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Summary Tasks in Microsoft Project

Understanding summary tasks, outline levels, and work-breakdown structure (WBS) in Microsoft Project.

This article illustrates how to create and modify summary tasks in your Microsoft Project plan so that you can create a meaningful outline (sometimes called a WBS) of phases and their subtasks.

Creating a New Summary Task in Microsoft Project

  1. Start with a simple Microsoft Project plan. Initially, there are no summary tasks. It's just a simple task list with no parents or children:

    Simple Microsoft Project plan with no summary tasks.

  2. Let's assume that we want to add two summary tasks. The first summary task will contain Tasks 1-3, and the second summary task will contain Tasks 4-6. To begin, we will insert the tasks that will eventually be turned into summary tasks. Left-click on Task 1, and press the Insert key on your keyboard to insert a new task above it:

    Insert a new line at the top of the project plan

  3. Name the new task "Summary A". Note that it's still not a summary of the next three tasks:

    Create a new summary task on the new line

  4. Now, highlight Tasks 1-3 with your mouse so that they are all selected at once. You can do this with a Shift + Left-click:

    Highlight several subtasks at once.

  5. To roll the three selected tasks under the summary task, click on the Indent Task button, or press Alt + Shift + Right on your keyboard:

    Indent tasks underneath the summary task in Microsoft Project.

  6. Tasks 1-3 are now children of "Summary A" and are indented underneath it. Notice that the start and finish dates of "Summary A" are now based on the start and finish dates of the child tasks:

    Summary task now has three child tasks rolled up underneath it.

  7. Next, let's add the second summary task to summarize Tasks 4-6. To do this, right-click on Task 4 and choose Insert Task:

    Insert a new task in the middle of the project plan.

  8. The new task appears above Task 4, which is good, but it's indented underneath "Summary A", which we don't want. We want this task to be a summary task, not a child task:

    New task is indented underneath another summary task.

  9. We can fix this by outdenting the new task:

    Outdent a task in Microsoft Project.

    You can also do this by pressing Alt + Shift + Left on the keyboard.

  10. Now that the task is outdented, we can rename it as "Summary B":

    Second summary task in Microsoft Project.

  11. Next, highlight Tasks 4-6 and indent them underneath "Summary B":

    Second summary task in Microsoft Project.

  12. Once complete, Tasks 4-6 will be children of "Summary B" just like Tasks 1-3 are children of "Summary A":

    Microsoft Project plan with two summary tasks

Multiple Levels of Summary Tasks

Microsoft Project doesn't just limit you to a simple parent-child relationship when it comes to summary tasks. You can have multiple levels of summary tasks nested within each other, which creates a hierarchy:

Multiple levels of summary tasks in Microsoft Project

You can create this multi-level hierarchy of summary tasks the same way that you created the initial set of summary tasks. Instead of only indenting once, though, you would indent summary tasks underneath other summary tasks, which is what gives the waterfall effect shown above.

Expanding and Collapsing Summary Tasks

Once you have created a summary task, you can collapse it to make your Microsoft Project plan easier to read. Collapsing a summary task hides its children so that only the summary task itself shows in a rolled-up or drilled-up fashion. To collapse a summary task:

  1. Click on the closed-triangle icon to the left of the summary task name:

    Collapse a Microsoft Project Summary Task.

  2. The subtasks underneath the summary will collapse, leaving only the summary task to display:

    First summary task is collapsed.

    Each summary task can be expanded or collapsed independently. In this example, we've collapsed "Summary A", but we've left "Summary B" expanded so that we can see more detail.

  3. If you want to see the details underneath a collapsed summary task, you can drill-down by clicking the open-triangle icon:

    Expand a Summary Task to drill down.

  4. The summary task will then expand to show all of the details underneath it:

    Expanded summary task in Microsoft Project.

Project Summary Tasks

Each Microsoft Project file has a task at the top called the Project Summary Task. In most cases, the Project Summary Task is the same as the name of the project. To view the Project Summary Task:

  1. In Microsoft Project, go to the Format tab and check the box for the Project Summary Task:

    Turn on the Project Summary Task.

  2. Microsoft Project will show a new line at the top of your schedule for the Project Summary Task:

    Project Summary Task in Microsoft Project.

    Each summary task can be expanded or collapsed independently. In this example, we've collapsed "Summary A", but we've left "Summary B" expanded so that we can see more detail.

When you first save your project plan, Microsoft Project will set the name of the Project Summary Task to be the same as your project filename. Most of the time, this works well. However, if you later rename your Microsoft Project file, or copy one MPP file to another to create a clone of your project, it's important to double-check your Project Summary Task to see if it needs to be manually renamed to match the new name of your project plan.

Outline Level in Microsoft Project

The outline level is a number in Microsoft Project that tells you how far indented each summary task or subtask is relative to its parents or children. If you have a Microsoft Project schedule with many levels of summary taska and subtasks, the outline is a more accurate way to telling how things are indented than trying to visually inspect indentation levels.

To review your outline levels:

  1. Start with a Microsoft Project plan that has several different levels of nested summary tasks, like this:

    Microsoft Project plan with multiple outline levels nested inside each other.

  2. Click on Add New Column, and scroll down to the Outline Level field:

    Insert the Outline Level field into Microsoft Project

  3. The outline level field will now appear:

    Outline Level shows how much summary tasks have been indented in Microsoft Project.

    The project summary task will always be at outline level 0. The highest-level summary tasks will at be outline level 1. The children of your first-level summary tasks are outline level 2. Their grandchildren are at outline level 3, and so on. It's also important to note that the outline level applies to a task regardless of whether it is a summary task or a subtask. In the example above, we have both summary tasks and subtasks at outline level 2, because the the "Summary A" task has other summary tasks as its children, while the "Summary B" task has subtasks as its children.

Work-Breakdown Structure (WBS) in Microsoft Project

The Work-Breakdown Structure (WBS) in Microsoft Project tells you the hierarchy of each task and how it is related to any summary tasks above it. To show the WBS in Microsoft Project:

  1. Start with the same Microsoft Project plan that has several different levels of nested summary tasks and subtasks:

    Microsoft Project plan with multiple outline levels nested inside each other.

  2. Click on Add New Column, and scroll down to the WBS field:

    Insert the WBS field into Microsoft Project

  3. The WBS field will appear, and each task in your project plan will have a unique WBS number:

    WBS numbers for each summary task and subtask in Microsoft Project.

  4. To understand the meaning of WBS numbers in Microsoft Project, let's first collapse the project plan so only the two top-level summary tasks (and the project summary task) are showing:

    Level 1WBS numbers for each summary task and subtask in Microsoft Project.

    Here, the top level summary tasks have a single-digit WBS number. The first summary task "Summary A" is 1 and the second summary task "Summary B" is 2. The Project Summary Task, which is a level above both of the top-level summary tasks, will always have a WBS Number of 0.

  5. Now, let's expand "Summary A" to see some of its children. In this case, all of its children are second-level summary tasks:

    Level 2WBS numbers for each summary task and subtask in Microsoft Project.

    Remember that "Summary A" has a WBS of 1. Its children will all have the same 1 as the first digit in their WBS number, which is what indicates that they are children of "Summary A". The second digit in the WBS number indicates their sequence. So, the first child "Summary A" will be 1.1, and the second child "Summary A2" will be 1.2.

  6. Finally, we'll expand "Summary A1" to see some its children at the third outline level. In this case, all of its children are subtasks, not summary tasks, though that has no bearing in the WBS number:

    Level 3 WBS numbers for each summary task and subtask in Microsoft Project.

    Remember that "Summary A1" has a WBS of 1.1. Its children will all have the same 1.1 as the first two digits in their WBS numbers, which is what indicates that they are children of "Summary A1" at level 2, and in turn, are the grandchildren of "Summary A" at level 1. The third digit in the WBS number indicates their sequence. So, the first child "Subtask 1" will be 1.1.1, and the second child "Subtask 2" will be 1.1.2.

  7. Did you know that the number of digits in the WBS number corresponds to the Outline Level? Notice that all of the tasks with an Outline Level of 3 have a three-digit WBS number, while all of the tasks with an Outline Level of 1 only have a one-digit WBS number:

    WBS Number compared to Outline Level in Microsoft Project

Last Modified: March 8, 2019