Updated: Aug 28
Six steps to creating a project plan Gantt chart using Microsoft Project
What is a project schedule?
A key resource for the successful completion of any project, programme or portfolio is the project schedule. The Association for Project Management defines a project schedule as ‘a timetable showing the forecast start and finish dates for activities or events within a project, programme or portfolio.’
The schedule allows project tasks to be listed, their interfaces and dependencies to be understood, displayed, and managed. Durations can be estimated and adjusted. Project milestones can be defined, tracked, and communicated. Schedules can also be used to allocate and manage resources on a project and act as a key input into the cashflow forecast for the project.
The project schedule is a dynamic and live resource that is created early in the project and subsequently updated and refined as the project progresses. A baseline schedule is often set early in the project, against which progress or change can be tracked.
Schedules are usually presented in the form of a Gantt chart and Microsoft Project is a simple and effective software tool for making them, suitable for most straightforward projects.
Did you know?
The Gantt chart is named after Henry Gantt, who conceived and popularised the project management tool in the early 1900s.
How to Build a Project Schedule in Microsoft Project
To get the most out of Microsoft Project it’s important to follow these six steps when setting up your project.
1. Set New Tasks to ‘Auto Schedule’
On opening Microsoft Project, click ‘New Tasks’ at the bottom left of the window and change the default setting of ‘Manually Scheduled’ to ‘Auto Scheduled’.
2. List out all the Tasks or Activities anticipated on the Project
Under ‘Task Name’, simply list out all the tasks you think are needed to successfully complete the project. Don’t worry if the tasks are in the wrong order, the list can easily be reordered (grab and drag), added to (insert) or amended (rename / delete) at any stage.
Where activities repeat, they can be copied and pasted.
You’ll notice that some columns start to auto populate… ignore this for now! The key thing is to focus on the list of tasks. Durations, dates, and interdependencies are for later.
3. Make a first estimate of task durations
Durations can be in mins (m), hours (h), days (d), weeks (w), months (mo) (etc). Milestones within the schedule have a duration of zero (days).
Populate durations only at this stage… dates and interdependencies are for later!
Additional project tasks can be added at any stage. Tasks can also be amended, deleted, or reordered at any stage.
4. Fix your project start date
Now is the time to select a start date for the project (or other key date from which the project will be scheduled). Where projects are driven by an end date, the end date can be set, with logic working backwards to define the required start date.
Once the date is selected, that task will show as constrained. In simple terms this means the date is fixed, although technically speaking, the task is set to ‘Start No Earlier Than’ the date you have set.
In an ideal world all further tasks will be driven by logic only (predecessors and successors) and you should resist the temptation to ‘fix’ dates unless absolutely necessary. A logic driven schedule becomes much more straightforward to adapt and update throughout the life of the project
5. Link tasks through logic
All the keystrokes in this step are within the ‘Predecessors’ column. Dates will self-populate based on the duration you have set and the logic you define for each task.
Tasks can be linked by simple and direct link (e.g. the predecessor to Task 4 (Prepare Pricing Schedules) is Task 3 (Design Freeze)). A direct link such as this assumes a ‘Finish-Start’ (FS) relationship. i.e. the finish date (F) of the predecessor defines the start date (S) of the successor.
Microsoft Project defaults to a FS relationship. However, there are three other key types of relationship that can be manually typed in the predecessor column.
SS - Start-Start - the start date of the predecessor defines the start date of the successor
FF - Finish-Finish - the finish date of the predecessor defines the finish date of the successor
SF - Start-Finish - the start date of the predecessor defines the finish date of the successor
Tasks can be linked to multiple tasks by use of a comma. Tasks can be given a lag (e.g. -1wk) or lead (e.g. +3days) within the predecessor column. Remember, Microsoft Project is not Microsoft Excel, so there is no need to insert an ‘equal’ sign at the start of the logic function. And a friendly reminder, resist the temptation to ‘fix’ dates.
6. Refine, update, and use your schedule
A word of caution
A couple of additional points… The procurement schedule used through this blog is for example only and is not presented as a comprehensive schedule for a procurement exercise. The blog is also not intended to be a comprehensive user guide for MSP but is a simple guide to setting up a schedule in the software, with tips to avoid some of the pitfalls and traps you may fall into.
We hope you’ve found this guide to creating a project plan gantt chart using MS Project. MS Project is a great tool for making these useful visual representations of how your project timeline will work and what the work breakdown structure will be. Once you’ve created your Gantt chart, you’ll be able to effectively communicate your schedule to your project team members. You’ll be able to make sense of even the most complex projects.
If you’d like to learn more about managing your project tasks, see this post on time management.
Mike has over 15 years experience in the construction industry, with experience across multiple sectors on both single site projects and multi-site programmes of work. Mike has led and delivered construction projects for major blue chip clients in both the UK and abroad.