2 February 2018

How to set up time-boxed look-ahead views in MS-Project ® using compound task filters

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How to set up time-boxed look-ahead views in MS-Project using compound task filters

Part of a series on customising Microsoft® Project® to make working with project schedules more useful.

This post describes how to set up time-boxed “look-ahead” views in Microsoft® Project® (schedule extracts showing upcoming tasks), by customising filters to use an OR operator between criteria.

So why would you want to use this approach, how do you do it, and what’s in it for you as a result?

The Why

So you’ve created a useful programme schedule, and you are now working on keeping it on the right track. You’ve got custom fields for RAG status and commentary. So far, so good. But if you are truly going to use your programme schedule to manage delivery rather than just filing it away in a drawer or hanging it on the wall, then you must regularly review it, discuss and update it, both within the programme team and with stakeholders. Reviews within the team become a lot more action-oriented if you focus discussion on a “look ahead” view of the tasks immediately in front of the team – i.e. those that are due to start or finish in the near future.

You may well be familiar with using the Excel®-like AutoFilter function in MS-Project (accessed through the AutoFilter drop-down menus at the top of columns) to display only the Project rows that meet conditions you set. You can use this to show look-ahead views in MS-Project. For example you can show only tasks due to start after today but within 28 days by setting a custom filter on the “Start” column: in MS-Project 2016, click on the drop-down, then select Filters Custom

this leads to a dialogue box…

Having filtered “start” dates in this way, we could also filter the “Finish” column in the same way to show only tasks due to finish within four weeks from now. We would actually need either to key in specific dates for  “Today”, and “Today + 28 days”, or set up a custom field for it in the way described in the footnote here). This approach would show us only the items that are due to start after today AND which were also expected to complete on or before a date 28 days from now.

In visual terms, as a Venn diagram, that looks like the area enclosed by the red lines in the figure below.

This is fine for some situations, but imagine we wanted to create a four-week look-ahead view, which would show us all tasks that are due to start OR finish during the next four weeks from today, like in the diagram below.

The How

The answer lies with creating look-ahead views in MS-Project using custom filters.

We want to set up something like this:

     [(Start is within time window) AND
     (Task is not yet started)]
     [(Finish is within time window) AND
     (Task is not yet complete)]

This will give you something like this the area enclosed by the green lines in the figure below (an AND relationship between all the start and finish boundaries [this is what you would get if you used AutoFilter on all the same categories together] would have given the area enclosed by the red lines).

To set up a custom filter in MS-Project 2016, select View, and in the Data group in the drop-down that appears next to the Filter item, select New Filter right near the bottom. Call it something “Tasks due to start or finish in the next 28 days” and set up the dialogue box like the figure below, then click on Save.

To group conditions like this (A OR B OR C) AND (D OR E OR F), you need to leave a blank line between the groups and use a logical condition for the groupings.

So in the picture above, the filter will evaluate:

([Start >= TODAY] AND [Start <= TODAY+28] AND [%complete = 0])
([Finish>=TODAY] AND [Finish <= TODAY+28] AND [%complete < 100])

As before, you would need to manually enter [Today’s date] and [Today’s date +28 days], or set up fields to hold dynamic values.

The What(’s in it for you)

With a bit of customisation, you can now create look-ahead views in MS-Project, which is really helpful for schedule reviews with a programme team, or stakeholders.

You can use the same approach to create other filters to show things like:

  • Recently completed and forthcoming tasks (all tasks due to start or finish in the next few weeks, and all tasks that have completed in the last few weeks). This is great for creating schedule extracts for reporting packs (in which case you would set the size of the time “window” so it is the same as the interval between meetings or reports, to show items completed since the last review, and items expected to complete before the next review).
  • Missed milestones and forthcoming tasks. This extends the look-ahead idea to include items that should have finished by now but haven’t (not just milestones but tasks as well – I call them “missed milestones” just because I like the alliteration and it sounds snappy). Useful for programme team reviews.
  • Recently completed and remaining tasks. Includes items that completed recently and those yet to come, but filters out ancient history that no-one is interested in any more.

If you’re interested in those, you will need to get in touch as it’s a bit too complex to explain in a blog post (and this one is already longer than it really should be).

Once you have set up filters like this, you can include them in views and combine them with special task table configurations so that you can generate schedule extracts formatted differently for different types of reports – with just a few clicks.

This approach for creating look-ahead views in MS-Project comes to you from my experience of getting it wrong and coming up with a better way.

Is this approach useful to you? What do you use custom fields and filters for? How else could you use them? Let me know in the comments.

If you would like to have the benefits of an approach like this but would prefer not to get bogged down in the detail, The PMO Professionals can help. Why not take a look at our “savvy scheduling” service, and if that looks interesting, get in touch to discuss how we can help you?

Footnote: Customise an unused date column using Project => Customise Fields => Task => Date => Formula. Call it “Today” and populate it with the formula Date(). This gives you a dynamic value for today’s date that you can use in filters and formulae. Customise another field to contain a formula something like “= [Today] + 28”, call it something like something like “Today + 28”, and you have a dynamic value for today’s date +28 days that you can use in filters and formulae.

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