The critical path is a project management term that refers to the lengthiest segment of activities present in a project’s strategic plan that must be finished in order and on time to complete the project by its due date. Activities associated with the strategic path can only be completed after a previous activity has been completed – if an activity that must be completed before the next activity is completed is delayed it will delay the whole project.
The critical path is a crucial concept in project management, and one that every project manager should be familiar with. Project managers can improve their ability deliver projects on time and within budget by focusing on accurately identifying and managing the activities involved with a project’s critical path.
What Makes the Critical Path Important
Identifying the critical path is very helpful when it comes to the project management process. Doing so reveals which activities must be completed to finish the project on time. Any changes to these activities will affect the project’s end date. Identification of the critical path enables a project manager to focus on those projects tasks which must be completed by a certain point for the project to proceed. These tasks don’t have any leeway or “give” which might allow them to be delayed or reshuffled in order without causing the project to miss its completion date. If any delay occurs to the critical path tasks the project will be delayed also, unless tasks following the critical path are dispensed with or completed more quickly.
Certain projects require that the critical path be monitored with a high level of rigor to ensure timely project completion. In these cases, use of methodologies designed to organize project activities using critical path specifications in terms of dates and deliverables is recommended. This approach is often found with construction projects and other situations where firm deadlines are set, and timeline estimation is reasonably precise. In any case, a project manager should be able to carefully consider a project in relation to its critical path to help lessen the potential for excessive delays or missed project deadlines.
How to Identify the Critical Path
Identifying the critical path early in the conceptual phase of project planning is vital to making a project a success. If you wait until later in the process or after a project has begun to make the identification it may entail delays to the project as changes are made to deal with critical path tasks.
One method of discovering the critical path that is often used with less complicated projects works as follows:
- Begin with the initial task in the project and then look for subsequent tasks that can’t begin prior to completion of the first one
- The dependent step that will take the longest to complete is next in the critical path
- The next dependent step that takes the longest to complete is the next step after that, and so on until the entire critical path has been mapped
Project managers in the enterprise realm generally rely on project management tools that utilize automation to identify and monitor a project’s critical path. Such software can help speed up the planning process and also provide a method for documenting all changes made to the scheduling of tasks or to their duration. These tools also make it easy to communicate such changes to other team members working on the project. Open communication in regard to the tasks comprising the critical path is crucial to effectively managing these tasks, given their complex linkage to each other and the project as a whole.
Ways to Manage the Critical Path
While every network will have at least a single critical path, that path, in some cases, may branch off into other paths. It should be noted that changes may be made to a critical path during the course of a project, if delivery dates or other milestones change.
One method of effective critical path management involves taking the time to figure out what can go wrong in terms of the following main project measurables:
- Cost: If initial resource allocation to a task is lacking, this can cause cost overruns as extra expenses are incurred in rushing to add the resources, whether material or personnel, required to complete the task on time.
- Time: Given that tasks making up the critical path must be completed on time and in order for the project to proceed as planned, focus on identifying what could prevent the timely completion of these tasks and take action to reduce the likelihood that such events will occur.
- Quality: Poor quality in the performance of project tasks can result in requests for do-overs to revamp the poorly done work. This can result in delays in completing critical path tasks which can delay the project as a whole.
While the critical path focuses on the time it takes to complete a project, as explained above, if cost or quality is compromised this can affect a project’s completion time.
Once a project has been broken down into all the individual tasks that need to be performed, the time it will take to complete each task can be estimated. This will provide the expected time it will take to complete the project. A schedule of all activities showing how they relate to each other should be drawn up. This enables you to create a graphical representation of the critical path.
Once you have charted the different activities making up the critical path, you can focus on gathering the resources necessary to make sure each step is completed on time. Graphing a schedule for critical path tasks shows the network dependencies embedded in the tasks. Understanding how the tasks are linked together improves your ability to plan for completing each task.
Advance preparation is critical to successfully negotiating the critical path. Make sure you have thoroughly gone over the activities needed to complete each step of the path so that you are ready to deal with any issues that arise once the project begins. By mastering the critical path, you can improve your performance as a project manager and position yourself for success on even the most complicated projects.
Nuvro is a robust online project management tool that helps you identify the critical path and keep your projects on track. With Nuvro you can gain control and peace of mind over all of your projects, tasks, team members, workload and everything else important to your company. In addition to the project, task and collaboration features found in most PM tools, Nuvro also provides a company dashboard, a team dashboard, team member performance reviews, secure document management, an internal alternative to email and more. Nuvro is perfect for busy teams looking to accomplish more. Learn More…