Do You Know Your Critical Path in Project Management?

Why It Is Crucial to Identify a Project’s Critical Path

Of all concepts in project management, the critical path is one of the most important. A skilled project manager should be able to discuss a project’s critical path with clients, project stakeholders and the project team in language that makes sense to different audiences.

In this article, I outline the concept of a critical path, and you’ll learn why it is so important to map in all project work.

What Is a Project’s Critical Path?

The critical path of a project maps the project’s stages, activities and tasks in an order that they must be undertaken. It provides the project manager and the project team with a sequence of events that must happen for the project to reach its conclusion. If any of these events are delayed, the project runs the risk of missing its deadline. It is important to note that each stage, activity or task on the critical path must be completed before the next can begin.

The Importance of the Critical Path

The events along the critical path are those that have no flexibility in their timing. Not all tasks are so strictly time-bound, and can ‘float’ on the timeline. A simple example of a critical path is when making a cup of coffee:

  • Put water in the kettle and turn it on.
  • Add a spoon of coffee granules to a cup.
  • When the water has boiled, add it to the cup and stir.

These are the core tasks required when making a cup of coffee. Other tasks may include adding sugar, which can be added to the cup before or after the coffee granules, or after the boiled water has been added. The sugar is not critical, nor is it critical when it is added. If you don’t add the coffee granules, you won’t have a cup of coffee. The addition of coffee granules, before the addition of boiled water, is critical.

Of course, this is a simple example. In project work, it is essential that project managers identify the critical tasks required to complete a project, and the order in which these critical tasks must be completed. It is also crucial to ensure that these tasks are assigned appropriate times for completion. As previously mentioned, any delay in a single task is likely to cause a delay in delivery of the entire project.

Critical Path Project Management

In all projects, the project manager should monitor the critical path. However, in some projects the critical path is given precedence over all other project methodologies. This is because of the nature of the project. Construction projects are often managed with emphasis placed on the critical path, because of the inflexibility of tasks and the fact that such task durations can be estimated accurately.

Even if another project management methodology is employed, the project manager will identify and calculate the critical path so that the effect of any task delays can be evaluated effectively, and remedial action taken to mitigate those effects.

Identify a Project’s Critical Path

On simple projects, a project manager may identify the critical path by starting with the first task and following with those tasks that cannot take place until the first is complete (dependent tasks). The method for doing this is to identify those dependent tasks with the longest duration:

  • The dependent task with the longest duration is positioned as the next task
  • The following task is that which is dependent upon the task before and has the longest duration
  • And so on

These critical tasks can then be plotted on a timeline, on project management software, or on an Excel spreadsheet, as a visual illustration of the project’s expected progression.

In our next article, we discuss identifying a project’s critical path in greater detail. In the meantime, for all your project management needs, contact Your Project Manager:

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