Microsoft Project Tutorial: How to Track Percent Complete

A typical team status meeting includes the project manager reviewing the work plan and asking team members to report on relevant task progress in the work plan. A typical response from team members is “The task is 90 percent complete,” or some variable percent. Project managers can make the mistake of assuming a status of “90 percent complete” is an effective method to monitor task progress.

Using a status of 90 percent, the project manager updates the project plan and communicates to the stakeholders that the particular deliverable is 90 percent complete. Everyone feels comfortable about the number and they move on to the next status item. Another week goes by, and at the next status meeting, the task is still 90 percent complete with “just a little more work to go.”

When the project manager asks why the deliverable wasn’t completed, the team member responds with a list of other tasks or dependencies that are needed to complete the task. In the interest of a short status meeting, the project manager leaves the deliverable at 90 percent complete until next week. This cycle can continue week after week as the deliverable continues to fall further behind in the project schedule.

The “90 percent complete” approach to deliverable tracking is entirely subjective. The percent complete approach represents a quick estimate of deliverable status based on a team member’s feeling or intuition. This approach doesn’t provide the project manager with any information about actual task effort or forecasted end dates. The problem is further propagated when project stakeholders communicate the same status to their colleagues.

The Tracking Percent Complete Solution

A recommended approach is to avoid the subjective view of task status and implement an objective one. In order to objectively measure project schedule and cost performance, the project manager needs to know the following:

  1. When was the task scheduled to start and complete?
  2. What was the original task effort?
  3. When did the work actually start?
  4. How many hours have been spent on the task?
  5. How many hours are remaining?

The first two questions can be answered by examining the project baseline. The project baseline is the official record of cost, scope and timing for each deliverable in the work plan. Once project managers understand the original task effort, baseline start and finish dates the project manager can inquire about the actual work spent on the task.

The project manager uses the data to calculate an objective measure of work complete and, more importantly, forecast a task end date based on the remaining effort.

Task Percent Complete Formula

Task Percent Complete = Actual Hours Spent / Baseline Work (+/-) Remaining Work

Task Baseline

Baseline Effort: 80 hours

Baseline Start: 7/5/2004

Baseline Finish: 7/19/2004

Task Status Tracking

Actual Start: 7/7/2004

Actual Hours Spent: 60 hours

Remaining Work: 40 hours

Forecasted End Date: 7/24/2004

Task Percent Complete = 60 hours / (60 hours + 40 hours) = 60% complete

In this example, the original effort was 80 hours and actual work required was 100 hours.

The task also started two days later and the additional 20 hours added another 2.5 days to the task schedule. If the project manager did not ask these questions and accepted a subjective 90 percent complete, the project manager would have assumed 54 hours have been spent with 6 hours to complete the task.

Tracking Percent Complete Benefits

Tracking project actuals provides the following benefits:

  • Improves project status reporting using accurate and objective task end dates.
  • Improves project status reporting by communicating an objective percent complete instead of a subjective percent complete.
  • Improves future project estimation accuracy by comparing project baseline work and actual work.
  • Avoids “guesstimate” approach and uses project data to forecast project completion dates.

Tracking Percent Complete Challenges and Road Blocks

If the project team is new to this approach, the project manager may experience some push back or reluctance to provides estimates. A common fear is the team member may face negative consequences for failing to complete the work in the estimated amount of time. Other team members simply don’t want to escape the comfort zone of reporting “Its about 90 percent complete with a little more work to do.”

To overcome the pushback, the project manger should encourage a work environment where missing estimates is not punished although meeting estimates is encouraged. If project managers experience resistance, an effective technique is to break down the work into smaller chunks and translate end dates into project effort. Asking a team member if they can complete the work in 3 days translates to 24 hours of work in the project plan. If they are only available to work on the task 4 hours each day, then the 24 hours of work stays the same but the duration increases to 6 days.

Project team members may indicate providing estimates of actual work remaining is also subjective. The original project estimate was a prediction of effort based on team members’ experience and available information. During project execution, team members know more about the project’s tasks and remaining effort. The actual work remaining is based on more information then when the estimate was provided. As tasks progress, providing estimates will be easier since the team knows more about the tasks and remaining effort and related issues.


Regardless of your project tracking tool, ask your teams for the amount of time spent and the amount of time remaining for each task in your workplan. Ask the five fore mentioned questions to identify when work started and forecast how much work is remaining. Avoid the subjective nature of reporting “90 percent complete with a little more to go.”

In our original scenario, the project manager reported a status of 90 percent complete using the subjective guesses from project team members. After recording objective project actuals, the project plan may still indicate the same percentage, but the project manager knows it was calculated correctly and the forecasted dates are effort-driven instead of subjective guesstimates.

Simply reporting the percent complete isn’t enough to provide accurate and data-driven end dates. Project managers that follow an objective schedule updating approach will benefit from improved project control and monitoring. The approach also provides a repository of actual effort that can be reused to estimate future project’s cost and timing.

For more tutorials on how to use Microsoft Project, check out our list of Microsoft Project tutorials.

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