What is a Gantt chart? Benefits, how to use them, and more
Project managers are constantly working with deadlines, milestones, resource allocation, and more — trying to keep projects on track with the knowledge that one delay can have consequences for the whole project. Complex projects have many moving parts and dependent relationships, so project managers need a scheduling tool that gives them a bird’s eye view of projects and their progress.
That’s why many project managers turn to Gantt charts. Gantt charts visualize projects to provide a detailed overview. They show tasks, the time needed to complete them, and how individual units of work connect to each other. Gantt charts display large projects broken into smaller pieces to give managers more insight into each task’s impact and solutions to possible problems.
Whether you’re just getting started or you’re ready to use these charts more effectively, this post will help you learn all about Gantt charts for project management.
What is a Gantt chart?
A Gantt chart is a project management tool that uses a horizontal bar chart to visualize a project plan. The left column lists tasks that need to be completed and the horizontal x-axis is a timeline showing the project schedule. Gantt charts have everything you need to get an overview of your project — start and end dates, milestones, dependencies with other tasks, task owners, and assigned team members.
Gantt charts include the key information for your project, including:
- Timeline. The x-axis is the project timeline and can be broken up into whatever size segments are most helpful for the project.
- Tasks. Tasks are listed on the y-axis and can include the progress status of each and the person responsible for it. Horizontal bars represent tasks on the timeline. Bars that overlap are tasks done concurrently.
- Dependencies. Lines or arrows connect tasks on the chart to show dependencies. For example, these could be tasks you can start only when the team has finished the previous task.
- Milestones. Diamonds or stars show milestones on a Gantt chart. These are important points or due dates along your timeline.
All of this information creates an overview of your project schedule so you know exactly what’s going on, when work is due, and who is doing which tasks.
Gantt charts first appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Polish engineer Karol Adamiecki made the first Gantt chart in 1896 to visualize production schedules, but he didn’t publish it until the 1930s. Around 1910 in the USA, Henry Gantt was working on his version of a project schedule chart. Gantt’s version included more visual elements and graphics to show manufacturing schedules and employee performance.
These early charts evolved into the Gantt charts many project managers use today. The invention of personal computers accelerated the adoption and popularity of Gantt charts — updating changes evolved from a painstaking process with pen and paper to a few simple clicks.
How Gantt charts are used
Gantt charts display a project overview, but they’re popular with project managers for more than their visual reporting. Gantt charts are also very useful tools for planning projects from the start. Gantt charts can be used to clarify and manage all or part of a project.
1. Managing milestones and deadlines
Gantt charts’ visual timelines help manage milestones and deadlines.
Milestones are important stages in the project's progress, like financial checks, external inspections, meetings, and more. Mark these on your Gantt chart timeline with a diamond to ensure they don’t get lost in the busyness of daily project work.
The Gantt chart helps manage those milestones by displaying how much work the team has done for each one and how much work is left. Review progress regularly in the days and weeks before a milestone to determine if the project is on track and manage the team as needed. For example, if tasks are behind schedule leading up to a milestone, a manager can step in with extra resources or adjust the project schedule.
Smaller deadlines are similarly easy to evaluate and manage when visually represented on a Gantt chart. For each task, start the horizontal bar at its earliest possible start date and end it at the latest time you can complete the task. This sets all the project’s deadlines on a clear timeline so you can determine if they are reasonable. If they’re not, make changes before the project starts.
2. Breaking projects into smaller tasks
Every good project manager breaks a big project into smaller tasks, but how you do that can be tricky. A Gantt chart can be used to strategically break down a big project.
Once you have marked milestones and other important deadlines on your Gantt chart, take the following steps to create meaningful tasks and subtasks.
- Identify the steps to each milestone. Work backwards from each milestone to determine what big-picture processes or sets of work need to be done to achieve them. Each step might require multiple tasks but start with the big picture.
- Break each step into tasks. As much as possible, break each of the big critical units of work into smaller, individual tasks and create rows and bars for them on the chart.
- Analyze your tasks. Figure out how each task should be completed, what resources it needs, and the time involved. If a task requires multiple people or a lot of resources compared to other tasks, it needs to be broken into smaller units of work.
- Break down big tasks again. Look for long bars in the Gantt chart. These complex tasks that require more time can often be chunked out into subtasks.
Continue reviewing tasks and breaking down the largest ones into smaller units of work while ensuring the smaller tasks and subtasks remain meaningful.
3. Visualizing task dependencies
Modern projects include lots of team members working on interlinking tasks, called dependencies . There are four types of project dependencies.
- Finish-to-start dependencies. You can only start task B when task A has finished. This is the most common and recommended type of dependency.
- Start-to-start dependencies. You can only start task B when task A has started.
- Finish-to-finish dependencies. You can only finish task B when task A has finished.
- Start-to-finish dependencies. You can only finish task B after task A has started. This kind of dependency is rarely used and should be avoided as much as possible.
Use arrows on the Gantt chart to represent the order in which tasks need to be done and to visually connect dependent tasks. For example, let’s look at how to visualize a finish-to-start dependency on your chart.
Task B’s bar starts after Task A’s bar has ended, and there is an arrow leading from Task A to Task B. Using a Gantt chart to visualize your workflow is an effective way to figure out dependencies and make sure your project plan makes sense.
4. Monitoring project progress
When the planning is done and work is on its way, use the Gantt chart to manage progress and get in front of delays.
- Track each task. Use the bars on your Gantt chart to show which tasks are complete and which are delayed. To visualize task completion, show what percentage of the task is done by gradually filling in the task’s bar as the project progresses.
- Monitor milestones. Watch the progress of tasks to see which milestones have been met and which look unlikely so you can adjust, as necessary.
Use the Gantt chart to check on progress as often as needed. Be mindful of delayed work and slow progress so you can react to problems quickly.
The benefits of Gantt charts
Not only do Gantt charts have a range of uses, but they also increase your team’s productivity and efficiency. Here are some benefits of Gantt charts for project management.
Easier time management at every level
A single view of the whole project allows all members of the team to be a part of the scheduling process.
- Project managers schedule tasks and subtasks and define the dependencies.
- Individual members use them to communicate their progress and share difficulties.
At the project level, getting every team member on the same page, with a deep understanding of task relationships, leads to a project’s timely success.
Strategic view of dependencies
All large projects include overlapping tasks and dependencies. A Gantt chart helps you avoid delays and bottlenecks because those dependencies are displayed. This means you can react to delays and reassign resources as needed to make sure dependencies don’t become bottlenecks.
For example, a construction crew’s Task A might be to finish the building’s structure. Task B is to install doors and windows. They have a finish-to-start dependency, meaning Task B can’t start until Task A has finished. If there are delays finishing the building structure, the manager would lengthen the Task A bar on the Gantt chart. When it starts to overlap the Task B bar, the project manager immediately realizes they need to reschedule the door and window fitting, be aware of overtime requests, and get ready for project delays.
Simpler project planning
A Gantt chart’s detailed overview of your project makes planning the work much simpler. Gantt charts allow you to identify the critical path through your project. The critical path includes the longest tasks — or horizontal bars — on your chart. These are critical because any delay completing them will have the biggest repercussions for the rest of your project. Gantt charts clearly show you which tasks are the longest and should be prioritized in your planning.
Setting up a Gantt chart can even be a helpful prerequisite to drafting a complete project management plan. The visual layout and the flexible format offered by modern software makes it easy to see the entire project, break it up into workable tasks, schedule those tasks, and fine tune the whole plan to fit together. Once all the dates and dependencies are worked out on the Gantt chart, you can translate that data into whatever format your stakeholders need.
Because a Gantt chart is accessible to everyone on your team — and it’s clear who’s responsible for what — you can boost teamwork and accountability. Visualizing the project in one place creates greater transparency and trust between team members.
For example, Gantt charts clearly show who is responsible for a task so everyone can see if someone is at risk of missing a deadline. This encourages team members to reach out early and offer help if they can. Teams who have already met their milestones can share resources with struggling coworkers to keep the project on track.
Gantt charts also increase accountability. The team knows when a particular task is holding the project up, so individuals naturally try to avoid being the one responsible for any delay. And team members who achieve milestones ahead of schedule get the recognition they deserve for their hard work.
Better resource allocation
In complex projects with a large number of tasks, team members may be working on several tasks at once but giving too much work to one employee is a risk. Gantt charts help you avoid this because it's easy to spot when someone is responsible for too much of a project or is working on too many concurrent tasks. You can react to these issues, delegate, and reassign resources to keep the project on schedule and your team members healthy and happy.
Managing projects requires flexibility. A task will inevitably fall behind schedule, the client will introduce a change of scope, resources will dry up — any number of unforeseen circumstances may make it necessary for you to alter your strategy, resources, or tasks in the middle of a project.
Gantt charts make this easy. You can see where changes can be made and what effect they will have on the team and the project as a whole. And Gantt chart software lets you reschedule resources, reassign tasks, and change dependencies with just a few clicks.
More productive remote teams
Gantt charts are an excellent tool for remote team management. One unified project timeline that is accessible from anywhere means teams are moving in the same direction, even when they are in various locations.
Team members can see they’re part of a team and that they’re achieving milestones with coworkers, despite being physically removed from each other. This makes Gantt charts a great remote management tool and a terrific motivator for the team.
Getting started with Gantt charts
There’s a reason Gantt charts are a popular tool in project management. They create a clear overview of your team’s work, how it all works together, and your available resources. Complex project schedules become easy to understand in a shared chart your whole team can use.
When you’re ready to get started with Gantt charts, get together with your team to first plot project milestones on a timeline. Then, outline the tasks necessary to get there.
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Take a product tour to learn how Adobe Workfront can help you manage your projects.