Elements of success

These project management tools can help you keep that work on track

Whether you're installing a network, moving an office or constructing a space station, any big project involves diverse, interdependent tasks that often can't be completed until others are finished or at least reach a milestone.

Project management software is a vital tool for any complex undertaking that has both a finish date and limited resources.

Project management used to be imposed from above. But the newest trend is to use the Web and network-based management to let some or all of the people working on a project collaborate on its management.

Tools for project management vary greatly in complexity as well as in mission. The simplest project management software does little more than create a to-do list or track time and attendance.

Microsoft Project is a good example of a general purpose but highly expandable project management program that can be customized to manage many kinds of projects.

But even something as simple as a flowchart that shows which task comes after another can be a valuable project management tool. In fact, Microsoft's Visio business graphics program might be all you need, especially if the various tasks and milestones are so vague as to make it impossible to assign detailed resources and completion dates to every element.

It doesn't take much

Once the complexity of a task and, especially, the number of limited resources required to complete it grow past a relatively low level, it's impossible for an individual to properly manage everything using nothing more than a to-do list or flowchart. That's where project management software enters the picture.

Various tools have been developed to help manage projects as they progress.

For most projects, the biggest challenge often is finishing on time. Sometimes the challenge is keeping everyone working at peak efficiency or simply getting the job finished as soon as possible.

No matter how careful the initial planning, there will be roadblocks along the way. Individual tasks could prove more time-consuming than anticipated, staff shortages could occur or critical supplies might not be delivered. That's where computerized project management tools show their worth. Keeping task and resource changes up-to-date is critical to understanding where you are.

Resource leveling is a vital tool and is well-suited to automation. The way resources'such as workers, supplies and tools'are applied to different tasks affects efficiency and the ability to keep the project on schedule.

Gantt charts are one of the best-known graphical representations for complex projects.
These are essentially horizontal bar charts where bar length indicates the time needed for each task and placement on the chart shows whether tasks are dependent on the completion or partial completion of other tasks or can be started independently.

Sophisticated Gantt charts can show many details, including projected task duration, current progress, revised estimates and completion times.

Another type of chart is the PERT chart. Also known as a network or dependency diagram, the Project Evaluation and Review Technique chart was first created by the Navy back in the late 1950s.

There are also critical path analysis and critical path methods similar to PERT models; all emphasize the most critical dependent tasks. Any change in the duration of an element will alter the project completion date or at least consume some of the float, or extra time allowance, which is included in any project to compensate for unexpected resource shortages.

PERT diagrams look like flowcharts, linking critical tasks in a sequence with others running in parallel.

WBS, or work breakdown structure, is another management technique, not just a presentation method. WBS is a bit difficult to understand until you use the alphanumeric coding in a project. A WBS code is applied to each task and used to organize the tasks in a hierarchical structure. You could think of a WBS as a task-oriented project outline.

Like a director's script

Using a WBS during the planning stage of a project will ensure that everyone knows exactly what is and what isn't part of the project. In other words, a WBS is often used to define the precise scope of a project.

As with PERT or Gantt management, a WBS can be very simple or have as many as 25 or 30 levels, reflecting the complexity of each task in a project.

None of these management methods is superior. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and people working on a single project are likely to use various techniques at different stages.

Most project management programs provide support for multiple techniques but differ greatly in the way they are implemented, their ease-of-use and the degree of integration among them.

Gathering enough information about a project to complete a plan can reveal weaknesses and help you spot problems you might not have considered. That, if nothing else, is an excellent reason to develop a software model for a project.

There are nine steps in preparing a plan:
  • Define the project goals
  • Break the project into subprojects or tasks, each of which is simple enough to analyze in detail
  • Assign responsibility for every project component

  • Develop milestones for the completion of major tasks

  • Determine dependencies between the separate tasks

  • Assign resource elements to each project component

  • Perform a risk analysis that shows the consequences if a task can't be completed

  • Build mitigation planning into your design

  • Revise, adapt and improve the plan as the project moves forward.

Besides increasing the probability that you will be able to meet project deadlines, project management can control costs and improve quality by making certain each task is given the resources it needs.

To bone up on project management, check out PM Forum, an online repository of thousands of terms. View it at www.pmforum.org/library/glossary/index.htm.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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