Tools used by the Project Manager for Project Planning

Project Manager’s Toolbox: Must-have Project Planning Tools


Last updated June 6, 2018


Project management involves understanding a wide variety of topics—from people management to strategy, number crunching to IT to communications. All these disparate aspects of a business come with their own tools. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most important items in a project manager’s planning toolkit to help plan, monitor progress, identifying critical paths, and other tasks required for a project to run smoothly.

Network Diagrams

Network diagrams are one of the project management tools a project manager uses for project planning. It is also sometimes referred to as an “Arrow” diagram because it uses arrows to connect activities and represent precedence and interdependencies between activities of a project.

There are some assumptions that need to be made while forming the Network Diagram. The first assumption is that before a new activity begins, all pending activities should have been completed. The second assumption is that all arrows indicate logical precedence. This means that the direction of the arrow represents the sequence that activities need to follow. The last assumption is that a network diagram must start from a single event and end with a single event. There cannot be multiple start and end points to the network diagram.

In order for the network diagram to calculate the total duration of the project, the project manager needs to define four dates for each task. The first two dates relate to the date by when the task can be started. The first date is Early Start—this the earliest date task can be started. The second date is Late Start—this is the last date the task should start.

The second two dates relate to the dates when the task is complete. Early Finish is the earliest date by when the task can be completed, while Late Finish is the last date by when the task should be completed. The Duration of the task is calculated as the difference between the Early Start and Early Finish of the task. The difference between the Early Start and Late Start of the task is called the Slack time available for the task. Slack can also be calculated as the difference between the Early Finish and Late Finish dates of the task. Slack time for a task is the amount of time the task can be delayed before it causes a delay in the overall project timeline.

Critical Path Method

Critical Path method, or CPM, is an important project planning tool used by project managers to monitor the progress of the project to ensure that the project is on schedule. The Critical Path for a project is the longest sequence of activities on the network diagram and is characterized by zero Slack for all activities on the sequence. This means that a smallest delay in any of the activities on the critical path will cause a delay in the overall timeline of the project. 

This makes it very important for the project manager to closely monitor the activities on the critical path and ensure that the activities go smoothly. If needed, the project manager can divert resources from other activities that are not on the critical path to activities on the critical path to ensure that the project is not delayed. When a project manager removes resources from such activities, he needs to ensure that the activity does not become a critical path activity because of the reduced number of resources.

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During the execution of the project the critical path can easily shift as a result of multiple factors and the project manager should constantly monitor it. A complex project can also have multiple critical paths at the same.

Program (or Project) Evaluation and Review Technique

The Program (or Project) Evaluation and Review Technique, commonly abbreviated as PERT, is a form of the Network Diagram project management tools we just discussed. PERT is also used for identifying the critical path for the project. This technique was developed to simplify planning and scheduling large and complex projects and creating more realistic estimates towards the duration of each activity. While the standard Network Diagram uses one estimate for duration of each activity, PERT involves three kinds of estimates for each activity.

The first estimate is an optimistic estimate represented as to (pronounced T-O). The optimistic estimate considers all factors that affect the activity to go in favor of the activity. For example, optimistic estimates will assume that no issues are encountered during the activity and all resources perform at their highest efficiency levels. Optimistic estimates are therefore slightly less than other estimates. 

The second estimate is called the “most likely” estimate and is represented as tm (pronounced as T-M). This estimate assumes that the activity will encounter some issues during execution and provides for some contingency buffers in the estimate. The third estimate is the “pessimistic” estimate and is represented as tp (pronounced as T-P). This estimate assumes that whatever that can go wrong will go wrong during the execution of the activity. This estimate therefore includes large contingency buffers and is the highest amongst all the three estimates.

The realistic estimate for the activity is represented as te (pronounced as T-E) and is calculated by taking an average of all the three estimates. While calculating the average the “most likely” estimate is assigned a weight of 4 whereas the other two estimates are treated as is.

The final realistic estimate calculated using PERT takes much more time to calculate but is much more realistic than estimates calculated without PERT.

Gantt Chart


Developed by Henry Laurence Gantt in 1910, the Gantt Chart provides a graphic schedule for planning and controlling the project and recording progress towards completion of various activities in the project. It’s a great project planning tool since it represents the project schedule as bar charts spread out over a timeline. The progress of each activity is indicated in a separate color from the planned duration of the activity. The difference in colors and the length of the bar chart helps project managers identify delays, or schedule overruns in the project. 

Gantt charts help in representing large amount of information in a compact graphical form.

Work Breakdown Structure

A Work breakdown structure, also called WBS, is a delivery oriented hierarchical decomposition of work. IIt is often used as a project planning tool to define the total scope for the project and to identify required deliverables for the project. Having detailed project deliverables enables all stakeholders to get a common understanding on the project scope—each team knows exactly what needs to be developed.

WBS divides each project deliverables and project work into smaller more manageable components. Items at the lowest level of the WBS are called Work Packages. A work package can be scheduled, cost estimated, monitored and controlled individually. Breaking up a large project into smaller work packages enables the project to be better planned, tracked and managed.

Project Documentation

Project Documentation refers to creating documents that provide details about the project. Such documents are used to gain better understanding of the project, preventing and resolving conflict between stakeholders, and sharing plans and status for the project. Documenting a project is critical throughout all the phases of the project. Documentation serves as a written proof for execution of the project, helping project teams achieve a common understanding of the requirements of the project and the status of the project.

Depending on the nature of the project, each project produces a number of different documents. Some of these documents include the Project Charter and Project Plan (and its subsidiary plans). Other examples of project documentation include Project Status reports including Key Milestones Report, Risks items and pending action items. The frequency of these reports is determined by the need and complexity of the project; these reports are sent to all stakeholders to keep them abreast of the status of the project.


If you’re working toward your PMP® certification, you know there’s a lot to learn. Understanding which tools to use along with when and how to use them is helpful not only for passing your exam but also for becoming a successful project manager in the future. 

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About the Author

Chandana is working as a Senior Content Writer in and handles variety of creative writing jobs. She has done M.A. in English Literature from Gauhati University. A PRINCE2 Foundation certified, she has a unique and refreshing style of writing which can engross the readers to devour each sentence of her write-ups.


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