WHY USE TASK MANAGEMENT TOOLS? (AN ENGINEER’S PERSPECTIVE)
(This was archived from my blog articles posted earlier in 2009)
Like most engineers having to juggle multiple projects at once, I’ve had to adopt some
tools to simplify the task management part of my job. In upcoming installments, I’ll
share some techniques that have made it much easier for me to handle a variety of tasks
more efficiently, for timescales from day-to-day or spanning several months. I’m
specifically emphasizing the usefulness of these techniques to help manage one’s own
workload, independent of any managerial responsibilities one may have.
Having the tools to manage the tasks from both large projects and short-notice small jobs
together on a day-to-day basis not only can make the engineer’s work more efficient but
can also greatly reduce the stress level. It is easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the
high-profile “big projects” at the expense of not getting the small jobs done, as I’ve
learned from painful experience.
NOT JUST FOR PROGRAM MANAGERS
Traditionally, planning the execution of large projects has been the domain of program
managers, who naturally are concerned with keeping a project on schedule and under
budget to meet the expectations of customers and upper management. However, I’ve
found that using task management tools also works to my advantage even as a lowly
In the next installment, I’ll discuss how an engineer (or other technical professional)
benefits from using these tools for large projects. As background for this, I found a
helpful article from Idealware that discusses some different views of program
management software, located here:
BENEFITS FROM LARGE PROJECT TASK MANAGEMENT
(AN ENGINEER’S PERSPECTIVE)
KINDS OF TASKS
As I discussed in my previous post, the tasks that I typically deal with as a test engineer
come in two flavors. Many small jobs come up on short notice, require just a few hours
or less to complete and can be considered as a single unit, that is, they have no subtask
structure. An example of this might be obtaining a price and delivery quote on a lab
instrument from several equipment vendors to replace a unit that is no longer economical
The opposite situation involves tasks that are part of a larger project. Managing these
tasks involves not only estimating how long they will take individually but also being
aware of how they relate to one another. An example here might be the design and
implementation of a software program that runs an automated instrumentation setup for
product performance evaluation.
Use of a project management software program allows one to break down the structure of a large
project, first into functional divisions and ultimately to the steps needed to complete individual
tasks. This benefits the engineer in several key ways:
Task detail awareness. This is essential in order for an engineer to provide reasonable labor
estimates to a supervisor. I’ve found that almost all labor estimates made while looking at
just a high level project division invariably underestimate the amount of work required due to
not seeing the visibility of the task details. For example, measuring a single device
performance parameter may involve subtasks such as specifying the measurement
requirement, determining the test algorithm, coding the software and validating the code,
among other things, all of which are nontrivial efforts.
Task completion schedule. A step needed to complete a task frequently must wait for a
prior step to be completed, so that several steps must be performed in a specific sequence.
Other steps in this task (or those in different tasks) can be done without waiting (i.e. in
parallel). The engineer can dramatically shorten the overall project schedule by arranging the
independent tasks to run in parallel with those that must follow a particular order.
Project resource planning. Having a task completion schedule also allows the engineer to
anticipate when materials and people will be needed for an upcoming task, preventing being
taken by surprise. For example, certain parts required to construct a circuit board may have a
long delivery lead time and should be ordered as soon as their need is known.
In the next two installments, I’ll discuss how a good project management software application’s
capabilities provide these benefits in my work.
APPLYING TASK MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE TO LARGE PROJECTS
(AN ENGINEER’S PERSPECTIVE)
Last time I discussed the benefits of using a project management software application for large
projects. Rather than giving a detailed tutorial, in these next two installments I’ll cover the
fundamental capabilities this application should have to bring these benefits about, speaking
generically as the commands and syntax used in software packages vary. I’ve not included the
application’s financial management functions, as this is beyond the scope of my topic.
I’ll use the Gantt Chart method here, as this mode is what I’ve found to be the most
useful. In this format, the tasks and subtasks are shown in a column towards the left, with
each item corresponding to a horizontal bar that graphically shows the start date and end
date on a calendar timeline. Wikipedia provides a Gantt chart introduction here:
I list each task as a separate header within the project. All relevant subtasks are then
entered beneath the task header, and are shown in indented format for clarity, with a
blank line between groups of related subtasks. It is important to be as detailed as
necessary, including not only such separate jobs of designing, constructing and testing a
device or tool but also frequently overlooked items such as parts ordering and department
design reviews. I include all tasks that are expected to take longer than ½ day or so.
The Gantt chart includes the person or group responsible for performing a subtask
(typically shown adjacent to that location on the timeline). Given the workload
availability of a resource (specified in percent), the software can keep track of this
resource being used over multiple tasks, alerting the user if someone has been
Next: Task Linkages, Parallel Activities and Timelines
TASK MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE LINKAGES AND TIMELINES
(AN ENGINEER’S PERSPECTIVE)
Previously I discussed the task breakdown and labor resource features that I use in the Gantt
Chart. I’ll now discuss how I use it to highlight task relationships.
Often called dependencies, these are links that graphically show that a given task must
complete before another task that must follow the first one can begin, by using the
software application to select these two subtasks. The subsequent task will be connected
to the first one by an arrow and its start date will be aligned with the first subtask’s end
date, moving all subsequent dependent subtasks to later dates accordingly.
Note that a linkage may be needed between two seemingly unrelated task groups, as
frequently happens when two activities are dependent on a specialized resource (such as a
printed circuit board fabrication service for example) which is shared between different
projects. If I’m asked to handle more than one project, I’ll include myself as a resource
that must divide time between tasks with the appropriate linkages shown.
IDENTIFYING PARALLEL ACTIVITIES
After the subtask timelines have been set up this way, it will become clear which items
can proceed independently of others, saving schedule time. For example, a subtask that
requires an outside resource over several days could represent an opportunity for other
useful things to be done while the responsible engineer is waiting.
Parallel activities may be limited by available personnel, however, and as I mentioned
previously, the application should provide a resource manager that alerts the user when a
labor resource is stretched too thin.
CALENDAR TIMELINE CAPABILITY
The project management software should take into account actual workdays (weekdays
vs. weekends and holidays, vacations etc.) in order for a projected task completion date to
be accurate. This feature is indispensable, especially when the task timelines must be
edited after the project begins because all the affected timelines will be recalculated
automatically. This alone justifies my usage of the software as I’ve found manual
recalculation of calendar dates to be so time consuming as to be impractical.
Next time I’ll discuss how my use of project management software for handling large project
tasks works in concert with my method for managing the small jobs.
MANAGING LARGE PROJECT TASKS AND DAY-TO-DAY TASKS TOGETHER
(AN ENGINEER’S PERSPECTIVE)
In my previous installments, I discussed my methods and benefits for managing the task details
in large engineering projects. I’ll now discuss how I keep both large project details and day-to-
day tasks on track by minimizing interference between them.
DETAIL VISIBILITY IS KEY
As I mentioned earlier on, day-to-day projects can be considered as single jobs with no
subtasks. This means that they can be considered on the same level as the subtask details
already highlighted in large projects, hence another good reason for achieving detailed
task visibility there.
Having the Gantt chart available, I’ll survey at the beginning of the week what large
project subtasks are coming up that require my direct involvement. I’ll then look at any
outstanding short-term jobs on my plate.
I use a weekly task checklist to enter all large project subtasks coming up for the current
week as well as for any outstanding small jobs. Any task planner with daily visibility or
a similar handwritten form can be used.
PROMPT DAY-TO-DAY TASK DISPOSITION
Rather than put off dealing with small jobs as they come up, I try to disposition them in one of
Do immediately. This is very effective for small tasks, getting them out of the way
Enter the job into my weekly task checklist. I’ll pick a day when it can be done with
minimal interference to large project subtasks already entered (I may move the latter
Delegate. If the job likely falls within the capabilities of a junior colleague who is likely
to have time available, I’ll assign it to that person, freeing me up for more complex jobs.
I’ll frequently write up some instructions to make the work clear, which will help that
person with similar work next time.
ENGINEERING TASK MANAGEMENT SUMMARY
I’ve found the methods I’ve described in these last few installments to be invaluable to making
my work efficient, as well as for reducing the stress level dramatically. I hope this topic has
been helpful, and welcome feedback.