5 easy steps to create a Gantt chart

How do you show how your project is progressing? Gantt charts are the way to go. This tutorial will show you how to create a Gantt chart in 5 easy steps.

What is a Gantt chart?

A Gantt chart is primarily a tool for project planning. It is used to visualize a project on the timeline.

  • It contains a list of tasks on the vertical axis.
  • The timeline is plotted on the horizontal axis.

The key part are the horizontal bars that are drawn in each line. They are giving us a visual cue of when a task is scheduled.

By task I mean anything that needs to be done, checked or organized. An engineering project might include tasks such as prototype design, testing or manufacturing. In an IT project you often find tasks like requirements analysis, software development or documentation.

The left edge of a bar represents the start date of a task. The right edge represents its end date. The wider the bar the longer the duration of a task.

What makes Gantt charts so useful

In project management, Gantt charts allow us to see at one glance when an activity is scheduled: “The first prototype test is scheduled for the 1st and 2nd week of July.” With its colored bars, the bar-style charts make it easy to see what’s up next. Why does that matter? It allows you to schedule work and to plan ahead.

Getting you started: What kind of chart do you need?

Before we start creating the Gantt chart, you should decide on a few points.

  • Timescale: daily, weekly or monthly? Weekly scheduling has less detail but is easier to maintain. The more granular you go the more often you’ll have to tweak the chart, because tasks frequently have to be rescheduled.
  • Additional info: This concerns the additional info you want to assign to each task. This could be the responsible, the department the responsible is part of and other data. Start with at least the responsible. You can always add fields later.

5 Steps to create a Gantt chart in Excel

Step 1: Create a blank Excel sheet

Blank Excel spreadsheet

Step 2: Enter the tasks

List each project related task, one after the other. Ideally in column A or B. I leave rows 1-6 empty, as I want to add further information at the top. For reasons of readability it makes sense to roll up single tasks into summary elements. This is how your task list should look like:

Excel template with tasks listed

Step 3: Draw the timeline

Use one of the top rows to create the timeline. I like to plot my projects on a per-week level. One column represents one week. An activity starts in one week and carries over to another week. Very simple.

Image of a timeline in Excel

The merge cell button is useful for combining several cells into one. I’m using it to create the centered month headers. Just select the cells you want to merge and press the Merge & Center button.

merce cell button

Note: Of course I plan work on a daily level, but for my Gantt charts I like to keep things simple and use weekly instead.

You can also implement a daily or monthly view. It all depends on what you want to report.

Step 4: Draw the bars

Now you plot the horizontal bars for each activity. You start with the first activity on your list, the one which comes first on the timeline. Then you go down til the last one. Check when on the timeline the task starts and change the color of the cell. Drag your mouse along the cells of an activity and change their color.

bar chart

Step 5: Give it a beautiful touch

So far our Gantt looks very basic. To make it more appealing, use different colors to visually separate the different elements in the chart: the task list, the timeline, the task bars etc.

I also recommend using different border styles. This makes it easy to see where an area ends and where another begins. Be careful: Working with borders in Excel is a bit tricky.

Here’s the final chart

Download it right away. You won’t find a better one on the internet.

An example of a Gantt chart to be used in project management
An example of a Gantt with project phases and tasks

DOWNLOAD GANTT CHART TEMPLATE

Customize the Gantt chart for your needs

Each project is different. And so are the requirements for your chart. I’ve added some examples of how you could customize the chart.

CUSTOMIZE THE TIMELINE: If you want to use a daily level, use abbreviations for the weekdays. Monday would become M or Mon, Tuesday would become T or Tue and so on.

M T W T F S S
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

In any case, including weekdays makes the communication easier. If I tell you that some task will be ready by Wednesday next week, it’s much easier to understand than if I tell you it will be ready by 14 July.

DISPLAYING LEVEL OF COMPLETION: Picture yourself sitting in the next project update meeting. You don’t just want to give a vague answer like, ‘yeah, we are making progress’. Your update will be much more convincing if you are able to give specific values: ‘We are 80% through with prototype development. Once X and Y are done the prototype will be ready.’

How can you include the level of completion in your Gantt chart? Simply add a new column next to each task. Change the cell format to show percentages. A more sophisticated solution would be to store the percentages in a value list. This way you can simply select the percentages from the drop-down menu.

Reporting % complete:

completion level in a Gantt chart

ADD MILESTONES: A milestone in project management is an intern checkpoint. It represents a status which has to be reached or an activity to be completed. In our diagram, a milestone is just a task of length zero. A milestone can be highlighted in red color:

milestone

Tools for creating project Gantt charts

Excel is great for creating simple Gantt charts. You limit the amount of detail and you won’t need any other tool. It gets problematic only when you have too many tasks to manage. Moving around start or finish dates in Excel and manually changing the cell styles every time will will be time consuming.

For larger projects you might want to get a professional project management software.

Here are some of the popular ones:

  • MS Project: Easy to use with a lot of good features. Helpful to map dependencies between deliverables and tasks. Read my article on how to create a project plan in MS Project to see the tool in action.
  • Smartsheet: A popular cloud-based project management software. Used by many Fortune 500 companies. Smartsheet comes with reports, calendar view and a way to create Gantt charts for large and complex projects. Integrates with other platforms like Dropbox or Office 365. I haven’t used Smartsheet personally.
  • Wrike: Wrike calls itself a work management software, but it provides similar functionality as MS Project or Smartsheet. According to its website, Wrike is used by major organizations like Google and L’Oréal.
  • ProjectLibre: A free MS Project clone with decent functionality. Download for MS Windows, Mac and Unix/Linux. Paid hosted solution available.
  • OpenProject: An open source project management software. OpenProject be used also for Agile and Scrum projects. It’s free if you install it on your own server. There are also hosted solutions available starting at $5 / month.

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