Why do Summary Tasks Always Appear Behind Schedule?

Have you ever walked into a project status meeting, proud of how all of your deliverables are on track, only to have someone ask you why the phase or project-level summary task shows that you are behind schedule? Everything you’ve been tasked with doing is on time, but for some reason, the summary shows that you are weeks or months behind.

Here’s why:

The example Microsoft Project plan below has ten tasks, all rolled up into a single summary task. Three tasks are underway, and are statused so that they are exactly on schedule according to today’s date.

Summary Progress1

Microsoft Project averages all of the tasks underneath the summary–including the ones that aren’t scheduled to start yet–and gives you an overall percent complete value of 14%. This may not be meaningful until you look at where 14% is on the timeline (click to enlarge):

Summary Progress2a

Even through the three in-flight tasks are perfectly aligned to today’s date at the red line, the summary task at the top incorrectly shows that you are a good two weeks behind schedule.

This is because Microsoft Project’s percent complete calculation doesn’t consider today’s date, which tasks are actually supposed to have started, or how the work allocated to the tasks is loaded across the entire project or phase. After all, project work is never evenly distributed. You have busy days, and you have slow days. Some days you may be doing twenty things at once, and other days, you may be twiddling your thumbs. Microsoft Project doesn’t account for this when it tries to tell you how far along you are at the summary task level.

In short, if you have a project that ramps up slowly in the beginning and has a lot of work at the end, Microsoft Project will penalize you as being behind schedule, because it doesn’t know how back-loaded your project is.

OnePager has a nifty way to fix this, using a proprietary formula to calculate a more accurate progress indicator for your summary tasks. When you are building or updating your OnePager report, check the Show Column Mappings box at the bottom of the import wizard, and click Next:

summary-progress5

Then, instead of using the standard “% Complete” field from Microsoft Project, you can switch to “% Complete EV” instead, and let OnePager recalculate the progress of your summary tasks:

Summary Progress3

This more accurate calculation will advance your progress bars to more accurately represent workload and time. Here is the same project plan using OnePager’s calculation. Notice how the progress bar for the summary task now shows that everything is on schedule:

Summary Progress4

By the way, projects that are heavily front-loaded can erroneously appear as ahead of schedule in Microsoft Project. OnePager fixes this, too, though people don’t tend to complain as much when Microsoft Project makes things look better than they actually are.

And of course, if your project is woefully behind schedule, no amount of secret-sauce calculations are going to make it look any better, but at least it will be accurate!

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