Product Based Planning

In another article we've discussed that there are many different ways of creating a plan, with one of them being the product-based planning technique. With Product Based Planning, your focus is first and foremost on the products that need to be delivered as opposed to the activities the project needs to undertake. It means that you plan the project from the client's and user's perspective, because you put the focus on tangible deliverables and outcomes.

Product Based Planning is described as a technique in the PRINCE2™ Project Management Process. The description of the technique is excellent.

The Project Management Institute has many of the same concepts in their Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK). The PMBoK describes the use of a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) to identify the scope of the project.

While the description of the Product Based Planning technique in the PRINCE2™ is excellent, how can you put it into practice? Are there any tools that can help?

Well there are several available but they all cost money; does the project manager already have something in their toolkit that may help?

Most project managers should already have Microsoft Office, including Excel, and Microsoft Project; it's also a good idea to have a tool like Microsoft Visio to draw those org charts that we are so keen on.

Many PRINCE2 based projects – which start with good intentions of delivering through product-based planning but end up chasing their own Gantt chart while the product breakdown lies gathering dust on a shelf. The technique described here will help you tackle this product-based planning technique using Microsoft Project with some assistance from Microsoft's Excel and Visio.

We won't explain product-based planning here – that's done in another article on this knowledge base. What we will do is show how you can make the product-based planning process data-driven using Microsoft Project.

Why use Microsoft Project?

You may have limited project management technology available to you, but you're determined to make every aspect of your project as data-driven as possible. You can use Microsoft Project as the primary database for your project and you can now do the same for your project's product-based planning data. There are many advantages to this approach, including:

  • Firmly embedding product-based planning in your overall project planning and control process. (All too often a project sets out with good intentions and devises a product-based plan only to find that, once in place, the project schedule takes over and the benefits of product-based planning become diluted).

  • Offering a basis for data-driven production of key PRINCE2 project documents: the Product Breakdown Structure and the Product Flow Diagram, enabling these to be easily updated and reviewed as a key part of the planning and control process.

Developing the Product Breakdown Structure

We won't go into this in detail here, but in summary, this is the process followed to gather the raw data to develop your product breakdown structure:

Whatever document serves as your “Project Initiation Document”, it may contained a first cut product breakdown structure and this will be the basis for this exercise. Alongside this you can use the latest list of products identified by the project team. This information is fed into a workshop attended by the project manager and workstream leads to whiteboard the revised structure in light of their experience of the programme to date. The single question asked of the group is this: 'Does this product breakdown structure represent the totality of the products required to deliver these outcomes and objectives?'

As a result of this workshop you have a draft, whiteboarded product breakdown structure which provides the raw data you need to build your single, consistent and manageable database of product information.

A note on product 'levels': Because you're developing the project plan here, you're only interested in the deliverables that affect your ability to plan, monitor and control the project. If individual teams wish to decompose these products down to a lower level then that's fine, but that's something for them to manage in the detail of their individual work plans.

Recording Products in Microsoft Project

It is relatively easy to customize Microsoft Project to store the basic information needed to develop both your Product Breakdown Structure and the Product Flow Diagram.

The logic to using Task data is this: Think about a milestone in Microsoft Project – it's an item that appears on your plan to show key points or achievements, right? Isn't that just what a product is – the culmination of one or more activities? OK, so you'll customize milestones and call them 'products'. And what's a milestone in Microsoft Project? It's a zero-duration task with some special flags set – so you'll use exactly the same principle to store your product data.

Let's start with the default Task Sheet view:

Task Sheet

The only fields of interest to us are the Task Name, which will contain the product's name and the Duration, which you'll set to zero, so we select the other columns and hide them.

In addition to its name, the basic information we need to record a product is:

  • A flag to show it's a product (to differentiate it from all the task data that will live alongside the product data in your plan).
  • Is it a specialist product or a management product?
  • Is it a simple product, an intermediate product (an integration product or a collective grouping), or an external product?
  • What's the product's parent product? (Remember that a product breakdown structure is a simple hierarchy, so each product has one and only one parent product apart from the 'final product' which has no parent).

A note on intermediate products: Although the PRINCE2 manual allows for 'collective grouping' products to allow lightly related products to be grouped (e.g. 'quality inspection products'), we tend to avoid these wherever possible as they have a tendency to confuse the product breakdown structure. Most collective grouping products can be hanged into intermediate products with a little thought – in the example above, for instance, we would change the 'quality inspection products' group into an intermediate product called 'quality inspection checklist'.

For the 'product' flag, we'll customize the Task record's Flag1 field (each task record has twenty Yes/No Flag fields named from Flag1 to Flag20):

  • Show Flag1 and customize (using 'Custom Fields'):

    • Rename Flag1 'Product', like so:

      Custom Fields

    • Note: the default value for a Flag field is 'No', which means you'll need to set this to 'Yes' for each of your products (of which there will hopefully be far fewer than Tasks that aren't products…).

For the remaining information we're going to customize the Task data's Text fields (each Task record has thirty customizable Text fields named from Text1 to Text30 that you can use) as follows:

  • Show Text1 and customize (using 'Custom Fields'):

    • Rename Text1 'Specialist/Management' (or 'Product Type' if you're sure that's clear enough):

      Custom Fields

    • Set up a drop-down list for the field using the 'Lookup' button in the Custom attributes area of the dialog. Add the values 'Specialist' and 'Management'. To default the value to 'Specialist' (assuming the majority of products will be of this type) select 'Specialist in the list, check 'Use a value from the table as the default entry for the field' and click the 'Default' button.

      Edit Lookup Table

  • Show Text2 and customize as follows:

    • Rename Text2 'Product Level'.

    • Set up a drop-down list for the field using the 'Lookup' button in the Custom attributes area of the dialog. Add the values 'Simple', 'External', 'Integration' and 'Collective. Set the default value to 'Simple'.

  • Show Text3 and customize as follows:

    • Rename Text3 'Parent Product'.

    • Note: as this field will take its value from the Name field of other rows in this view, it would be great to have a drop-down list of those names. As far as I'm aware, however, there isn't a simple way of achieving this so you'll have to rely on copy/paste to complete this field for each product.

That's all you really need to generate a Product Breakdown Structure. But to perform a more detail product description you may also want to:

  • Rename Text4 as 'Description'.

  • Rename Text5 as 'Acceptance Criteria'.

Together with the existing Resource Names, Predecessors and Finish (date) fields, you can create a custom product view. You can even change the title of Resource Names to 'Responsibility' and Finish to 'Completed By'.

You can now record that each product is indeed a product (to differentiate it from a normal task), show if it's a specialist product or a management product, whether it's a simple product or an intermediate product and what its parent product is.

Here's a completed example:

Products Sample

Where does that leave us?

Now that the basic data structures are in place there are a number of things you can do:

  1. Produce the Product Flow Diagram by adding dependencies between the products and viewing in Microsoft Project's Network Diagram view (which can easily be customized to use the same shapes and notation as recommended by the PRINCE2 manual).
  2. Begin to plan around the Product Flow Diagram by adding tasks that contribute to the delivery of your products.
  3. Develop custom Tables and Views (filtered on 'Product='Yes'') in Microsoft Project to simplify the maintenance of your product database.
  4. Use the techniques described below to generate your Product Breakdown Structure diagram in Microsoft Visio (and re-generate on-demand after any changes with virtually no effort):

    Product Chart

In conclusion

Although extending Microsoft Project beyond standard task/resource data may be quite a paradigm shift for some, it is – as we hope we've shown above – relatively straightforward and in no way compromises either the tool or your data. Quite the opposite, in fact, you're now on your way towards a consistent and coherent single source of key data for your project.

Next Steps:

  • Developing full Product Descriptions.
  • Producing product status reports and product-based programme roadmaps.

Producing a Product Breakdown Structure diagram in Microsoft Visio

Export the data to an intermediate Excel file

Unfortunately, the Visio wizard can't access the data directly from Project, so an intermediate step is required to export the Project data to Excel, which Visio can access. To do this, you save the Project file as an Excel File with File/Save As and change the 'Save as type:' field to 'Excel Workbook'. This launches the Project Export Wizard. Follow these steps to complete the wizard:

  1. On the 'Data' Dialog, choose 'Selected Data' as the format of data you want to export. This allows us to choose the specific fields required by Visio.

    Export Wizard - Data

  2. On the 'Map' dialog, select 'New map'. This allows us to create a new data map that you can save and use whenever you need to update the chart.

    Export Wizard - Map

  3. On the 'Map Options' dialog, select 'Tasks' as the type of data and ensure 'Export includes headers' is checked:

    Export Wizard - Map Options

  4. Now it's time to choose which of the Task fields from Project to export to Excel. Click on “(Click here to map a field)”, scroll down the list of available fields and select Name. This creates a default Excel column name and data type for the exported field.

    Export Wizard - Resource Map

  5. Do the same on the following rows for the Parent Product field. The completed dialog should look like this:

    Export Wizard - Resource Map

  6. Click 'Next' . Save the export map on the next dialog – I called mine 'Product Export' – which will allow you to run the export more quickly in future.

  7. Click 'Finish' and Project will create a new Excel workbook containing the Name and Parent Product fields.

Import the data to Visio

  1. Open Visio and create a new diagram using the Organization Chart template. This creates a blank diagram with the organization shape template but, more importantly, makes the Import Organization Data wizard available. In Visio 2010 this can be found in the Org Chart tab of the ribbon. In earlier versions there it can be found under the Org Chart menu item.

  2. The defaults are fine for the first stages of the wizard – the following options should be selected:
    1. 'I want to create my organization chart from: Information that's already stored in a file or database'
    2. 'A text, Org Plus (*.txt), or Excel file'

  3. The next step allows you to locate the Excel file created in step 7 above and specify the language used.

  4. The next screen identifies the Name/Reports To fields that make our data structure work. If you've followed the steps so far, this should automatically populate the correct fields as follows; if not, add the Parent Product field to the Reports To box:

    Org. Chart Wizard

    Leave the 'First name' field blank, as the data exported from Project has both first and last names combined in the same field.

  5. The next step allows you to choose any other information to display in the diagram. As there are no other fields, leave as it is.

    Org. Chart Wizard

  6. The next step of the wizard allows any of the data fields to be stored as shape data in Visio. As you're simply using Visio as a drawing tool, not a database, you can skip this step.

  7. Visio now offers to arrange the organization chart automatically across multiple pages. My advice is not to use this, but manually configure how you want the pages split in the next step of the wizard, so select 'I want to specify how much of my organization to display on each page'.

  8. The next stage allows me to do just that. The wizard analyses the data and shows me whose top of the tree:

    Org. Chart Wizard

    This is fine for what you need just now, so press 'Finish'. Visio now imports the data, draws a box for each person and links them based on the hierarchy data. This is the stage at which any data errors will show up – usually because names have been mis-typed or someone has been given a manager who can't possibly be their manager. If this happens, find out where the problem is in the source data – in Project, not the intermediary Excel file, re-run the Project export and re-run the Visio import. It's worth doing this properly, and not just fudging the Excel file, as it will both confirm the priority of Project as the prime data source and will save time whenever the chart needs to be updated.

    If you're using Vision 2013 you may want to hide the picture from all boxes.

  9. So, assuming your data is correct, Visio should have drawn your organization chart, something like this:

    Org. Chart


This may look like an onerous process but, believe me, if you spend a couple of hours getting this right the first time, it will save a whole lot of time across the duration of your programme. The export/input steps are stored in the Project and Visio files so next time the process is run it's just a question of clicking through the two wizards so, no matter how large or complex your structure, the whole thing can be updated in just a couple of minutes.

Free Template

If you find the procedure above a little complicated, Castellan Systems has developed a template based on the steps above; it's not a comprehensive Product-Based Planning tool, but it accomplishes the tasks described above. We're also providing a Microsoft Project ribbon customization file that adds a new tab, "PB Planning", especially for this. It includes buttons for the Product Sheet view, a button to generate a PBS in Visio and a button to produce a draft Network Diagram within Project.

You can download the ZIP file from here.

Import a customized ribbon

You can import customization files to replace the current layout of the ribbon and Quick Access Toolbar. By being able to import the customization, you can keep Microsoft Office programs looking the same as your coworkers or from computer to computer.

Important: When you import a ribbon customization file, you lose all prior ribbon and Quick Access Toolbar customizations. If you think that you might want to revert to the customization you currently have, you should export them before importing any new customizations.

  1. Click the File tab.

  2. Under Help, click Options.

  3. Click Customize Ribbon.

  4. In the Customize the Ribbon window, click Import/Export.

  5. Click Import customization file.

This article is based on material originally published by Matt Hills on 'The PMO Programme' blog
Copyright 2011 © Matt Hills