’s the same.

Not as much fun? Comparing snapshots of project schedules. This is a difficult and imperfect process. Why is this?

What You See

A project schedule is typically an extensive dataset. The schedule captures:

  • Performed activities.
  • Logic — how the activities are related to each other, including lags and leads
  • Resources — people, materials, equipment, etc.
  • Calendars — these are composed of the working and non-working days. There can be several calendars in play.
  • Constraints — rules about when activities must start or finish.
  • Expected durations.
  • Calculated dates.

A schedule comparison tool like Oracle Primavera Claimdigger (now a feature in Primavera P6 Visualizer) shows you the differences between schedule snapshots. The first thing you notice: the output is also a massive set of data that must be inspected and analyzed and explained. Your comparison work has just begun.

What You Don’t See

You don’t see what was never recorded. In photographs, you only see physical changes. You don’t see how they are different as a person, what they’ve learned, how they’ve grown, etc.

Similarly, changes in the schedule don’t reflect all of the changes in the project. Sometimes things happen in the project that aren’t indicated in the schedule. Sometimes the schedule is unable to indicate things that occur in the project.

You can see the “what” — the actual change between the snapshots. But you don’t typically see:

  • Who made the change, or when the change was made.
  • Why the change was made.
  • How the change was approved.

Project scheduling tools weren’t designed to record these things. Even if you had a system that recorded this information, your large dataset problem would be significantly larger.

We want to make your work a little easier and less stressful; it’s one of our core values as a company. So we created a schedule analysis tool that offers excellent schedule comparison features, and we’re currently working on new technology that could be a quantum leap forward. So stay tuned and keep an eye out for more details soon!

Before You Perform a Time Impact Analysis . . .

Many organizations, as they are considering the impact of a considered change to a project, perform a Time Impact Analysis (TIA).  A time impact analysis is a scheduling technique that models the change being considered and its impact (cost, time, resources) on the schedule.

Any article you read on performing a TIA stipulates as a requirement that your schedule must have a valid critical path. 

But what does “valid” mean?

In this context, “valid” means high quality.  Are the activities linked together properly?  Are constraints being used properly and only where necessary?  Are relationship types, lags, and leads being used properly?  Is there hidden trouble (e.g. negative float) that isn’t being addressed?  Does the schedule have the proper level of detail?

All of these questions help assess whether the critical path can be trusted.

As the Russian proverb made famous by President Reagan goes, trust but verify.  Large corporations are required to have a system of internal controls for their finances.  At Steelray, we believe that they are needed for project schedules as well.

Does your organization have internal controls for schedules?  Let’s talk!

IPMW 2018 Tools Talk

We are just a few days out from the start of the Integrated Program Management Workshop 2018 in Washington D.C! We are so excited to exhibit our products and demonstrate how they can improve your productivity. We will present our Tools Talk on Tuesday, November 13th from 1:30-2:15 pm in Room 307, so if you’re attending, we’d love for you to stop by our talk. If you aren’t able to make the conference or miss our presentation, continue reading for a summary (and feel free to reach out if you have any more questions about our products!)

Steelray Software Unlocks the Secrets in Your Schedule

If you think about it, a project schedule is really a large set of information that includes planned activities, assignments, and what has happened so far. On large schedules, a lot of key information is sometimes “buried.”

At Steelray, our mission is to help you make sense of your product schedules. At IPMW, we’ll be showing off new products and technologies that help you do just that. 

If you’re new to our suite of products, we’ll introduce our best-in-class suite of tools for project schedule visualization and analysis. If you’re already using our tools, you’ll see features that you probably didn’t know about that will save you a great deal of time.

Steelray Project Viewer is the leading viewer for project schedules.  At IPMW, we’ll be introducing an edition for Primavera P6 and showing how easy it is to navigate through your Primavera schedule.  With features like quick filters and a built-in search engine, we’ll show you how you can save time and make better decisions by using our viewer.

Steelray Project Analyzer is our flagship schedule analysis solution.  We introduced Analyzer at IPMW over ten years ago, and we’ll be demonstrating powerful features that no other competing solution offers.  This year, we completed an overhaul of the product that brings new levels of performance and stability to the product, and we’re excited to show this to you.

Steelray Project Exporter is an add-in for Microsoft Project that now comes in two editions:  a free version that exports to UN/CEFACT XML, and a commercial product that exports to the new IPMR2 Format 6 in JSON.  We’ve significantly improved the product, making it easier to use and more flexible, including self-correcting some common issues that break strict compliance with the standard.

Don’t forget to stop by our booth if you’re attending and keep an eye out for prizes! Looking forward to showing off our software and helping you with your project management!


IPMW 2018 Tools Talk Sneak Peek

We are officially one week out from the Integrated Program Management Workshop 2018 in Washington D.C! We’re so excited to showcase our newest product, Project Exporter (for both UN/CEFACT and IPMR2), as well as recent developments of our other products, Project Viewer and Project Analyzer. Stay tuned for more information later this week about our presentation at IPMW, and in the meanwhile, take a peek at this goofy video we made: 

If you’re attending IPMW 2018, we hope you stop by our presentation! Our talk, “Unlock the Secrets in Your Software,” will take place on Tuesday, November 13th at 1:30-2:15 pm in Room 307 of the GW Marvin Center. 

STEM vs. “Soft Skills”

Modern education places a heavy emphasis on STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math. However, a project at Google set out to determine the value of so-called “soft skills” in their workplace.

Google initially set out to hire computer science students with top grades from the best science colleges upon its conception in 1998. But in 2013, they tested hiring, firing, and promotion data and found that STEM qualities actually ended up last on the list of the eight most important attributes as an employee at Google. The top seven were soft skills: the ability to be empathetic, excellent communication skills, critical thinking and problem solving, to name a few. Their findings led the company to reconfigure their hiring process and expand their focus beyond technology-based fields of study to humanities majors and MBAs.

Even at a company as technical as Google, studies continue to show the value of soft skills.  The article states:

“the company’s most important and productive new ideas came from B-teams comprised of employees who don’t always have to be the smartest people in the room.”

And that begs the question, what is smart anyway? We tend to think of people who excel in technical subjects such as math and science as the smart ones, without the same regard for those who are excellent writers or can paint a masterpiece.

Furthermore, these “soft skills” cited in the article go beyond academic subjects we learned in school. Studies noted that emotional safety, generosity, and curiosity were qualities that aren’t taught to us by teachers, but rather by peers. This shows that our socialization plays an equally important role in our contributions at work, not just our academic excellence.

As a software company, we’re focused on our technology and using fantastic software engineers to build our products to the best of our ability. But we also work to recognize that being a great team member goes beyond coding. We strive for personal and professional betterment, which makes our office a prime space to excel. As important as technology is in our set of skills, it’s equally vital not to overlook the soft skills as well.

A 4-Day Work Week?

Happy Friday everyone! Today, we’re discussing human productivity and the efficiency of an experimental four-day work week.

Earlier this year, a firm in New Zealand ran an experiment where it let its employees work four days a week while being paid for five. Employees chose which day of the week to take off, and the experiment resulted in more well-rested employees, better work-life balance, and limited distractions, with no change in productivity despite the shorter work hours.

The article begs the question as to the efficiency of a 40-hour work week. Of course, everyone is different, but this experiment showed that people were able to recognize inefficiencies and correct them to work smarter, not necessarily harder.

It’s vital for us as employees to recognize times that we’re doing quality work and times when we’re not. It’s difficult (maybe even impossible) to be 100% productive, all day, every day; and it’s also essential for us to take breaks. So what’s the perfect balance?

Honestly, there isn’t one universal answer. Everyone works differently, and this experiment ran well because employees had the ability to choose which extra day they took off, allowing them to optimize their time in the office and take well-deserved breaks when they needed it. But besides being bored or feeling sluggish, how do we know when we’re not productive?

Some may be familiar with the term “flow”: in other words, it’s the state of being in the zone, when one is fully immersed in an activity and has full focus and enjoyment in the process. There are, of course, varying stages between boredom and flow, and we often don’t work at a flow state for eight hours a day. But achieving a flow rhythm might reduce the time it takes to complete a task; for example, a task that might take four hours in a non-flow state might take two in flow.

There’s no real answer to achieving flow since everyone works differently. But the experiment of a four-day work week and the results it produced imply that individuals are able to deduce their own inefficiencies and make themselves better. At Steelray, we continually strive for personal betterment, in and out of the workplace, because we believe that the drive to learn and excel is what makes us remarkable people with really cool software.

Do you think you’d excel with a four-day work week? What day would you take off? How can we measure our productivity to know if we’re getting better or worse?

How To Have Better Conversations

At Steelray, every employee attends a seminar called “Fierce Conversations,” taught by Larry Hart and based on the book by Susan Scott. We hold all these lessons to heart and firmly believe that effective communication is a pillar to great teamwork, which in turn creates excellent products, and is a baseline for our really cool software.

This TED Talk by Celeste Headlee, a radio show host, outlines the problems that prevent us from having meaningful conversations. She puts our conversational issues in a modern-day context where the polarization of our population means that every conversation can devolve into an argument, and avoiding conversations prevents essential discussions and interpersonal connections.

She points to our lack of listening, our inherent need to talk about ourselves, and our inability to ask the right type of questions, among other issues, and maps out a plan for us to overcome these obstacles. Given that we live in a highly technological society, Headlee recognizes that a significant portion of our interactions are online via a screen, not face-to-face, and this is a primary reason as to why our in-person conversation quality has degraded. However, the points she lists to make us better conversationalists apply not only to in-person conversations but online ones as well. We often subconsciously steer exchanges to our personal experiences, both on and offline, and Headlee combats this by forcing us to recognize that experiences are all individual; we very rarely know exactly how other people feel when they undergo something, and realizing this to be a better listener makes a world of difference.

Catch the video below, and maybe learn something new about conversations that can help both your personal and professional lives.