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.

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.