What Is MS Project?
Most people know MS Project for its ability to organize work and resources to complete everything from a small project to large initiatives in the most efficient way possible. But at the core of MS Project and most project management software is the schedule. As we’ve discussed in our post 5 Warning Signs Your Project is Headed for Disaster, the project schedule is not just a “plan,” but a tool: “it is the most important planning, communication, and control tool for your project."
In this post, we’ll cover why creating a project schedule for construction is important, how to create a schedule in MS Project, as well as outlining the 10 basic steps needed to build a solid foundation to start your build off right.
MS Project’s History & Stats
Developed in 1984 (made commercial in 1985) by Microsoft, it was the third application created for its Windows-based operating system and quickly became the dominant platform for managing projects. In the last 30+ years, it has evolved and seen many updates, versions, and changes. Today Microsoft Project (MS Project) ranks as the most popular project management system (PMS) across all criteria and industries and its latest version was just released in 2021.
(Courtesy of Project-Management.com)
In fact, recent surveys indicate that a whopping two-thirds of small to medium-sized businesses use MS Project as their primary project management tool. However, going further, we discovered that certain industries are utilizing MS Project more than others to manage their projects. The construction (and real estate) segments make up an astonishing 92% of MS Project Online customers!
With the ability to leverage MS Project through its integration with Office 365, these companies saw the current utilization of MS Project (and future integration) as both a natural progression and also an inevitability. In other words, MS Project has become the PMS of choice for small to medium-sized businesses simply because these companies use other Microsoft products via Office Suite.
Harness the power of MS Project schedule for your Construction project today, by completing our free tutorial in under 30 minutes!
MS Project Software Details
Currently, there are two versions of MS Project: Project Online and Project for the Web. Once originally a desktop platform, it is now offered primarily as a cloud-based solution using a Web browser in a 3-tier level subscription format
At the time of this post, the 3-tier subscriptions are as follows:
- Project Plan 1 for $10 per user a month
- Project Plan 3 for $30 per user a month
- Project Plan 5 for $55 per user a month.
One of the primary differences between the two versions is Project Online was built on the Microsoft Power Platform while Project on the Web was built on Microsoft SharePoint. Moreover, Project for the Web is designed with a clean easy-to-use interface for more simple projects whereas Project Online is more robust and powerful as well as secure. It was designed for more complex projects and collaboration as well as managing project portfolios.
Most importantly, MS Project utilizes a standard proprietary file format, .mpp. The MPP extension is a data file that can only be opened by MS Project or with a 3rd party application. To view a project or project schedule in MS Project it must be in a .mpp format, and if you would like to export your data or schedule out to import into other applications often it will need to be an MPP file or saved as a .xls file or as .pdf.
What Does MS Project Do?
MS Project is a great tool that can be used for both personal and business projects enabling seamless collaboration for project teams. Everyone working on the project can log in, see what task(s) they need to work on, update their status and record any changes. Some of the main features currently available for all versions of MS Project include:
- Project start: Create and set up a schedule
- Task creation: Create tasks, establish relationships, & build logic (dependencies & predecessors)
- Resource management: Request resources and assign work
- Co-authoring: Work with other project managers, schedulers, and stakeholders to update tasks, resources, schedules, and more simultaneously
- Schedule oversight: View the project in multiple views
- Grid view (all tasks in a list)
- Gantt chart view (bar chart) all tasks displayed in a timeline
- Board view ( All tasks as a storyboard)
MS Project for Construction Planning:
Specifically, MS Project is a project management software program that has become a construction industry standard and enables you to create and manage construction schedules. It allows you to track the progress of your construction project and identify potential problems such as delays or cost overruns early so that you can take corrective action.
In addition, MS Project can help you forecast your build’s completion date and ensure that your project stays on track utilizing the following resources traditionally leveraged in a construction schedule: Starting new projects or importing old, scheduling, cost management, resource tracking, critical path analysis, and third-party application integration.
The Basics of Creating Your Construction Schedule
Even some of the most experienced construction project managers and schedulers face challenges with scheduling, and scheduling using MS Project. However, creating a construction project schedule in MS Project can be complex, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. Learning how to create an MS Project schedule can then be helpful to both seasoned professionals as well as beginners.
Below, we are going to walk you through step-by-step how to build and create your own construction schedule using MS Project that’s specifically customized for construction. We’ll teach you how to create a new schedule, how to design your columns (or what data points to capture unique to construction), what fields to include, how to create a baseline so you can track planned vs. actual, how to identify and chart your critical path in MS Project and, then finally, how to display all this in the traditional Gantt chart view.
Note: For more details on the importance of a project schedule in general and the components of what goes into an effective project schedule please review SmartPM’s post on how to create a project schedule here.
10 Key Steps on How to Use MS Project to Set Up a Schedule
Step 1: Create a New Construction Project
- You have several options to start a new project. You can create a project in the following ways:
- From an industry template
- Brand new from scratch (blank slate that you populate)
- Based on an existing project
- Open from a previous vs of MSP
Go to > Schedule
Then select or check Auto-Schedule. (It’s very important to select auto-schedule.)
Under Default Pass Type make sure to also select the following as well:
Split in-progress tasks
Update manually scheduled tasks when updating links
4. Select Blank Project (SmartPM) and assign a name
Step 2: Adjust Construction Schedule Columns
Next, you want to adjust the auto-populated columns:
- Remove or “hide” the Resources column for now temporarily as you don’t need it yet
- Then *add (+) the following new columns:
- % complete
- Total Slack (float)
- Last, rearrange the columns so that % complete is before the predecessor
Step 3: Add Schedule Start Date
The last thing you need to do to create the schedule is to add a ‘start date’ for your project and you’re ready to begin filling in the schedule.
- Go to the project tab at the top
- Select “Project Information”
- Go to the “Start Date” field, and from the pull-down calendar, select your start date
Step 4: Add Schedule Tasks and Activities
The first thing you want to do, once your project is created, is add your tasks and activities for your project:
- Go to the column titled, Task Name and begin populating each field with the key tasks or work required to complete your project. Some key tasks here for construction might include:
- Layout & Framing
- Next, go into the “Durations” column and change the default of “1 day” to the appropriate length of time that each activity will take for your unique project.
Step 5: Order Schedule Tasks and Define Relationships
After you have created your construction work activities and added their durations, you’ll want to next establish the relationships between each of those tasks, i.e., you want to tell MS Project, what order they should occur in, and which one should follow the next. We do this by adding tasks dependencies:
- Go to the predecessor and successor columns
- In MS Project we take the ‘line item’ number of the task and add that number to either the predecessor column or the successor columns
- For example, for task #2, Drywall, you would put the number 1 in its predecessor column. For Layout & Framing (task #1), you would put the number 2 in its successor column
- After that, you then want to include any start-to-start logic or finish-to-finish logic in these two columns including any lag time if necessary*
- If you’ve missed a task or the plan has changed, simply select the row where you want the new task and select ‘insert a new task’ from the pop-up menu. Type in the name of the new activity.
*Never adjust the Start and Finish Dates while doing this. MS Project will perform those functions and calculations for you.
Step 6: Create Construction Schedule WBS, Summary Bars & Milestones
You could continue creating a long list of job tasks, however, at this stage, it might be important to create “summary bars” to refine task relationships. Summary bars or WBS (work breakdown structures) are a good way to “bucket” work activities. All tasks that complete a larger activity or milestone can be grouped together. To do this, you insert a new task (or modify a previous one), give it a name, and then “indent” all the sub-tasks below it. Those changes and new relationships will update on the Gantt chart view.
To make any summary bar a milestone, you have to indicate to MS Project that it should now be considered a milestone:
- Double-click on the task
- Select “Advanced” from the pop-up menu
- Mark as “Milestone” by clicking the check box
Step 7: Add Schedule Constraints
As we all know, even with the best-laid plans, things often go awry! Although not recommended, this is where “constraints” come in. When something that is scheduled for a certain date can no longer start on that date, as an example, you would need to go back into that task and put a constraint on it:
- Click on the task
- Select Advanced from the pop-up menu
- Go to the Constraint Type pull-down menu and select the appropriate constraint, and then change the date.
For our example above, you would select the Must Start On constraint and then select the new date it should start on.
Step 8: Define Critical Path Method (CPM) for Construction
One of the great things about Microsoft Project is that it effortlessly enables you to see the critical path. Harvard Business Review defines the critical path as “…the longest path (in time) from Start to Finish; it indicates the minimum time necessary to complete the entire project.” For construction projects, it's perhaps the most critical thing to safeguard and monitor with respect to the schedule. To view the critical path on your schedule:
- Go up to the Gantt Chart Format tab
- Then select the checkbox, Critical Tasks.
All activities that have zero days of slack/float are on the critical path and should be highlighted in red.
Step 9: Set up the Construction Schedule Calendar
For your project and therefore for your construction work schedule to have accurate times and dates you need to customize your MS Project calendar to accurately reflect reality. You need to tell MS Project which days are non-work days such as holidays and what dates those fall on. You can also refine what days are workdays and what the workweek looks like. To change your calendar:
- Go to the Project tab
- Click on Change Working Time
- Create a NEW calendar
- Assign a name
- Once the new calendar is created you need to create exceptions
- Type in the name of the holiday, and define the start and end dates
- Once your new calendar is defined, highlight the tasks it applies to and tell it to use your new calendar via the Advanced tab
Step 10: Set Schedule Baseline
The final step in completing your construction schedule setup is to set the baseline. The baseline is the official finalized or approved version of the schedule file. The construction schedule baseline is very important as it's used as a comparison against the final project schedule.
It is locked and can only be formally changed through strict change control procedures. To set the baseline:
- Go to the Project tab, and select Set Baseline
- Inside the pop-up window, select Set Baseline again
- Hit Entire Project, and select okay
- To view your baseline, select Gantt chart Format
- Select Baseline from the pull-down menu
Once your baseline is set, you’ve now created a “snapshot” of your project and have the ability to view your planned vs. actual. You should be able to see both the original baseline schedule activity underneath the actual one in the Gantt chart.
And there you have it! You have now created your own MS Project Schedule customized to start your construction project! Remember once created, do not neglect your project schedule! Practice good project management best practices and routinely update your schedule—monitor for any changes, especially those that can adversely impact the critical path!