Tips for Project Planning with Gantt Charts

Here is a set of tips to help you get the most out of a Gantt chart when planning a project.

1. Identify Your Project Goals and Specifics

What is the purpose of your Gantt chart? Are you trying to document a project or a process, because diagramming a process might work better with a flowchart. If you're uncertain, you might want to read this article on The Project versus Process Dilemma, which will help clarify the differences.

Make sure that the ultimate goal of the project is clearly understood and set out. Build your Gantt chart around successful achievement of that goal.

Project vs prrocess

2. Define the Project Timeline

Decide how to divide the increments of time for the duration of the project. Each one should have a start date, end date, and/or the length of time it will require to complete. If you're using a spreadsheet or a Gantt chart program that isn't automated, you'll need to make sure to have a calendar handy. This will keep you from inadvertently scheduling work or deadlines on weekends or holidays.

If you are using an automated program like SmartDraw, it will do the duration or end date computations for you and will also display weekends and major holidays in the timeline grid.

Project timeline

3. Break the Project Down into Manageable Pieces

Divide the project into major components, then tasks and subtasks. Continue breaking them down until they are each straightforward tasks. They should be of short enough duration that timeframes can be accurately estimated.

This can be done within the Gantt chart table, with a hierarchical list of goals or work divisions, with tasks and sub-tasks listed under them.

It may also be done visually, using a mind map. Many project planners find that it's much easier to think and plan a project in this way. When you use SmartDraw to plan your project, you can use both, because the data you input in your Gantt chart links to a mind map, and vice versa. This allows you to create your plan using either or both of these formats, without having to input information more than once.

View mind map as gantt chart

4. Create Progress Bars

The next step is to create a progress bar for each task. A progress bar is simply a horizontal bar that should be in line with the task name it represents and should begin beneath its start date and end beneath its end date (thus indicating the time at which the task will be in progress). Do this for each task. Some may overlap, meaning that they are occurring at the same time.

Project progress bars

5. Define the Critical Path

What is a critical path? It is a method of looking at all of the activities in the Gantt chart, considering the timing and dependent relationships of each, and calculating the longest path from start to completion of the project. This process determines which steps are "critical" from those that can be delayed (said to have "total float") without risking making the project late.

To define the critical path, use lines to connect a task to another if they are dependent on each other. If the completion of one task will trigger the beginning of another, draw a line from the end of the first to the beginning of the second with an arrow pointing to the second to show that it can begin after the first is finished.

Project critical path

The critical path can also be displayed in a PERT chart (also known as an Activity Network).

PERT Chart

6. Add Milestones

Milestones are major events that either have a large part in the process or must be completed before progress can continue. It's a good idea to call these out specifically on your project to help see progress at a glance.

Add project milestone
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