Fast-track tasks to shorten your project schedule

By Bonnie Biafore

"Fast-tracking" is often the most effective way to shorten the duration of a project. You fast-track a project by scheduling tasks that were originally scheduled to run one after the other to run instead at the same time. Although they don't know it, the folks who drive to work while simultaneously drinking coffee, shaving, and reading the newspaper are fast-tracking their commutes. And much like these harrowing trips, fast-tracking comes with its share of risks.

Consider a dinner party you're hosting for your friends. Instead of cooking the main course and then preparing a dessert soufflé while your guests are chatting, you ask your wife to make the soufflé so that you can grill the salmon. When fast-tracking works, you can cut time from the schedule without sacrificing scope or quality and often at no additional cost. Not only are the salmon and the soufflé ready at the right time, but you can enjoy the company of your companions as well.

The problem with fast-tracking is that there is no free lunch (or dessert in this case). Although you personally have an unblemished record of soufflé success because of your maniacal attention to detail, your wife chafes at the restrictions of recipes, and therefore she could make a mistake. If something goes wrong, your schedule could slip or the quality, scope, or budget could suffer.

For example, should your wife's soufflé bear a striking resemblance to a softball run over by a tractor trailer, you have several choices:

  • Make a new soufflé (the project finish slips)
  • Eat the soufflé as is (the quality suffers)
  • Serve port instead of dessert (the scope changes)
  • Buy tiramisu at the store (the budget increases)

Most of the time, the risks involved in fast-tracking, or overlapping, tasks are small. Beginning work on a building's foundation before the detailed design is complete is common in the construction industry. The foundation is unlikely to change when the architect is down to deciding which windows and kitchen cabinets to use.

Choosing tasks to fast-track

To make the most of fast-tracking, look at the longest tasks on the critical path first. These provide the largest potential decrease in duration with the fewest number of risks to manage. Moreover, by fast-tracking only a few long tasks, you also have fewer revisions to make in the schedule.

Microsoft Office Project Professional 2003 makes it easy to find your most likely fast-tracking candidates. Applying a filter to show only the critical path and then sorting those tasks by duration quickly tells you what you need to know. Here's how you can find fast-track tasks in Project 2003:

  1. To show only critical path tasks, on the Project menu, point to Filtered for, and then click Critical.
Figure 1: The Critical filter makes it easy to display only tasks on the critical path.

The built-in Critical filter in Microsoft Project

  1. Next, you can sort the tasks. But before you do, turn off the display of summary tasks. To hide summary tasks, on the Tools menu, click Options. On the View tab, clear the Show Summary Tasks check box and then click OK.
  2. To sort the critical path tasks by duration, on the Project menu, point to Sort, and then click Sort by.
  3. In the Sort by list, click Duration.
  4. To show the tasks with the longest duration in descending order, click Descending and then click Sort.
  5. Figure 2 shows critical tasks sorted by duration.
Figure 2: Fast-tracking the longest tasks can shorten your project with the least amount of effort.

Sorting critical tasks by duration

  1. After you identify the tasks that are both critical and long, remove the Critical filter. To remove the Critical filter, on the Project menu, click Filtered for, and then click All Tasks. Then re-sort your schedule by another field, such as ID or WBS. To do this, on the Project menu, point to Sort, and then click Sort by. In the Sort by list, click either ID or WBS and then click Sort.

Fast-tracking often involves starting one task while its predecessor is still in progress. These tasks usually appear together if you sort the schedule by ID or WBS.

Partial overlaps

Most of the time, you fast-track a project by starting the next task before its predecessor is complete. For instance, you might tell software developers to start coding before the design for all the dialog boxes is finished. In Project 2003, these partial overlaps are easy to add — all you have to do is apply a negative lag time (or lead time) to the dependency between the two tasks.

The easiest way to modify a task dependency is to double-click the link line in the Gantt Chart view, which opens the Task Dependency dialog box.

Figure 3: Adding negative lag between tasks creates an overlap.

Task Dependency dialog box

For schedules that have link lines that look like spaghetti, an alternative way to modify the task dependency is to double-click the name of the successor task in the task sheet. In the Task Information dialog box, click the Predecessors tab to display the predecessor task and its Lag field.

Lag time represents a gap in elapsed time between one task and the next. To pull in the successor to overlap its predecessor, you add negative lag time, such as the -4w in Figure 3, which starts the successor task four weeks before the end of its predecessor.

Running tasks in parallel

Another way to fast-track a project is to schedule tasks concurrently, as long as they use different resources and the risks are acceptable. Your tactic with the salmon and the soufflé is an example of this. In Project 2003, this approach requires adding and removing links rather than modifying the dependencies that are already there.

To make two tasks run simultaneously instead of in sequence, you delete the dependency between them. In the Gantt Chart view, double-click the task dependency link line. The Task Dependency dialog box appears. Then click Delete to remove the link.

The problem with diving into this step is that the successor task often flies off the screen as soon as you delete its predecessor. Without the predecessor, the successor doesn't know where it belongs, like sheep without a border collie. To prevent this disappearing act, link the successor to its new predecessor first, and then delete the original link. For the dinner party example, you might link the Buy Groceries task to the Cook Soufflé task before you delete the link between the Grill Salmon task and the Cook Soufflé task. Figures 4a and 4b demonstrate how this works.

Figure 4a and Figure 4b: To keep the successor task in view, add a new link between the successor task and its new predecessor before deleting its original dependency.

Add a new link between the successor task and its new predecessor before deleting its original dependency.

Callout 1 Link to new predecessor

Add a new link between the successor task and its new predecessor before deleting its original dependency.

Callout 2 New predecessor keeps task visible
Callout 3 Old link is gone

Word to the wise

Because fast-tracking seems so simple, you might be tempted to start fast-tracking tasks left and right. Remember, however, to consider the risks that you run with fast-tracking before applying this technique.

About the author     Bonnie Biafore is a PMI (Project Management Institute)-certified Project Management Professional (PMP). She is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and award-winning author of several books about investing, personal finance, and project management, including On Time! On Track! On Target! Managing Your Projects Successfully with Microsoft® Project (Microsoft Press, 2006).

Applies to:
Project 2003