What exactly is the critical path project management method?
Suppose you’re asked to write a very short recipe for making an omelet.
You’ll probably mention three steps: Add butter to a heated pan, pour in beaten eggs, and cook the egg mixture for 3-5 minutes.
These are the absolutely necessary steps to prepare an omelet—one that might not be very tasty, but is an omelet nonetheless.
Of course, you can include the bit about seasoning the eggs with salt and pepper, adding cheese, maybe some vegetables, and flipping the eggs on the other side to ensure it’s cooked well.
But these are the additional steps to make a good omelet.
Why? Because you can make an omelet without cheese and salt, but you can’t without eggs or a pan.
The essential steps for making an omelet will come under critical tasks, and the sequence in which you describe those steps is the critical path to prepare an omelet.
Ladies and gents, this is critical path management in a nutshell (or an eggshell).
Why Is Critical Path Project Management So Important
Project management can feel a bit complex. But if you use specific systems, navigating and making predictions concerning the project will become easier.
Deadlines are also very important in project management since they directly affect your budget. Precisely why you should have an accurate and reliable way to map out your timeline.
This is exactly where the critical path method or CPM comes into the picture.
Critical Path Method and Time Management
All tasks take time. Some are more time-consuming, some less; some are less labor-intensive, some more.
You must chalk out a precise day-to-day plan of jobs you should prioritize, and considering that time management is one of the most essential aspects of project management, the pressure to get it right isn’t going anywhere.
CPM gives you a real-time assessment of actual time versus planned, allowing you to draw an accurate comparison between where you currently are as opposed to your intended progress. In turn, you can identify which items are taking longer than expected, are ahead of schedule, and are right on track.
This knowledge lets you transfer personnel and create a more detailed calendar of events after identifying delays. While this helps you manage resources better, it also issues warning signs when you run behind schedule.
Using a reliable project management tool will help you identify the critical path even faster by connecting the various dependencies, accelerating the whole process.
Critical Path Method and Parallel Task Mapping
In any linear process, you must complete certain specific tasks before beginning others. Due to this, it’s easy for a bottleneck to appear if one person doesn’t start a particular job simply because they are waiting for a previous task to finish.
From the employee’s viewpoint, this can be very frustrating and damaging to morale. After all, who wants to speed up a task only to wait for someone else to finish theirs?
CPM makes it easier to map out parallel tasks or jobs in sequence, allowing you to compare expectations with reality. Once you thoroughly analyze and assess planned tasks with real-time tasks, you can put these numbers to work while planning your next project.
Basically, CPM scheduling techniques let you make much better estimates on future projects by learning from the processes of current ones.
How to Improve Critical Path Task Management Today
CPM gives you a structured approach to project scheduling, letting you prioritize tasks for your project’s successful completion. You get an accurate idea of how to break down the project into smaller tasks as well as manage the team members to ensure there’s no delay.
Below, we’ve compiled a list of a few pointers to help you maximize results by applying the critical path method.
Define the Project Scope Thoroughly
You have to get your project scope right for your project’s success. This includes defining every little task related to your project.
If you plan on throwing a party, your project scope should include the following:
- Selecting a date, venue, and time for the party.
- Sending out invites to your friends.
- Buying sufficient food and drinks.
- Setting up your sound system.
- Creating a music playlist.
- Hosting the party on the final day.
If you go through the tasks, you’ll find that a few of them are interdependent. Like you can’t invite your friends before choosing a date, venue, and time, and if you don’t invite your friends, there’s no need to buy all the food and drinks.
As a result, the actions “selecting a date, venue, and time,” “inviting your friends,” and “buying food and drinks” form a sequence of tasks that should be performed in a specific order for a successful party. These tasks are called sequential activities.
The sequential activities along with the very first task (choose a date, venue, and time) are the most critical steps for throwing a party. Therefore, you’ll place these actions on the critical path.
Think about it: You wouldn’t be able to determine these interdependencies and create a critical part if you didn’t have a project scope in place first, would you?
Estimate Task Duration
Predicting how long every task will take before scheduling your project is a necessity. You can make these calculations by considering how long it takes based on known unit quantities. In other words, if you want to know how long it takes to install 16 lights, find out what’s the total duration for installing one.
Similarly, you can estimate the overall task duration by considering the timeframe of similar tasks done in the past and asking for supplier quotes that include an estimated delivery time.
If jobs on the critical path slip, you must do everything to get the project back on schedule. Otherwise, the whole project will end up getting delayed.
Imagine you estimate a specific project will take 30 days to complete. If the first activity on the critical path is three days late, the project will now take 33 days to complete—unless another activity on the critical path is completed three days earlier.
This is precisely why you must do your best to manage every activity on the critical path very closely.
Identifying Different Project Paths
Take a sheet of paper, and draw a column of boxes on the left side. Keep one box for every critical task with no prerequisites and write the name of each task in one of the boxes.
Then draw a second column of boxes with the critical task names you can start only when a task in the first column has been completed. For every task in the second column, draw lines back to the first column’s tasks that are its prerequisites. Continue this until you’ve placed all the tasks on your chart.
This is your critical path project management chart.
Your critical path is the set of lines that connects all the pieces of the first column to all the pieces of the second column. It may look a bit jumbled with so many lines, but if you follow the lines in order of sequence (that is, which ones must happen in what order), the path will become clear. This chart also indicates the project completion date as you must complete all the tasks on the path within the estimated time or delay the project
As you’ve probably noticed by now, it’s possible to have more than one critical task or sequence in a project.
As such, you’ll almost certainly have several tasks and sequences running concurrently. This is caused due to multiple dependencies between tasks or separate sequences that run for the same duration.
This isn’t a bad thing, because it isn’t necessary for all the activities on the critical path to be the most crucial aspects of the project. But if these tasks help determine your project success, they will still have a spot on the critical path.
Your job is to determine which activities are critical to complete the project on time. In case you find other activities that lie outside the critical path but are still vital for the project’s success, make sure you include them in the big picture.
Trust us, it’ll save you from a lot of last-minute hassle!
Prepare to Deal With Contingencies and Constraints
Thinking that every project will go according to plan is unrealistic. You’ll have to cope with inevitable delays, scope changes, last-minute client demands… the list goes on. In such cases, you should be aware of two critical path method measures that can help you deal with such contingencies:
This is the process of running several activities on the critical path in parallel to each other in a bid to reduce overall project time. It’s only possible for activities that don’t have “hard“ dependencies–a.k.a. tasks that don’t depend completely on their predecessors to start.
Let’s explain this with the help of an example.
Suppose you want to build the walls of a house. You’ll need to dig the foundation, but while you do the digging, you can also buy bricks and mix the cement.
Basically, building the walls is dependent on when you dig the foundation, but you can buy bricks and mix cement in parallel to the digging.
What would you do if you had to rush an activity because of an early deadline?
You’ll obviously allocate additional resources to the activity to complete it faster. This is known as crashing.
You can use crashing when your activities can benefit from having additional resources (they follow a linear relationship between resources and time to completion) and can utilize resources from activities with higher floats. As there is typically significant “slack” in the latter activities, you can delay them without jeopardizing the whole project.
Keep in mind that crashing is only recommended during emergencies as it can impact activities on and outside the critical path. If you do it, make sure you divert resources from high float tasks—and not tasks on the critical path.
4 Best Practices for Critical Path Project Management
You can be familiar with the CPM process, but knowing exactly which best practices you should follow to implement it successfully can make the world of a difference.
Prepare for “What-If“ Scenarios
Things won’t always go as per your plan, which is why you must make room for “what if“ scenarios that may crop up when mapping out your critical path. Once you know more about your project schedule, you can experiment to see the effects any potential delays or setbacks may have on your project’s timeline.
Here’s what you can do:
- Extend a task that possesses free slack. Slack refers to the time period a task can be delayed without any delay in the successor activity or the project finish date. Free slack is the time you can delay a task without delaying its successor task. You can extend a task with free slack without affecting other tasks—provided you don’t exceed the free slack available.
- Extend a critical task by increasing its duration. This will give you a better idea of the other critical tasks that would typically be impacted by the change. You can then identify non-critical tasks that gain extra time and reveal the total slack.
- Extend a task that only possesses total slack. This demonstrates how you can reschedule other tasks. Total slack is the time a task can be delayed without delaying the project finish date.
Create Project Status Reports to Update Stakeholders
A project status report or milestone report is a snapshot of where things are with your project. This will give you a better idea of how all the project’s elements are going—something you can then share with your stakeholders.
Several project management software allows you to create and customize graphical reports of any project data you want to share. Here are the three main elements that you would typically require:
- The overall picture that shows the overall health of your project.
- Milestones that we’ll every completed milestone, milestones in progress, and upcoming milestones.
- Issues, which are essentially the obstacles arising in the project.
You can use the data to plan your project better and make changes as the need arises.
Make Your Deadlines Flexible
Projects can’t be successful without a clear deadline. At the same time, though, the due dates should be flexible and have enough buffer time around your key milestones to ensure no compromise on quality, saving your team from stress.
Set a meeting with all your project sponsors and stakeholders before the start of the project, and negotiate a realistic deadline. After that, plot out key milestones to make a deadline feasible. You should also include possible risks and issues that could delay your progress, along with time slots to make necessary changes to the project.
Just think about it: You can create a much better video game and ensure a better user experience if you successfully remove any bugs that could interfere with gameplay. Having enough time will also allow you to write a more compelling story and remove plot holes and irregularities.
You may not notice all these minor details when you’re rushing through a project. But be sure that your customers certainly will.
Sequence and Link All Activities Logically
Every activity must be logically sequenced and linked, so all your critical project milestones are met on time.
You might face data constraints and lags to fix a start or finish date during an ongoing project. The main problem starts when you start using negative lags extensively, which, in turn, results in activities to be planned in parallel or squeezing the required work into an unrealistic time frame to meet project milestones.
The end result? A less reliable schedule.
Moreover, either the duration of the predecessor activity will be shortened, or the successor activity will start before its predecessor.
To avoid these situations, you should look out for high-value lags and aim to have Finish-to-Start as the dominant dependency type when sequencing activities.