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Tracking Options in Microsoft Project

This is Part 1 of a series on how to track progress using Microsoft project. To see our post on the theory of Progress Tracking, click here.

Tracking is the first step toward ensuring that you’re always ready to answer two questions:

  • Is the project currently on-time and on-budget?
  • Based on current progress, can you readily forecast that the project is still expected to finish on-time and on-budget?

Once you have built an optimized work plan, load-leveled it, and captured the baseline, you should be ready to start using your work plan to run the project.

This post demonstrates the tracking options in Microsoft Project and how they impact your project.

Scheduling Options

1     Click File:Options to access the Project Options dialog box, and click Schedule in the left sidebar. Scroll to the Scheduling options for this project section.  Your dialog box will resemble the following:

Figure 1.   

Scheduling options

The Split in-progress tasks option allows rescheduling of remaining duration and work when a task slips. This option is the default, but ensure there is a check mark. That way, when you update task-tracking information, you can enter the date you stopped work on a task and the date you resumed work on it. Microsoft Project will reschedule the remaining duration and work. This is a local setting saved with the active project.

If you don’t select this option, the Reschedule Remaining Work tool has no impact. In that case, Microsoft Project will simply not reschedule work and will give you no warning. When the option is selected, rescheduling remaining work will create a split in the task.

NOTE If the checkbox is empty, you cannot edit the Stop and Resume fields when you update task-tracking information.

Calculating Options

2     Scroll to Calculation options for this project.  Your dialog box will resemble the following:

Figure 2.    Calculation options
Updating task status updates resource status

This option allows Microsoft Project to automatically calculate the actual work, remaining work, and cost for resources assigned to a task as you enter percent complete information for the task in your schedule. When you select this checkbox, Microsoft Project recalculates the actual work and actual cost whenever you enter information into the Percent Complete, Actual Duration, or Remaining Duration fields.

If you don’t select this checkbox, you must enter values in the Actual Work field for resources in order to have an accurate picture of the actual work and cost.  For this reason, project managers often select (or neglect to deselect) this option, which leads to major unforeseen problems.  Ensure this box is not selected!

This is a local setting saved with the active project, so it’s important to check any project file you receive to make sure this option is not selected.

Edits to total task % complete will be spread to the status date

When you check this option, changes to the % Complete field will affect where the status date symbols appear on the calendar bar chart. Increases in % Complete will move the status date symbols.  When this option is cleared, changes in the % Complete field can cause progress bars (the black bars inside the blue and red Gantt bars) to extend through the status date.

Generally, if you choose to use status dates and progress lines, you will want to check this option so the status date and the progress bar will match.  It can be misleading to have the progress bar extend past the status date, since that implies future work is completed already.

Actual costs are always calculated by Project

This option allows Microsoft Project to calculate actual costs automatically. This means you cannot enter actual costs until the task is 100 percent complete. In practical terms, entering an actual cost value tells Microsoft Project the task is done!

If you want to enter or import actual cost values, clear the checkbox to turn off all calculations of actual costs by Microsoft Project. This is a user preference option. That is, you’ll have to decide if the ability to enter actual costs data during a task is important to your project.

NOTE Turning this setting on will erase any user-entered or imported actual cost values.
Edits to total actual cost will be spread to the status date

This option becomes live when you de-select the Actual costs are always calculated by Project option. This functions like the total task % Complete option. The question is whether you want cost data to match status dates or not. If you want actual cost information to match the end of the actual duration of the task rather than the status date, clear the checkbox.

Default fixed costs accrual:

You use this box to specify how Microsoft Project sets fixed cost when they accrue for new tasks.  The options are at the start of a task, prorated through the task as resources are used, or accrued (charged to your project) at the end of a task. This only affects the spend-out curve or cash flow calculations for the project, not the overall project cost.

Tracking Dates Versus Tracking Work

There are two different ways to track progress with Microsoft Project:

  • By percent complete
  • By using actual work and remaining work to derive the percent complete for the tasks in your project

When tracking using the % Complete field, Microsoft Project will calculate actual work and remaining work based on the % Complete you enter. Note: If you are entering actual work and remaining work in Microsoft Project, it is important to understand how this feature can interfere with previously updated data in your plan.

Whenever you enter actual information into Microsoft Project, the scheduling engine will automatically set the actual start and/or actual finish dates. It is important to know how to view, validate, and potentially modify these assumptions.

In Microsoft Project 2016:

Work = Actual Work + Remaining Work

If you let Microsoft Project automatically calculate these fields for you using % Complete, the Work field will always equal the Baseline Work field. This is because a task cannot be completed at 110% or 90% of the original Work value. Consequently, when Work = Baseline Work, then Work Variance = 0.

A work variance of zero means that your actual progress always appears to match your original work estimates. Perhaps that’s a nice thought, but real life projects usually don’t work out this way.  In fact, using % Complete as the tracking tool eliminates all five types of variance Microsoft Project calculates!

We can use Microsoft Project 2016 to tell us when our current task progress (i.e. work) is different from our original work estimate (i.e. baseline work).  There are two ways to do this. You can enter a resource’s actual work and remaining work directly in the project (and not use % Complete tracking). Or you can collect a resource’s actual work using Web App and use that to automatically update the project plan.

See our next post on Tracking Progress Using Project Web App for more details.

To view our series on variance analysis, click here.