Deliver Every Project On-Time with Critical Path Project Management

6 minute read

Upland Admin

Are you ready to hit your deadlines on time, every time, with maximum resource utilization? The critical path method is the technique for you!

You’ll learn what critical path project management is, how to implement it, and 3 ways it helps your team stay on track. We will also share some of our hard-won top tips for making this technique work for you.

What Is Critical Path Project Management?

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Sixth Edition defines the critical path method (CPM) like this:

The critical path method is used to estimate the minimum project duration and determine the amount of schedule flexibility.

The main objective of scheduling using this technique is to find out the fastest time in which you can complete project. Another advantage is that it gives you useful information about what tasks have some flexibility with dates and which need to happen exactly as per the schedule if you want to finish on time.

How to Implement Critical Path Project Management

Implementing CPM on your projects doesn’t have to be hard. We’ve listed 4 steps below that will get you on the right path:

1. Create a list of tasks

Make a detailed list of everything you need to do to create the project.

2. Work out the order of tasks

Take your task list and establish the dependencies between tasks. Some will need to happen before others; some can happen in parallel or independently of others.

3. Estimate how long each task will take

Ask the person responsible for the task to give you the expected duration of the work. You’ll use this to plot the flow of the project.

3. Put the data in your software

OK, you could work out each task and duration point by hand, but who has time for that? Create a Gantt chart schedule in your project management tool with the task information, dependencies, and durations.

4. Calculate the critical path

Use your software to highlight the shortest path through the project work that still results in everything getting done. This is the critical path.

How Does Critical Path Project Management Help Project Teams?

There are three main benefits to knowing the best path through the project work.

1. Teams can see the most important tasks

And by ‘most important’ we mean the ones you have to actively manage because if they take longer than expected, the whole project is delayed.

Example: The project manager highlights the critical project tasks in red. Everyone knows that if those tasks are delayed, the delivery date slips and the customer will be unhappy. Each status meeting focuses on reporting progress on the critical tasks so the whole project stays on track.

2. Teams can reduce the project’s duration

The critical path shows you the shortest timeline for the project, but we’ve all been in situations where stakeholders want things delivered faster. Critical tasks are the ones that dictate the timeline, so if you want to go faster, those activities need to be shorter. The critical path tells you where it is worth spending your effort to speed up the work.

Example: The IT director wants the project completed two weeks early to coincide with a conference. The project manager reviews the critical path and identifies two technical tasks that would each shorten the timeline by a week if they could be done faster. The IT director agrees to provide an additional resource to work on those tasks so they can be completed more quickly. This reduces the overall timeline and the project can finish in time for the conference.

3. Teams can compare planned progress to actual progress

Look at your baseline schedule and compare it to where you are today. Are you on track? This is helpful as the critical path can change.

Example: The marketing team need the brand designs and wireframes before they can do their next task. The brand designs take 4 days: this is the task on the critical path. The wireframes take 3 days and have already started. However, the wireframes are difficult, need revising and end up taking longer. The brand designs are finished on time but the marketing team can’t move on. Bam! Your end date has just shifted and now the wireframes are on the critical path.

Critical Path Terms To Know

Let’s look at some common terms you’ll need to know to be able to calculate and talk about critical path scheduling.

  • Earliest Start: The earliest date a task can begin.
  • Earliest Finish: The earliest start date plus the duration of the task: the soonest date the task can be completed.
  • Latest Finish: The latest date a task can finish without affecting the critical path.
  • Latest Start: The latest start date minus the time it takes to do the task: the last date a task can begin without affecting the critical path.
  • Float: The difference between the earliest and latest start times. Tasks on the critical path have zero float.
  • Fast tracking: Moving critical path tasks to be done in parallel to each other so the overall timeline is shortened.
  • Crashing: Making changes to how the project is managed to get the work done in the shortest possible time: normally by adding more resources.

Critical Path Project Management Tips

Back in the late 1950’s when critical path method was evolving as a scheduling technique, it was a very manual effort. Today, software does the data crunching for you. Here are some tips to make using CPM even easier.

1. Use software

Choose project management software that has easy to use critical path features.

2. Start with the WBS

The Work Breakdown Structure is the source of all the task information required to create your project schedule. Invest the time into making a comprehensive WBS and scheduling is easier.

3. Save your baselines

You can only compare actual progress against planned progress if you save a copy of your baseline. Update and save a new copy every time there is a substantial change to the schedule.

4. Plan your resourcing

The critical path alone won’t help you deliver on time. You have to have the people available to do the work. Identify your project resources early so they are available when you need them.

5. Use reports

Understanding CPM data is easier if you use the built-in reports from your project management tool. Optimize resource utilization to minimize downtime on the project.

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