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Review of Microsoft Project for Six Sigma

written by: Heidi Wiesenfelder • edited by: Jean Scheid • updated: 7/6/2011

Microsoft Project is one of the top 5 Six Sigma software programs. Learn about its capability, usability and availability in this review.

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    Uses for Project

    Project management is a critical aspect of any Six Sigma initiative, particularly in the context of DMAIC projects. Black Belts and other Six Sigma project managers need to track resources, including those dedicated to the project and those with short-term involvement. Estimating timeliness and costs properly requires a detailed elucidation of the many tasks and dependencies. And as these projects tend to evolve over time, the ability to amend details throughout the life cycle of the project is a necessity.

    Even with a systematic approach such as DMAIC, whereby Define precedes Measure, Measure precedes Analyze, and so on, there are instances of tasks within one phase that can be initiated before the prior phase has been completed. Detailing the dependencies and resource requirements provides an effective means of leveraging resources and speeding up project progress.

    Using a project management software program is essential for doing all this effectively, and Microsoft Project is of course the standard.

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    Capability

    project-screenshot Project easily handles all the required project management elements such as tasks, resources and costs as well as milestones and slack. Its calendar features allow easily scheduling of working and non-working time, with a variety of basic calendars included.

    Report options include overview, current activities, costs, assignments, and workloads. New in this version are "visual reports": a means of creating graphs, pivot tables, and various diagrams that can be opened using Excel or Visio. These include reports for task usage, resource usage, assignment usage, task summary, resource summary, and assignment summary.

    There is even a quick project management history lesson for those who are interested, oddly placed in the "What's new" section of Help. The Microsoft web site's comparison of Project 2007 versions lists "automated e-mail notification" and "Outlook 2007 integration to its calendar and To-Do Bar" as well, although I gave up searching for the means of implementing either of these options both in the program and in the Help section after what should have been more than enough time to find these features. The program does allow exporting of pictures to Excel, Word, and PowerPoint.

    Since Project is designed specifically for detailed tracking of all aspects of project management, it has a full set of features beyond the basics and gives a project manager a robust means of managing projects.

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    Usability

    For users who are accustomed to working with Gantt charts or have used Project previously, the interface is fairly straightforward. Double-clicking on a task brings up the Task Information dialog box, which provides the opportunity to modify details such as Resources and Predecessors. I do wish the Info box would dynamically update to reflect a different task when a new task is clicked on, similar to the way the dialog works in Process Model, but most users will not even expect that to be an option.

    For new users and those unfamiliar with Gantt charts and the in's and out's of project tracking, expect to work through a learning curve. The attempt to find appropriate help and information when getting started may be confusing and the Help section is not organized in a user-friendly way. A large amount of material is lumped together in a way that does not seem very helpful, with videos, articles as well as humorous versions of tutorials, all combined by high-level categories. For what it's worth, I do enjoy the "Crabby Office Lady's" articles, which are humorous versions of articles for those who prefer to be entertained while they learn rather than reading dry copy.

    The videos in the Help section launch a web browser, and unfortunately they would not play in Firefox. The troubleshooting options providing no useful information for solving the problem, so copying the URL and pasting into Internet Explorer was the only option. The set of 8 "Up to speed" videos were helpful for covering the basics such as tasks, resources, and using the Project interface.

    Project now has a multi-level undo feature, which is a huge improvement in usability. It also has a Task Drivers view, which shows constraints that drive the start date for a specific task. This will be especially helpful for situations where a Black Belt is being asked why some part of a project has not happened yet, by the project Sponsor or the Quality Leader.

    Also new is Change Highlighting, which allows the user to see what other elements are changed by a modification to one specific element such as a task end date or a resource assignment.

    Users can easily switch among views using the View menu, with options including resource graphs and sheets, a calendar view, a network diagram, and of course the default Gantt chart. Turning on the Project Guide feature via the View menu displays a basic explanation of what you can do in a certain view, with links to how-to details for specific options.

    The most time-consuming part of using Project is of course entering the vast amounts of information required to properly manage a Six Sigma project, including all the tasks in each phase of a project, all the resources and allocations, and all the task dependencies and relationships. An excellent template for a DMAIC project is available for free through iSixSigma. The Gantt chart incorporates the full DMAIC methodology within an overall Plan-Execute-Close project management framework, which includes the actions that typically occur before the chartered project is initiated by a Black Belt. Each of the phases is broken down into detailed steps.

    For instance, the Measure phase includes steps for collecting baseline data, plotting and analyzing defects, calculating process sigma, and creating a process map. Also included in each phase are steps for tasks such as updating stakeholders, updating financial measurements, and a go/no-go decision. Within the step for plotting and analyzing defects, substeps include creating Pareto charts and creating and analyzing process variation using control charts.

    Most Six Sigma project managers will find the template quite useful in getting started using Project for managing a DMAIC project.

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    Availability

    Many large businesses already use Microsoft Project as part of Microsoft Office. The Standard version will meet most Six Sigma practitioners' needs, while the Professional version provides functionality for enterprise-wide sharing using Project Server.

    Small business owners and others who do not have employer-provided versions can find Project Standard for under $100 and Project Professional for under $200. Both versions can be found at a vast array of stores both locally and online, as well as through resale outlets such as Ebay. Nonprofits can purchase Project at a very reasonable cost from TechSoup.org.