The Right QuestionsWhen (Timing and Programming)

How to programme your tasks and create a Gantt Chart

The Right Questions - project programming, goals, tasks, milestones

What is project programming? What is a Gantt Chart and what is the best software to use?

We have taken a look at time commitment and the importance of timing and now we are going to think about how ‘When’ relates to tasks and resources and also revisit the concept of priorities. Putting this all together brings us to the concept of programming and the use of a Gantt Chart to represent our programme.

What is a Gantt Chart and how do you make oneProgramming

I was part of the initial project management team working on the construction of ‘The Shard’, the new tower above London Bridge station, which is the tallest building in Western Europe.  It goes without saying that it is massive and complex; too big to contemplate in all its detail.  What’s more it is unique, there is not another building quite like it anywhere in the world.  Considering this, how could someone possibly decide how long it was going to take to build?  The key, as we looked at under ‘How’, was to break the whole plan down into manageable pieces. It is hard to estimate how long it will take to build a 330m tower; but you can start by working out how long it will take to construct one pillar or fit one window.

We can do the same for our goals.  We are already mostly there as under ‘How’ we broke down our dreams into goals and our goals into tasks.  It should be easier to assess the time for one task and if we need even greater accuracy we can break the task down into steps and work out the duration for those.

By doing this we are building up a programme (a plan with timings) to achieve our vision.  We have identified goals, worked out the necessary tasks and resources and now given a time to each step.  Through this process the dream starts to become more tangible.  Once again, don’t worry if you can’t work out everything – the important thing is to know the next few steps in enough detail to start to act.

If you work out all of the activities that you need to achieve and the duration of each task then you will have a fully functioning programme; the sort of thing a project manager will create.  When you put all your activities into sequence the quickest route through the plan becomes the ‘critical path’ and gives you the shortest duration to achieve your aim.

Remember: a programme can include as little or as much detail as you need.  The important thing is that the programme helps you to plan and helps you track your progress towards a goal.  My advice is start simple and if you can’t fit it legibly on one A4 page of paper, or it starts being hard to understand, simplify it.

Earlier when we looked at tasks and milestones we looked at the example of building a shed. Let’s use the same example to make a simple programme. We can start by estimating a duration for each activity:

  • Work out what type and size of shed you need and where it will go – we will need to go out and do some measuring so let’s assume 1 hour
  • Select the best shed to suit your purpose – this might require some time researching on the internet so let’s give ourselves 2 hours
  • Purchase the shed – I am planning to do this online and once I have decided on the right shed it should only take me only a few minutes.  It is a good idea to always give ourselves 30 minutes, even for a simple task, so I am going to assign a half hour here
  • Shed is delivered – this is a milestone so I will not give it a duration but there is likely to be a time lag between purchasing and delivery and I will assume it will be 48 hours between payment and receiving the goods.
  • Prepare the ground – I will need to level the ground and my garden is on a slope so this is likely to take some time. I will initially give myself 4 hours. This could take longer, especially if foundations are required, so I might have to re-calculate this after inspecting the ground and the shed I have chosen.
  • Erect the walls – I am going to allow myself 2 hours for this task. This job will probably require the help of another person so I will have to ask someone soon to prevent my project from being delayed.
  • Construct the roof and make it waterproof – Again I will estimate around 2 hours for this
  • Fit the door and windows – This could be a fiddly job so once again I am going to give myself 2 hours here
  • Furnish the shed ready for use – this will likely require popping to the shops again so I am going to give myself 3 hours for this
  • Start using the shed – this is a milestone so I won’t give it a duration.

Now we can create a pictorial representation of the programme, something that is known as a Gantt Chart (named after Henry Gantt, the man who developed the idea). Putting all the activities into order I have created a Gantt Chart that you can see in Figure 1:

Programming, goals, tasks, milestones

You will notice that as I start to fit the tasks into my normal working hours I have to roll over the tasks so they take place over several days. I can now see that I wont be able to start using the shed until the 5th day.

Prioritising

“Time is free, but it’s priceless. You can’t own it, but you can use it. You can’t keep it, but you can spend it. Once you’ve lost it you can never get it back.” Harvey MacKay

Time is limited so therefore within the plan we need to prioritise.  We do not have enough time to do everything and therefore we need to be able to decide which things to forgo.  We started to look at this concept under the ‘Why’ question as it is our values that help us make the right decisions, especially when under pressure.

We have to know the tasks that are vital to success but this is not always straight-forward to ascertain.  We may need to go through a process of elimination until we can perceive the essential elements in a project.

What things can be done concurrently?  What tasks could you delay or rearrange? What could you delegate or even dispense with altogether?  By asking these sorts of questions you get down to the bare bones of what are the vital actions.  You may well find that you can refine your programme after asking these questions.

For example, looking at our shed project again I can see that I don’t need to wait for the shed to arrive in order to prepare the ground. I can save myself some time by doing this while I am waiting for the shed to be delivered as you can see in Figure 2:

Programming goals, tasks, milestones

You can see that by getting on with the ground work concurrently with waiting for it to arrive I have reduced the total duration of the project by a day and I will now be able to start using the shed on day 4.

Cash Flow and Budgeting

After adding the duration to the tasks the next thing to do is to add the resources needed for each activity.  This is the next layer of the programme and can be added to your table or spreadsheet.

In this way we can establish not just the cost of any task but also the yearly, monthly, weekly or daily cost of a goal or activity.  In other words we create a cash flow forecast or budget.

After doing all this you should be able to link the dream you have right through to the very next step you need to take.  Hopefully you will also know exactly how long it will take and how much it will cost.  You can now put that step in your diary and you are on your way!

Project Management Programming Software

The Gantt Charts for this post were created using Merlin Project Management Software. Merlin 2 is the best project management programming software that I have used for the Mac and if you want to find out more or try a demo then click here.

Merlin is very similar to Microsoft Project, the main software I have used on PC. This is something of the industry standard for project management software, although perhaps not the best. Do share your favourite software in the comments.

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