Using MS Project to Develop Your Activities List

by Paul H. Lohnes, PMP, MBA, MCTS

ToDoList1ClipArtIn the December 2013 Project Post Gazette article: (Master Scheduler for Dec 2013), using Microsoft Project 2013 for creating your Work Breakdown Schedule (WBS) was illustrated as a use of the very popular software application in a way that some readers had not considered. In like fashion and in sequence of that topic, we will expand that application of MS Project to take the next logical schedule design step and show how to use MS Project 2013 to flesh out the detailed expansion of the WBS into the what is normally called the activities or task list. Since it if pointless to attempt an activities list without an definitive WBS specified to the work package level (See Dec 2013 Master Scheduler for more details), using the same application of MS Project is a very sound and powerful choice in which to take your WBS to its next level of specificity – the activities or task definitions.

If you are familiar with the Project Management Institute’s venerable Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), 5th Edition, 2013, the WBS is defined under their process, 5.4 “Create WBS” where they suggest that the following artifacts should be used as inputs to the creation of the WBS:

  • Scope management plan – part of the larger, more inclusive project management plan,
  • Scope statement,
  • Requirements documents – some may not completely approved at this point
  • Other internal documents such as templates, forms, etc.

As was discussed in the Dec 2013 Master Scheduler column, the deconstruction of the project deliverables (not decomposing – a term the PMI folks love and we have watched too many CSI episodes to feel likewise) begins with the breakdown of the high level deliverable descriptions into smaller and smaller pieces of work described using nouns as their initial description phrase. Examples are:

  • Command module
  • Booster rocket
  • External fuel tanks
  • Avionics
  • Launch gantry
  • Project management
  • Risk management

and etc. with additional levels under each of the above high level deliverable components until the details is such where the breakdown reaches a level of what we call a work package. A work package is a unit of work that is at the lowest level of specificity (minimum atomicity) that supports both assignment, tracking, and budgetary monitoring through a financial device called a control account. As the scheduler, you are NOT expected to know how to deconstruct the deliverables into work packages – the PM with the aid of their subject matter experts (SME) accomplish this project management activity. In the above example, notice the WBS starts with the deliverables described in declarative format using nouns without any relationships amongst the different deliverables or their lower levels of specificity or breakdown. A WBS should be time-agnostic and cost-agnostic. It is simply attempting to describe all the work necessary to produce “fit-for-use” deliverables, and contain no unnecessary work for this accomplishment (yes, we know we used a double negative.)

When the WBS has be sufficiently broken down into the appropriate level of work packages, the next step which is part of the PMBOK® Guide’s process 6.2, Define Activities, is to further refine each work package into the activities required for their accomplishment in addition to “supporting  estimating, scheduling, executing, monitoring and controlling” (PMBOK® Guide, pg. 149). The work package is the starting point for this step in the scheduling process where in the Creating the WBS, the work package is the ending point or result.

Using the very powerful outlining and editing capabilities of MS Project 2013, work packages can be easily dissected or deconstructed with the help of the appropriate SME from the noun description such as “D401.WP31A.41 Rocket Booster O-Ring Design” into the appropriate steps needed to actual complete this work unit:

  1. Create CAD profile for RB O-Ring
  2. Obtain engineering specifications from consulting engineer
  3. Input engineering parameters to CAD profile
  4. Develop initial RB O-Ring rendering
  5. Output design package for dissemination
  6. Develop stress testing profile
  7. Conduct CAD-based stress testing
  8. Review stress test results
  9. Develop test results report for RB Program Engineer
  10. Create unit integration package

OK, this example shows how the work package is deconstructed into these smaller tasks which may or may not be completely broken down to right level. In other words, some of the above tasks like #6 and 7 may need to be further deconstructed into smaller pieces of details making the task at #6 & 7 a summary task (using MS Project 2013’s terminology) which would contain subordinate or sub-level tasks which themselves may contain more and more sub-summary tasks, etc. This process continues until the SME say a correct level of specificity has been obtained from which the work activities can be tracked and assigned both resources and durations within the assigned work package group.

As you work with your SME on the deconstruction of the work packages into the actual activities, the powerful word processing and outlining features of MS Project 2013 can provide significant productivity enhancements to your efforts. Having the SME sit next to you while deconstructing the deliverable’s work packages, or having them do the deconstruction in MS Word or Outline where upon you import their work directly into your MS Project task list is entirely up to you. We have done the activities list deconstruction in many different ways when working with our SME, but you need to become very familiar with how to input activities lists into MS Project, and then manipulate those lists using the editing features of the application to put the activities in the order that your SME indicates is correct for this particular deliverable’s work package. Remember, your activities list is going to be the basis from which you are going to create your network of sequenced and interrelated tasks that will ultimately become your project schedule for this work package. It is vitally important therefore to ensure that your first focus is upon completeness and accuracy of work package deconstruction; do not get caught up in trying to sequence the activities, add resources, or costs until your SME approves that the deconstruction is complete. Sequencing and estimations will come next, but they are only going to be useful if you are sure that you have all the activities required to produce the ‘fit-for-use’ work package sub-deliverable.

Depending on the policies and procedures for your organization, the level of detail will vary to which the activities will be deconstructed. In other words, at the project level for monitoring and control, the level of activities may not be to the point of actual work execution – this may be accomplished within the work group assigned the work package. The project manager may only desire to track the activities at a level for which durations have been estimated to a level of typical work week for a single resource, i.e., 40 hours. This level of detail choice is entirely up to the organization.

One additional trick we use quite often is the ability of MS Project 2013 to use master-sub-project as a way of breaking down the deliverables into the WBS and then the activities. We define a sub-project for each major deliverable all rolling up to a single Master project. This allows us to report across the entire project deliverable profile while still being able work with a single deliverable, its activities, resources, budget, and progress in the form of a sub-project that maintains its own preferences, time frames, and layouts. Through this powerful feature, the entire project can be viewed as a single project while each deliverable’s WBS work packages and subsequent activities can be detailed, deconstructed, and updated by different SME all while allowing the PM to see the aggregate results through the master project roll-up feature. This supports a very efficient delegating of responsibility to either internal or external SME for the creation of the activities list with the PM being able to deal with issues, monitor progress and spot interdependency roadblocks before they impact the downstream design or work assignments.

By using MS Project for both the creation of the WBS and subsequent activities lists, a scheduler can increase both his/her view of the over project work effort as well as ensuring that no work has been missed. The reporting capabilities of MS Project can be used in conjunction with Outlook and SharePoint to share the WBS and activities with those that have the appropriate expertise in ensuring such coverage and completeness is achieved. MS Project 2010 and beyond are built on a very powerful database engine that supports the utilization of MS Project for more than just building and tracking project schedules. Be creative and experiment with its features, and you will find out where MS Project can fit into your scheduling repertoire of tools and applications.


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