In companies and organizations all over the world, people use Excel in diverse ways – from repurposing it as a makeshift calculator to tracking massive projects. Given the software's omnipresence, it’s no wonder so many people try to use it for tasks that Excel was never meant to do.
For example, you can even use Excel to cobble together a Gantt chart, as detailed in this step-by-step tutorial. For comparison, we’ll also show you how a pre-built, online Gantt chart template in Smartsheet makes creating a Gantt chart far easier. Then we’ll describe the background on Gantt charts - how they originated, their benefits, and common challenges.
How would you like to create your Gantt chart?
What Is a Gantt Chart?
The Gantt chart is one of the most popular scheduling tools in project management. It’s a horizontal bar chart that shows progress on a project schedule.
Tasks are arrayed on the vertical axis while the horizontal axis represents time. Tasks may be rolled up into summary elements, which constitutes a number of subtasks and represents a phase of project work.
How to Create a Gantt Chart in Excel (30 minutes)
1. Create a Task Table
List each task in your project in start date order from beginning to end. Include the task name, start date, duration, and end date.
Make your list as complete as possible. Because of Excel's limitations, adding steps or extending out may force you to reformat your entire chart.
2. Build a Bar Chart
On the top menu, select Insert, and then click on the Bar chart icon. When the drop-down menu appears, choose the flat Stacked Bar Chart, highlighted in green below. This will insert a blank chart onto your spreadsheet.
Add Start Date data.
- Position your mouse over the empty Excel chart and right click. Then, left click on Select Data. The Select Data Source window will appear.
- Under Legend Entries (Series), click Add. This will take you to the Edit Series window.
- Click in the empty Series name: form field first, then click on the table cell that reads Start Date.
- Click on the icon at the end of the Series values field. The icon is a small spreadsheet with a red arrow (the lower icon). This will open the Edit Series window.
- Click on the first Start Date, 3/2 in my example, and drag your mouse down to the last Start Date. After the right dates are highlighted, click on the icon at the end of the Edit Series form. The window will close and the previous window will reopen. Select OK. Your start dates are now in the Gantt chart.
Next, add the Durations column using the same procedure you used to add the start dates.
- Under Legend Entries (Series), click on Add.
- Click in the empty Series name: form field first, then click on the table cell that reads Duration.
- Click on the icon at the end of the Series values field. The icon is a small spreadsheet with a red arrow (the lower icon). This will open the Edit Series window. Click on the first Duration, it is 5 in my example, and drag your mouse down to the last Duration. After the durations are highlighted, click on the icon at the end of the Edit Series form. The window will close and the previous window will reopen. Select OK. Your durations are now in your Gantt chart.
Change the dates on the left side of the chart into a list of tasks.
- Click on any bar in the chart, then right click, then open Select Data.
- Under Horizontal (Category) Axis Labels, click on edit
- Using your mouse, highlight the names of your tasks. Be careful not to include the name of the column itself, Task.
- Click on OK.
- Click OK again.
Your Gantt chart ought to look like this:
3. Format Your Gantt Chart
What you have is a stacked bar chart. The starting dates are blue and the durations are orange.
Notice your tasks are in reverse order. To fix this, click on the list of tasks to select them, then right click over the list and choose Format Axis.
Select the checkbox Categories in reverse order and Close.
To give your Gantt chart more space delete the Start Date, Duration legend on the right. Select it with your mouse, then hit delete.
Hide the blue portions of each bar. Clicking on the blue part of any bar will select all of them. Then, right click and choose Format Data Series.
- Click on Fill then select No fill.
- Click on Border Color then select No line.
You're almost finished. You just need to remove the empty white space at the start of your Gantt chart:
- Click on the first Start Date in your data table. Right click over it, select Format Cells, then General. Write down the number you see. In my case it is 42064. Hit Cancel because you do not want to actually make any changes here.
- In the Gantt chart, select the dates above the bars, right click and choose Format Axis.
- Change the Minimum bound to the number you recorded.
- Change the Major unit to 2, for every other day. You can play with this to see what works best for you.
- Select Close.
If you want to make your Gantt chart look a little nicer, remove most of the white space between the bars.
- Click on the top orange bar.
- Right click and select Format Data Series.
- Set Separated to 100% and Gap Width to 10%.
You are finished. Your Gantt chart should look like this:
Want an Easier Way to Create a Gantt Chart?
That is a lot to remember. While your Excel Gantt chart may look clean, it’s not exactly serviceable.
- The chart does not resize when you add new tasks.
- It’s hard to read. There is no grid or daily labeling.
- The values don’t automatically adjust when changes are made.
- Version control is an issue. It’s hard to know whether you’re working off the most up-to-date version.
- Collaboration is difficult without real-time access for internal and external team members.
And although it’s possible to create a more detailed Gantt chart in Excel, they are more complicated to setup and maintain. The factors that make Gantt charts useful, shareable, and collaborative cannot be accomplished with Excel.
How to Create a Real-Time Gantt Chart in Smartsheet (3 minutes)
Smartsheet is an easy-to-use, real-time work management tool with a familiar spreadsheet-like interface. Using a pre-built Gantt chart template in Smartsheet, you can create real-time timelines, that automatically update as changes are made, with much less effort than Excel.
Create your Gantt chart in Smartsheet in a couple steps:
- Click the '+' tab, then click Create.
- Click the Project tile.
Smartsheet will prompt you to name your new sheet with pre-built Gantt chart functionality. From there, you're good to go. You can start entering your task list.
Add task names for each task and two of either the start date, duration, or end date. When you enter two of these, the third will automatically populate. Going forward, when you change any of the three variables, the other two will automatically update.
As you add tasks, Smartsheet creates your horizontal Gantt bars. Unlike in Excel, there is no need to format anything — Smartsheet does it for you.
Additionally, when you use your mouse to click and drag either end of any Gantt bar, the corresponding dates and durations in the task table will update. From here you can add additional Gantt data such as predecessors and task groups.
You can even switch between Gantt, Grid, Calendar, and Card views, or manage your Gantt chart on your mobile device. Already your simple Smartsheet Gantt chart is far more functional and responsive than one in Excel, and you're just getting started.
A Powerful Platform for the Way You Work Today
In addition to it’s simple, easy-to-use Gantt chart functionality, Smartsheet enables enterprises and teams to make better decisions and get more done. Over 74,000 brands rely on Smartsheet to help align the right people, resources, and schedules to deliver projects on time and on budget.
Use Smartsheet to create consistent project elements, increase speed, and improve collaboration with scalable options that fit individual work preferences. Hold yourself and your team accountable, improve visibility into team priorities, and ensure nothing slips through the cracks.
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All About Gantt Charts
A Gantt chart helps visualize how tasks are sequenced relative to one another as a project unfolds, and they offer a visual snapshot of work relative to time. This helps both during the project planning stage, so managers can see what should be accomplished by certain dates, and as work gets underway, to illustrate actual progress and keep the project on track.
Gantt charts indicate the relationship between project tasks by virtue of how the bars on the vertical axis line up. These charts are useful tools for tracking and comparing planned project progress with actual progress. And they can also show how many resources are assigned to each project task, which is important for a project manager who wants to accelerate a project timeline.
History of Gantt Charts
In evidence of its enduring usefulness, the Gantt chart is a staple of project management today despite being more than a century old. The first known precursor to the modern Gantt chart was called a harmonogram. Polish engineer and management researcher Karol Adamiecki developed it in 1896, but the harmonogram was not published for over 30 years. More than a decade after Adamiecki’s invention, Swiss civil engineer Hermann Schurch published a chart that more closely resembled the Gantt charts we use today. Interestingly, Schurch’s development was not a novel one, but just an example of a planning technique widely used in Germany at the time.
American engineer Henry Gantt, who gave his name to the chart we know today, designed his version of the tool between 1910 and 1915. In what was perhaps a sign of things to come, Gantt charts saw action during the First World War at the behest of a General William Crozier. Crozier, the U.S. Army’s Chief of Ordnance, hired Gantt to help speed up the industrial production of munitions.
Crozier was so impressed by the charts that he promoted them both inside and outside his Ordnance Department. If you’re interested, you’ll find the full story of Gantt charts in the First World War in a 1922 book by Wallace Clark titled “The Gantt Chart, a Working Tool of Management.”
Early Gantt charts, drawn entirely on paper, were time-consuming to modify since they had to be redrawn from scratch when changes to the schedule became necessary. To ease the process, project managers would use movable blocks of wood or pieces of paper to represent tasks on the Gantt chart.
Nowadays, Gantt charts owe their popularity as planning tools to computing. Computers make it almost painless to create, modify, and maintain project schedules. Built into project management software suites, Gantt charts are easily shareable and can be accessed from remote devices. Digital Gantt charts offer features that make project status and other important information easily visible.
What are the Key Benefits of Using a Gantt Chart?
The charts are popular because they pack a large amount of information into an easily understandable, intuitive, and widely accessible format. They provide a clear view of project status and can even be used as a workable substitute for the project’s master schedule since they can contain everything you need to know about project tasks, resource requirements, and task dependencies. Even for people who aren’t trained as project managers, Gantt charts make it easy to understand how and when project tasks flow into each other. Here are some additional benefits of using Gantt charts:
- Promote detailed planning. Simply listing tasks forces project managers to break work down into chunks and understanding task dependencies requires granular knowledge of how a project is meant to proceed. Pinning down expected completion dates lead project teams to think carefully about resource requirements.
- Help to visualize the project schedule. A project’s critical path is the longest continuous sequence of tasks that effectively determines the duration of a project. Check out this article to learn more about the background and importance of the Critical Path Method (CPM).
- Surface potential resource risks. On a technical level, Gantt charts help avoid resource overload, provide a basis for schedule accountability, and help identify where cost and duration can be reduced. Further, these charts can help identify potential problems such as if resources have been double-assigned, where staff are overscheduled, and when delays might affect the critical path.
- Improve project communications. On a human level, Gantt charts simplify the process of communicating the project plan and help keep everyone on the same page with little effort. They make the project’s planned progress easy for team members to visualize, providing both clarity and motivation to meet deadlines.
There are also advanced use cases for Gantt charts, outside of run-of-the-mill planning and scheduling. These scenarios include the following:
- Allocating resources across multiple simultaneous projects
- Planning iterations for software development sprints
- Comparing planned versus actual timelines on a project
Who Should Use Gantt Charts?
Gantt charts help project managers increase productivity and efficiency, so they can ensure that tasks, and projects, are completed on time. They can be applied to small projects and massive complex ones. Of course, project managers aren’t the only people using them.
Managers in operations, scheduling, finance, and marketing all use Gantt charts as well as project sponsors, C-suite executives (such as CEOs, CTOs, CIOs), and IT and software development teams.
Gantt charts are popular in diverse industries including healthcare, energy, and government. And they can help teams in multiple disciplines, including marketing, professional services, engineering, architecture, construction, manufacturing, product development, and telecommunications.
To learn more about Gantt charts and other project management topics, check out the following resources: