I was with a client this week, who is in the middle of a somewhat complex project, when I realized they weren’t using any kind of a project management system. That’s not unusual when an organization only has very occasional projects or engagements, but this particular client is always conducting one project or another, and often has multiple projects going in tandem.

When I asked if they had a Gantt chart for the current project, I was met with a “What’s that?” response. I was a bit surprised until I realized that not everyone who has to manage a large number of events has ever been exposed to a systematic method for tracking and understanding where in the project process the staff is at the moment, and whether the project is really on track to be finished on time. I was introduced to project management approaches such as PERT (program evaluation and review technique) and CPM (critical path method) pretty early on in my career, and while I’m far from being an expert, I do try and organize complex engagements using the critical path method and a Gantt chart.

I can’t make you expert in this technique in five minutes, but I can get you started. And if you are wondering why you should bother, it’s an almost sure bet that you can apply project management techniques to many of the engagements you take on such as audits, reviews of internal controls, and implementing new systems for your clients and onboarding them onto new software or applications.

A view of Xero Projects
A view of Xero Projects

The critical path method

CPM is the technique I’m most familiar with, having used it fairly frequently over the years.

All projects start with setting a goal, which is the point where you consider the project finished. The project itself is composed of multiple tasks and subtasks, each with a start date, a duration, and an end date. You can also assign a person to each of these tasks and subtasks. Once you determine the tasks that need to be completed, the order the task/subtask has to be started and finished in, and the start and end dates of each, you construct a table. This table is used to create a modified horizontal bar graph where the Y-axis is the list of tasks and subtasks, and the X-axis is the timeline of the overall project from start to finish. The bar for each task is located starting at the start date, extends through the duration of the task, and ends on the date when the task is supposed to be completed.

That graph is called a Gantt chart, after Henry Gantt who popularized the approach. As the project progresses, you update the table with the actual start and end dates of the tasks as completed and recast the chart. There always seems to be tasks that are not completed on time or that start late, an event called slippage. As the Gantt chart is recast, you can see at a glance the status of each task, and that of the overall project.

One of the things that you are looking for is the critical path. The critical path is the tasks that have to be completed in sequence to finish the project where a delay in one task will delay the entire project. The critical path exists because there are usually dependencies between tasks where a delay in a particular task puts off the start or finish of another task. In many projects or engagements, there are tasks which can be accomplished in parallel or in no specific order, but there are almost always task dependencies as well.

It’s actually pretty easy to create and use a Gantt chart. Formerly, I used Visio. Today, you can use Excel, Word, PowerPoint or other software. Over the past several years, I’ve used SmartDraw for almost anything graphic I have to create. It has about a billion templates and charts (well, maybe not quite that many), and it’s very easy to use. I’ve talked about the application before, and don’t anticipate moving to another application at any time in the foreseeable future. I use the desktop version, but there’s also a Cloud-based version which probably makes more sense if you use multiple PCs. The software is not inexpensive, but if you use it anywhere as often as I do, it’s well worth the money. The vendor offers a free trial if you want to check it out, and there’s a great tutorial on the vendor’s web site that explains how to create a Gantt chart using the software: https://www.smartdraw.com/gantt-chart/how-to-create-a-gantt-chart.htm.

Of course, you don’t have to use SmartDraw to do a Gantt chart, there are numerous video tutorials on YouTube on how do a Gantt chart in Excel, Word or even PowerPoint. Several accounting software solutions have a project management function within it (see image). And if you want to go really old school, it’s not difficult to do a simple Gantt chart using a whiteboard and markers, though you’re likely to run out of room if there are lots of tasks and subtasks, and/or an extended timeline.

So, if you are at the start of a project, or are anticipating a new project coming in, consider using a Gantt chart. There’s nothing magical or overly technical about it, just a nice way of organizing and tracking the progress (or lack of) on a project with lots of moving parts.

Ted Needleman

Ted Needleman

Ted Needleman has been covering technology for more than 30 years, writing frequently on software, hardware, and related subjects. He was previously editor-in-chief of Accounting Technology.