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!

Unintended Consequences

A hunter was injured when a bear landed on top of him after he shot it on a hilltop.  I am not making light of this happening, and I hope the hunter makes a full and quick recovery, but this story is a perfect metaphor for the habit we sometimes have of shooting problems and at the same time accidentally creating bigger ones.

I think they like to call it “unintended consequences,” and I’ve had my share of them.

The only upside to making mountain-sized messes out of mole-sized problems with decisions is when we:

  1. learn from them
  2. figure out how our decision process failed us
  3. train ourselves to spend more thinking time on the potential side effects and future problems.

It’s definitely a process, and one I’m not finished with.  When was the last time a bear you shot landed on you?

Viewer Now Sold by Subscription

As of October 1st, 2018, we no longer sell “full” and “maintenance” licenses to our products. We only sell subscriptions.

Prior to October 1st, 2018, we sold our viewer as a perpetual license. On October 1st, 2018, we switched to a subscription model, which means that all new sales are sold as subscriptions.

For Perpetual License Holders

If you are a perpetual license holder, you may continue to use the product perpetually (as the name implies). The only change will be how you are covered under maintenance. Until your maintenance period expires, you are covered under your current maintenance period; nothing changes.

Should you choose to renew maintenance when it expires, you would be switching to a subscription license at that time.

When your maintenance expires, should you choose to not renew maintenance, you may continue to use the product but will not be eligible for technical support and new versions.

Analyzer 2018.5 Release is Live

We are excited to announce the availability of Steelray Project Analyzer 2018.5, a major release of Analyzer!  This is the biggest release of Analyzer in many years.

What’s new in 2018.5?

DoD DCMA EVAS Metrics

Analyzer 2018.5 includes support for all of the latest schedule metrics that DCMA is using on their EVAS schedule assessments.

DCMA 14-Point Enhancements

Analyzer’s DCMA 14 Point Assessment is enhanced as well.  With the 2018.5 release, all 14 tests are executed without changing the source schedules, including schedules with master and subproject files.

As always, we include two versions of the report: one which runs strictly according to DCMA guidelines and one that can be customized and configured to suit your needs.  The custom report is renamed to “Configurable DCMA Assessment” in this version.

Our Entirely New Project Data Extractor for Microsoft Project

With Microsoft Project files, when you click the Analyze button, the longest part of the processing is extracting the necessary data from Project. When the extraction takes a while, the whole analysis takes a while.  There are generally two technologies used for this, and both come with technical baggage (i.e. compromises): accuracy and speed.

Speed + Accuracy

We’ve written a new project data extractor optimized for blazing speed with perfect accuracy, giving you the best of both worlds, and Analyzer is our first product to use this technology.  The extractor is called Steelray Project Add-In and (as the name implies) it installs as a very lightweight add-In to Microsoft Project.  Once installed, Steelray Project Analyzer connects to the add-in to grab the data it needs, in less time than ever before.  But that’s not all it does.

Better Error Handling

Because Analyzer and the Project Add-In can talk to each other, we’re better able to detect when something goes wrong with Project.  This allows us to better communicate and handle the issue.

Support for Future Products

Future products that Steelray will build may use Steelray Project Add-In as well, reducing their installation footprint.

Improved User Interface

In 2018.5, we addressed dozens of usability items to make for a better user experience.

Settings Where They Belong

In previous versions, some reports would have a sidebar which would allow you to change settings related to the project or the report.  You could only access those settings after running the report, which was clunky.  We’ve moved those settings out of the report to where they belong:  project settings and report settings.

The old DCMA 14 Point Assessment, with settings to the right.

The new DCMA 14 Point Assessment. Settings have been moved.

New Project Settings

There’s a stark difference between the old and new project settings.  With the new settings, you make changes in one place and the changes apply wherever used in a report.  For Microsoft Project files, there is a new link which allows you to open the project file directly from Analyzer.

The old project settings screen.

In the new project settings, you’re able to change settings for this project across all reports.

New Report Settings

Similarly, we’ve taken settings out of the output of some reports and added them to our enhanced report settings.

This is an example of the old Schedule Compare Graph report. The settings are included in the output.

In the new version, the report settings are where they belong — in Report Settings.

Direct Editing of Criteria From the Scorecard

The first generation of Analyzer had a feature where you could edit any criteria on a scorecard with one click; a great shortcut that we missed when it went away in the next version.

We’re happy to announce that it’s back in 2018.5!  Simply click on the criteria name and you’ll be in the Criteria Manager with the criteria loaded and ready to edit.  An example:

You can edit criteria in the scorecard with one click.

Enhanced Project Sets Make Comparing Schedules a Breeze

We’ve greatly enhanced project sets in Analyzer 2018.5 with a new feature called snapshot sets.  Before, to select two or more schedules for a comparison report, you had to load and select them individually.  You may have had 12 schedules, one for each reporting period, cluttering up your Projects list.

In 2018.5, a project set has a checkbox setting that tells Analyzer that the list of projects in the set are snapshots of the same schedule — a snapshot set.  For reports like Schedule Comparison that required you to select all of the projects to be compared, the process is much easier,  Select the snapshot set and you’re good.

Creating snapshot sets is easy!

Enhanced Connection Diagnostics for Microsoft Project Server, Project Online, and Oracle Primavera P6

We’ve added features to make it much easier to diagnose connection problems with Microsoft Project Server, Project Online, and Oracle Primavera P6.  For P6, we check to make sure the necessary permissions are correct after the connection.

You can download the latest version at: www.steelray.com/ProjectAnalyzer/Analyzer.php#trial

Alan – The Artifically Intelligent PM Assistant

Alan - Artificially Intelligent PM Assistant

Dateline: December, 2024 — Steelray launches Alan, our (fictional) Artificially Intelligent Assistant Project Manager.

Let’s follow along as Alan takes on the day.

Alan begins early by checking his news feed, noting that dock workers in Brazil are threatening to strike in January. He sends an alert to the risk analyst, checking to see if the strike has been accounted for, how the risk would be mitigated, and whether a “Plan B” exists.

In other market news, new oil industry projections indicate a price dip in the coming months. Alan assesses near-term projects and calculates some schedule shifts to take advantage of lower prices before they go back up. He pings the PMs via email and highlights the schedule changes.

Later that morning a PM named Beth checks a Slack feed from Alan; he’s cross- referenced her project data with HR and reports that a key assigned resource has scheduled vacation during a critical activity. He also notes that a small shift in the project path will avoid overtime rates. Beth adjusts accordingly.

Near lunch, Alan reports back to Stephen, who’s looking to update forecasts for the OmniCorp project. Alan has been anonymously polling the participants on activities and projections, and informs Stephen that their sentiments, combined with previous project data and external factors, indicate the project will complete two weeks later than the original projection.

That afternoon, Alan detects an unusual materials charge expensed to the DOT project. The items are appropriate for the job, and the total fits into the budget, but a high one-time cost is an anomaly. He shoots a text message to Purchasing and the PM?might this be a red flag?

Before close of day, Travis, director of sales, has Alan weigh in on a new project proposal, since Alan’s access to almost unlimited data points, coupled with his machine learning capabilities, allow him to eliminate much of the guesswork in cost and timeline estimation. Travis reviews the three project scenarios offered by Alan and feels prepared for tomorrow morning’s sales meeting.

Sound like fantasy?

For the moment, it is. But not as far from reality as you might think.

Some people are hesitant about the role of AI in the future, but we see a landscape of neural nets, algorithms and bots that enable people to reach higher degrees of excellence.

And, as we continue to experience a revolution in AI?in medical diagnosis, driverless cars, stock trading, marketing, business strategy?project management won’t be far behind.

In fact, we’re planning on it.

Steelray is incorporating AI into our flagship products?to continue providing greater depth of knowledge and actionability so our clients know the truth in their data and can do something about it.

Stay tuned…

Seven Business Practices that Need a Second Look

According to this recent article on Nautilus, there’s a long-held belief in educational systems around the world:

Cursive handwriting is an important and valuable skill that should be learned by all children at an early age.

The thinking is:

  • It’s faster than manuscript
  • It helps with spelling
  • It helps with dyslexia

So, cursive is taught early and heavily promoted over manuscript (the simple, unconnected method we learn first).

But, according to research, there is no real benefit to cursive. On the contrary, manuscript may be?superior in most respects.

And, in today’s device-driven world where almost nothing is written by hand,?we hardly even read anything in cursive.

It seems like the notion to continue using it is, well, dumb ? a classic case of tradition trumping evidence.

This got me thinking about parallels in the business world. About?initiatives, programs and policies we continue to embrace that have little merit. Here’s a short list:

business?Practices that Need a Second Look

1. Rewards programs to boost performance

Performance programs are thought to boost morale and incentivize employees, but they often benefit only a few while disenfranchising those who don?t make it to the top.

2. Yearly and quarterly employee performance reviews

Ongoing checkins, properly done, can be much more effective at giving employees?and management?the insight they need to be more effective at their jobs day-to-day.

3. ?No meetings? policies, because meetings are boring and unproductive.

Meetings are critical for strategic planning and communication, so perhaps the solution is not to ditch them, but to learn how to have better meetings. Conversely, not all meetings are created equal. Are you swamped with ?status? meetings that are better served by reports and emails? Is the meeting actually serving a goal?

4. Corporate communication and knowledge sharing via an intranet.

Do people use it? Does it integrate into daily workflow? Intranets are hard to do.

5. Hiring people we ?like” during the interview

Research shows that the interview process is laden with personal, subconscious bias. Many interviews are highly unstructured and ineffective.

6. 360? feedback programs

Employee feedback initiatives easily fail, unless they’re ongoing, driven from the top, and result in tangible responses by management.

7. Customer-first policies

According to Richard Branson, putting your employees first results in the best customer experience possible (which, in a way, actually puts your customers first).

What’s on your list?