Project KickStart

PROJECT KICKSTART
versus
MICROSOFT PROJECT

Or, should it be
Project KickStart
and
Microsoft Project?

Project KickStart and Microsoft Project are two major project management software packages. David Jones, our web master and project manager, compares them to see which one you should use - or both!

Project KickStart first came to my attention several years ago when it was in version 2.

My company had adopted Microsoft Project [MSP] as the standard for all our project management needs, so we were expected to not only plan and schedule our implementation projects in MSP, but to control them and report on them with MSP.

MSP isn't the biggest project management software package, and it isn't the smallest by any means; it might not be the best, and it is certainly not the worst. But, it is big, and extensive and good and it is the de facto benchmark against which to compare other packages.

Planning and Scheduling

For planning and scheduling, MSP had all the tools we needed. Identifying and adding tasks and resources; creating a schedule for when the resources would perform the tasks could be done in several different ways; outlining the project to group similar and related tasks; identifying phases, categories and milestones.

Most tasks don't happen in a strictly linear way...like start task 1, finish task 1, start task 2, finish task 2, etc. So MSP has four different ways to define the relationship amongst tasks, and you could allow for lead time and lag time...expressed in either percentage or minus, and in minutes, hours, days or weeks...hmmm, gets pretty complicated right from the beginning...

Besides identifying resources, they have to be assigned to tasks, and costed. Some were hourly, some had overtime; some had flat-fee per visit and others flat contract cost.

MSP would have been a great tool if it had been used up front to build the estimate for a project and then the estimate became the contract amount. But, whoa there...sales and management had already entered into the contract before project management was even consulted about what had to be done and how much it would cost to fulfill the contract.

So, I used another strength of MSP [and other computerized packages] - I could immediately generate two scenarios.

  1. I started the work plan, task by task and costed it out until the total reached the amount that had been contracted. Then I stopped the plan. The message here is: "This is how much work we can do with your budget. What do you want gutted so that we can do the rest of the job?"
  2. In another, I completed the full work plan and costed it out, and presented it as what the contract should have been for. The message here is: "This is how much the work will cost. When do you want me to start re-negotiating the contract?"


Sidebar

You're absolutely right...the project plan should have been worked up before a contract amount was quoted, even if corporate strategy was to bid low to get market penetration.

Sidebar


View A Workplan

Of course, when we needed to question the work plan, there were several ways to present it in pictures:

  • Gantt Chart
  • PERT [acronym for program evaluation and review technique, a probability-based approach to estimating completion time]
  • CPM [critical path method, which focuses on the tasks that comprise the longest or critical path through the whole project]
  • Calendar
  • Resource
  • Filters

When the project plan, including time schedule and dollar costs and budget, is finalized and the project starts, MSP sets what it calls the "baseline" for the project.

Controlling

Management wanted to go further and include Control activities within MSP. In other words, it wanted to use MSP's tracking capability. Simply, it means using MSP to keep track of schedule, tasks, resources and costs as the project moves ahead.

Two new components are needed in addition to Baseline information:

  • Current information. Suppose there is a delay - perhaps a critical piece of equipment did not arrive until two weeks after it was due. Some other tasks might go ahead without the equipment, but the start and therefore end date of many tasks that have not yet started will have to be changed. This would need to be reflected.
  • Actual information. Suppose something that was estimated to take 15 days actually takes 18. Start and end date might not be affected - the extra work might have been done at night or on the weekend, but the costs will change.

And a basic decision is required about which level of tracking to follow:

  • minimal tracking just records the start and end date for each task;
  • detailed tracking adds percentage of task completion, duration, costs and work as well as splitting tasks to account for work that is interrupted.

Sounds great, right? Well, there's more to consider...

In our system, time sheets and expense reports [they had large dollar volume of expenses to be billed for travel] were entered into a project accounting module then transferred to the general ledger. Invoices for equipment went in through the accounts payable module then to the general ledger. Invoices for subcontractor costs went into both time and expense [for billing] and accounts payable [for payment] with a manual entry to remove the duplication. The idea was that all work in progress and billings happened through the project accounting module then into the general ledger.

Notice something here...? Right! None of the information went automatically into the MSP module, and detailed tracking could only be done in MSP if all the information was entered again!

A software application to bridge the gap between the project accounting package and MSP was being worked on...and worked on...and worked on, but never did get completed to the point where it could handle all the information. While the goal was to integrate the systems and feed data into MSP so that MSP could handle detailed tracking, the reality was that only minimal tracking was possible. And a large part of the power and capability of MSP could not be used.


Sidebar

In Project Management Best Practices , we warn that the decision should be made early about where costs can be tracked. This is an example of why you need to decide early...

Sidebar


Because the project accounting module did have all the information for budgeting and cost control, we found that its information and a simple spreadsheet were the most effective way to control the projects.

In our experience, this is the most common situation - namely that using MSP for full cost and budget control is not practical or even possible for most organizations.

Now, if we weren't able to use MSP for one of its major functions and advantages - control - did we need all of its power and complexity for planning and scheduling? Was there an alternative?

An Alternative!

Here's how we found a little gem of a product...

Project Management Software relates how we [an informal group of 4 project managers] used spreadsheets to Control costs and budgets. In MSP, we just used minimal tracking to keep track of start and end dates of each task and changes in the schedule.

One of them asked, "So, you don't really use MSP?" And I replied, "Oh, I use it all right...keeping all the tasks sorted out and maintaining the relationships and dependencies would be almost impossible otherwise. Anyway, the company says we have to use it for reporting, so I can't work outside of it.

"But, when I first set up my project I find it really cumbersome and awkward. I seem to be forever messing up dependencies and splitting things when all I want to do is get the basic outlines and preliminary scheduling loaded. How do you all handle that?"

One of them said, "Well, a while ago I was looking at something that might help you...I didn't bother much with it since we have to use MSP... here, check this out." And he dug into his laptop pack [seems we never went anywhere without them!] and brought out a CD-ROM that had come with one of the well-known reference books for MSP. We loaded it up and found the trial download for Project KickStart version 2.

In a couple of minutes we had the Project KickStart trial up and running and, for about a half hour, the four of us collectively set up a dummy project starting from one of their samples. This same technique would be useful for us in real-life situations since our projects usually had a certain amount of standard content. No reading a manual [although we saw a note that one was available with the full version], almost no looking at online help [but it was good when we did need it]. It was smooth and natural and intuitive to use.

Project KickStart had drop down menus for the Phases and Tasks - the sample projects had items already loaded and as we added others, it remembered them - something we also knew would be useful for ourselves over time.

Then we hit one of Project KickStart's really interesting menu items: Goals. At first this seemed redundant for us since our major client projects all started with a goals definition document. But one of the group observed, "But I think I'm going to use Project KickStart for some of my smaller internal projects - and taking a few minutes to jot down goals would be really useful." Bingo! We had hit on something great. In Project KickStart, you first define the goals for your project, then identify any NEW tasks that are needed to ensure that you can reach each goal. It's flexible and can be a simple or complicated as you need for each project, and even can be skipped for really small ones. But it is amazing the items that come to mind when you think in this mode. [We did note and agree, however, that there is nothing in MSP or any other software package that precludes you from thinking this way...it just seemed a good reminder to do it.]

Next, we came to the Similar Projects tab, and found another really useful item. By considering any previous projects you've created that are similar to the one you're currently working on, Project KickStart shows you the tasks used in those projects and lets you copy them into the new project by dragging and dropping. We could see how that feature, over time, would help to build a good precedents library.

People is the tab area where you identify the people [ahem!] and resources that will be part of the project. Again, Project KickStart's library has them readily available from other projects to drag and drop, and keeps track of new ones that you add. Not really novel as such, but convenient and easy to use.

On to Project KickStart's Obstacles tab. Like Goals, this is a really handy area in which to focus on each obstacle that might disrupt the project, and to add any NEW tasks that would be needed to overcome the obstacle. Focusing on Obstacles, like focusing on Goals, is not precluded in any other package - but it is really handy to have an area that keeps track of that focusing.

Assign is the next tab in Project KickStart, and is the area where you assign people and resources to tasks, just as you do in MSP and virtually any other software package.

The last tab in Project KickStart is Tasks, but it is really the scheduling section. You create the Gantt Chart by assigning each task a start and end date, a start date and a duration or by clicking on start and dragging to end date. Very simple and flexible and much faster than in more complicated systems like MSP.

In total, Project KickStart has eight tabs or areas for building your project plan.

Project KickStart lets you work on them in any order, jump back and forth amongst them, amend them as much as needed. Change groupings of tasks; add or delete; promote or demote items...just like in MSP and other major packages. Shift groups of tasks back and forward in time. Change the time scale.

Project KickStart Version 3 has been out for some time now, and lets you keep track of around 100 projects with 1,000 tasks each - more than enough for most projects! [Ours typically ran to around 500-800 line items, which was about 400-700 tasks.]

But for all this flexibility, there are things that Project KickStart does not do.

Tasks cannot be split, such as you would want to do when something is interrupted. The Gantt Chart doesn't let you factor in weekends or statutory holidays. Completion is simply "done", so Project KickStart supports only minimal tracking, not detailed tracking.

Project KickStart does not support cost and budget entry or tracking.


***News Flash!!***

Project KickStart has now released Version 5!

Click here to read all about the current benefits and features.

Click here to see the differences between the PRO and Standard versions so that you can select the configuration that is exactly right for you.

Plus, it includes some great Getting Started Tutorials.

A great product just got even better.

- Web Master


At this point in our "find", we were of a mixed opinion.

We thought that for smaller projects Project KickStart had definite advantages - it was generally easier to use for the functions we really did need, and it had the additional features of keeping a library from previous projects. And the fact that it did not support detailed tracking was not a problem for us, since our own organization was still not able to integrate data enough for detailed tracking to be practical in MSP.

On the other hand, the corporate policy did require MSP, so we couldn't just abandon it even if Project KickStart had been a clear-cut winner.

Also, many segments of our projects were technically complex and really did need the full power strength of MSP to enable splitting and to record dependencies.

We were at that point of thinking, "This has some really great uses...what we really need is a combination of Project KickStart and MSP."

And, just about then, like a bolt of lightning, we found what is probably the greatest feature of Project KickStart...

...it said you can export your project plan from Project KickStart into MSP! [Said it would also export to others like Primavera P3, Sure Trak, FastTrack Schedule and Milestones, but we couldn't test that.]

[Being project managers who rarely saw a week go by where technical things like exporting data just did not work the way someone said it would, we were skeptical. So we decided to try it...

...click one button in Project KickStart, open up the MSP file, and...

there was our Project KickStart project plan, fully functional in MSP. Just like they said it would be. Really.


Recommendation

We started to use Project KickStart, sometimes on its own and sometimes with MSP. In the early stages of setting up your project plan, it is generally much easier to get things loaded and sorted with Project KickStart. Then switch to something like MSP for full power tracking. A powerful combination!

These days, with two Family Business Experts web sites to plan, expand and promote [plus several others that I work on and consult with], I have relied heavily on Project KickStart, starting with version 3 and right up to PRO 5. True, I don't always need the power of PRO because my simpler projects could be done with Standard. But, I need it for the more complicated jobs, and it's a snap to use for even simple jobs.



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Not necessarily a choice at all...

Project KickStart and Microsoft Project - we use them both. Let us help you!





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