Tried-and-true techniques for shortening projects

Project 2007 Inside Out book cover

Microsoft Office Project 2007 Inside Out
By Teresa S. Stover

Teresa S. Stover is a project management expert who has consulted with the Microsoft Office Project Team since version 4. She is an instructional designer and award-winning author with more than two decades of technical communication experience. Teresa is the author of countless user manuals, tutorials, and help systems — plus more than a dozen computer books, including Microsoft Office Project 2003 Inside Out and Microsoft Project Version 2002 Inside Out.

To learn more about other books on the 2007 Microsoft Office system, visit Microsoft Press.


In this article


A time-constrained project is one in which the project finish date is the most important factor in your project plan. Although you still need to balance budget constraints and satisfy the project scope, the finish date reigns supreme as the primary priority. If your project plan calculates that your finish date will go beyond your all-important target finish date, focus on the critical path. Shorten the critical path and you bring in the finish date.

View finish dates and the critical path

Before you analyze the critical path, you just need to see your bottom line: What’s the project finish date? Follow these steps:

  1. On the Project menu, click Project Information.
  2. In the Project Information dialog box, click the Statistics button.

The Project Statistics dialog box appears. The current, or scheduled, finish date appears in the Finish column (see Figure 1).

Project Statistics dialog box

Figure 1 The Project Statistics dialog box shows overall project information: project start date, project finish date, total duration, total work, and total cost.

Another way to keep your eye on the project finish date at all times is to add the project summary task row to your project plan, as follows:

  1. On the Tools menu, click Options and then click the View tab.
  2. Select the Show Project Summary Task check box.

The project summary task appears at the top of any task sheet view, including the Gantt Chart (see Figure 2). Task information is rolled up for the entire project and its summary total is displayed in the project summary row. Specifically, the Finish field in the project summary row shows the latest finish date in the project.

Project Summary row rolls up task information

Figure 2 The Project Summary row rolls up task information to display the totals for the entire project.

To see the critical path, click Tracking Gantt on the View menu. By viewing the finish date or the critical path, you can easily see whether you’re hitting your target finish date. If you need to bring in the finish date, you might want to focus on the critical tasks. You can filter your task sheet to show only critical tasks by clicking the Project menu, pointing to Filtered For, and then clicking Critical. To show all tasks again, on the Project menu, point to Filtered For and then click All Tasks.

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Check your schedule assumptions

If you’ve determined that you need to bring in the finish date, look first at the schedule itself. Make sure that all the scheduling controls you put into place are accurate and required. The fewer controls you impose, the more flexibility Microsoft Office Project 2007 can have with scheduling, and that added flexibility can give you an earlier finish date. In the Gantt Chart or other task sheet, review and update the following:

  • Date constraints
  • Task dependencies
  • Durations
  • Task calendars

You can look at all tasks in the project, but to affect the finish date, you need only make adjustments to critical tasks. If you shorten the sequence of critical path tasks to the point at which a different sequence is now the critical path, check to see if that path finishes before your target finish date. If it does, switch your focus to that new critical path until you achieve the planned project finish date you need.

In fact, as you make adjustments to tasks and enter actual progress information for tasks, the critical path is likely to change several times throughout the span of the project. Keep a close eye on the critical path as part of your monitoring activities. It’s a good idea to apply the Schedule table or show the Total Slack and Free Slack fields in your favorite everyday table. This way you can see how close tasks are to becoming critical.

 Note    If you change aspects of your schedule to bring in the finish date, the good news is that you probably won’t adversely affect your project triangle. That is, adjusting your schedule to meet your schedule requirements affects only the schedule side of the triangle. Costs and scope will probably stay as they are.

Check and adjust date constraints

First, look at any date constraints you’ve set in your schedule, particularly for your critical tasks. This is where you can potentially make a significant impact on your finish date. To look at the constraints you’ve applied, follow these steps:

  1. Display the Gantt Chart or other task sheet.
  2. On the View menu, point to Table and then click More Tables.
  3. In the More Tables dialog box, click Constraint Dates and then click Apply. The table shows the constraint type and constraint dates for all tasks.

If you have the tasks sorted by Task ID — that is, in their outline sequence — you can review constraints for each task within the context of its surrounding tasks. If you like, you can sort the tasks by constraint type, as follows:

  1. Apply the Constraint Dates table to the Gantt Chart or other task sheet.
  2. On the Project menu, point to Sort and then click Sort By.
  3. In the Sort By dialog box, click Constraint Type and then click Sort. The tasks are sorted by constraint type, so you can see where you might have applied a Must Finish On or Start No Later Than constraint, for example. You can also see their associated dates.

To see only the constraints for critical tasks, follow these steps:

  1. Apply the Constraint Dates table to the Gantt Chart or other task sheet.
  2. On the Project menu, point to Filtered For and then click Critical. Only critical tasks are shown. When you want to see all tasks again, on the Project menu, point to Filtered For and then click All Tasks.

Make sure that the constraint types and dates you have applied are truly necessary. Wherever you can, change a date constraint to a flexible one such as As Soon As Possible or As Late As Possible. Even changing an inflexible date constraint such as Must Start On or Must Finish On to a moderately flexible date constraint such as Start No Later Than or Finish No Earlier Than can improve your schedule. To change the constraint, do the following:

  1. Apply the Constraint Dates table to the Gantt Chart or other task sheet.
  2. Click the Constraint Type field, click the arrow, and then click the constraint you want in the list.

 Note    New to Project 2007 is change highlighting. When you make a change that causes other fields to be recalculated, the changed cells are temporarily filled with a background color so you can see the ripple effects of the change you’ve just made. The highlighting remains in effect only until you make the next edit that causes a recalculation, or when you save the project.

Check and adjust task dependencies

The second place to check your schedule for critical path–shortening opportunities is your task dependencies. Gantt Chart is the best view for reviewing task dependencies and their impact on your schedule. To see critical tasks highlighted, view the Tracking Gantt or Detail Gantt. Focusing on the task dependencies of critical tasks helps you bring in the finish date.

Specifically, examine whether the task dependencies are required. If two tasks don’t really depend on each other, remove the link. Or consider whether two tasks can begin at the same time. If so, you can change a finish-to-start dependency to a start-to-start dependency. Change a task dependency as follows:

  1. Click the successor task.
  2. On the Standard toolbar, click Task Information and click the Predecessors tab.
  3. To change the link type, click in the Type field for the predecessor.
  4. Click the arrow and then click the link type you want in the list. To remove the link entirely, click anywhere in the predecessor row and press the DELETE key.

Check and adjust durations

After adjusting date constraints and task dependencies, if the finish date is still beyond your target, look at task durations. However, be aware that it’s risky to be too optimistic about durations, especially if you used reliable methods such as expert judgment, past project information, industry metrics, or program evaluation and review technique (PERT) analysis to calculate your current durations.

You can look at durations in the Gantt Chart or most task sheets. If your tasks are sorted by Task ID (that is, in their outline sequence), you can review durations for each task within the context of its surrounding tasks. However, you can also sort tasks by duration so you can see the longer durations first. These longer durations might have more buffer built in, so they might be a good place to trim some time. To sort tasks by duration, follow these steps:

  1. Display the Gantt Chart with the Entry table applied, or display another task sheet that includes the Duration field.
  2. On the Project menu, point to Sort and then click Sort By.The Sort dialog box appears.
  3. In the Sort By list, click Duration and then click Sort. The tasks are sorted by duration.
  4. To see only the durations for critical tasks, on the Project menu, point to Filtered For and then click Critical. When you want to see all tasks again, on the Project menu, point to Filtered For and then click All Tasks.
  5. To change a duration, simply type the new duration into the task’s Duration field. The schedule is recalculated with the new duration.
  6. To return to the original task order, on the Project menu, point to Sort and then click By ID.

 Tip   In Project 2007, you can now undo multiple edits. To undo recent edits, click Undo on the Standard toolbar. Each time you click Undo, the previous edit is undone. You can also click Edit, Undo, or press CTRL+Z to reverse the last edit. The series of operations you can undo goes back to the last time you saved your project. To redo an edit that you’ve undone, click Redo on the Standard toolbar. You can also click Edit, Redo, or press CTRL+Y to redo undone edits.

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Project management practices: duration compression

In project management, there are two commonly used methods of shortening a series of tasks without changing the project scope. These two duration compression methods are as follows:

  • Crashing the schedule     The schedule and associated project costs are analyzed to determine how a series of tasks (such as the critical path) can be shortened, or crashed, for the least additional cost.
  • Fast tracking     Tasks normally done in sequence are rescheduled to be done simultaneously (for example, starting to build a prototype before the specifications are approved).

By their nature, both of these methods are risky. It’s important to be aware that these methods can increase cost or increase task rework.

Check task drivers

Along with durations, dependencies, and constraints, a number of other factors determine the schedule of any given task. A new tool available in Project 2007 is the Task Drivers pane. The Task Drivers pane lists the specific factors responsible for setting the start date of the selected task, for example, the project calendar, a predecessor task, or a constraint date.

To show the Task Drivers pane, follow these steps:

  1. Open a task view, such as Gantt Chart or Network Diagram.
  2. Select the task whose task drivers you want to review. Task Drivers
  3. On the Standard toolbar, click Task Drivers.

The Task Drivers pane appears. You can click the name of a predecessor task to go to that task in the view and to see the task drivers for that task. You can click the name of a calendar listed in the Task Drivers pane to open that calendar in the Change Working Time dialog box.

  1. Keep the Task Drivers pane open while you click different tasks and review their task drivers. When you’re finished with the Task Drivers pane, click the X in the upper-right corner of the pane to close it.

 Note    If you use task calendars in your schedule, examine the tasks and the task calendars to make sure they’re accurately reflecting reality and not holding up progress. Tasks with task calendars assigned display a calendar icon in the Indicators column next to the task name. Place the mouse pointer over the icon to see more information.

Adjust resource settings to bring in the finish date

Another way to bring in the finish date is to adjust your resource settings. You can check that the resource availability affecting assigned task scheduling is accurate. You can also add resources to tasks to decrease task duration. Be aware that increasing resource availability as well as adding resources to tasks usually means an increase in costs.

Check and adjust resource availability

The more availability your resources have, the sooner their assigned tasks can be completed. For example, a 4-day task assigned to a resource who works a regular 5-day week will be completed in 4 days. The same 4-day task assigned to a resource who works a 2-day week will be completed in 2 weeks. For resources assigned to critical tasks, review and update the following:

  • Resource calendars
  • Maximum (resource) units
  • Assignment units

The Task Entry view is best for checking these three items. Apply the view, set the Task Form to show the resource information you need, and filter for critical tasks, as follows:

  1. On the View menu, click More Views.
  2. In the More Views dialog box, click Task Entry and then click Apply.
  3. To view critical tasks, click in the Gantt Chart (upper) portion of the view. Click Project, Filtered For, Critical. Only critical tasks are displayed. You can also click View, Tracking Gantt. Critical tasks are shown in red.
  4. Click in the Task Form (lower) portion of the view. On the Format menu, point to Details and then click Resource Work. The Task Form changes to show availability information (see Figure 3).

Task Entry view to see resource and assignment availability

Figure 3 The Task Entry view is now set up to check resource and assignment availability.
  1. Click a critical task in the Gantt Chart portion of the view. The resources assigned to the selected task are listed in the Task Form portion of the view.
  2. To check the resource calendar for this assigned resource, double-click the resource name. The Resource Information dialog box appears. On the General tab, click the Change Working Time button. Check the working times set for this resource and make sure they’re correct. When finished, close the Change Working Time dialog box.
  3. To check resource units, return to the General tab in the Resource Information dialog box. Under Resource Availability, check the resource units and associated dates, if applicable, and make sure they’re correct. Make any necessary changes and then click OK.
  4. To check assignment units, review the Units field next to the resource name in the Task Form and make sure the setting is correct.
  5. To switch the Task Entry combination view to a single-pane view of the Gantt Chart, on the Window menu, click Remove Split. To show all tasks again, click the Filter tool on the Formatting toolbar and then click All Tasks.

 Note    You can check your resources’ working time calendar, their resource units, and their assignment units — and everything might look correct. A great technique is to scan your project for any assignment units of less than 100%. Find out if the assigned resources can provide any more time on these tasks, especially the critical tasks, to help bring in the finish date. It doesn’t hurt to ask, at least.

Add resources to decrease duration

A key method of shortening the critical path and bringing in the project finish date is to add resources to critical tasks in such a way as to decrease the task’s duration. For example, two people working together might be able to complete a development task in half the time it takes either of them individually. For this to be the case, the tasks must be either fixed-units and effort-driven tasks or fixed-work tasks. Obviously, they cannot be fixed-duration tasks.

With fixed-units effort-driven scheduling, which is the default, when you assign an additional resource to a task that already has assigned resources, the amount of work scheduled for each assigned resource decreases. Likewise, when you remove a resource from an effort-driven task, the amount of work scheduled for each assigned resource increases.

The same is true for fixed-work tasks, which are effort-driven by definition. When you add or remove resources (that is, assignment units) on a fixed-work task, duration changes but work remains fixed, of course.

To check the task type of an individual task, follow these steps:

  1. In a task sheet, such as the Gantt Chart, double-click the task.
  2. In the Task Information dialog box, click the Advanced tab.
  3. Review the Task Type list and the Effort Driven check box. Make any necessary changes.

You can add the task type and effort-driven fields to a task sheet so you can see the scheduling methods for all tasks at a glance, as follows:

  1. Display the task sheet to which you want to add the new columns.
  2. Click the column heading to the right of where you want the new column to be inserted.
  3. On the Insert menu, click Column.
  4. In the Field Name box, select Type. You can type ty to move quickly to the Type field in the list.
  5. Click OK, and the task types are shown in the task sheet. You can use this Type field to quickly change task types.
  6. Follow steps 1–5 to add the Effort Driven field to the task sheet. This field displays Yes or No, indicating whether the task is effort-driven.

When you assign additional resources to your fixed-units and effort-driven or fixed-work critical tasks, the duration of those critical tasks is reduced, and therefore the length of the critical path is reduced.

 Note    Be aware that as you add resources to critical tasks, you run the risk of reduced productivity. Additional overhead might be associated with bringing on additional resources. More support might be needed to get those resources up to speed on the tasks, and you might lose whatever time savings you thought you might gain. Take care to add resources who are experienced enough to hit the ground running so your efforts don’t backfire on you.

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Applies to:
Project 2007