Critical Path Method: Analysis Tool for Project & Task Management

4 Min Read
Critical Path Method: Analysis Tool for Project & Task Management

Successful management of any kind of project hinges on a wide range of skills and organisational abilities. It also depends on attention to detail to ensure everything progresses according to plan.

Keeping a project on track can be complicated if you’re trying to manage many elements, but there’s one tool that can be very helpful if you want to create a broad-ranging plan and keep complicated projects organised. The method we’re looking at in this article can also be very helpful in task and process management.

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What is the Critical Path Method (CPM)?

Critical path method (CPM) or Critical path analysis (CPA) is a simple concept commonly used in project management for analysing, planning, and scheduling complex projects. 

Developed by Morgan R. Walker (of DuPont) and James E. Kelley Jr (of Remington Rand)  in 1956 and published the first paper on the critical path “Critical-Path Planning and Scheduling” in 1959.

The critical path is about estimating and scheduling task duration ‘How long will each task take before the project is finished? Finding the “critical path” of the project identifies core tasks that are crucial to the completion of the project.

The basis of this method is something called the Theory of Constraints (TOC). This concept states a person’s ability to complete any task depends on just a few constraints or critical resources.

Critical Path Analysis Definition

PMBOK Project Management Body of Knowledge and many other project management systems definitions the critical path method:

“The Critical Path Method is defined as the sequence of scheduled activities that represents the longest path through a project, which determines the shortest possible duration. Determining the duration of the project.”

Example of Critical Path Method

Let’s give you an example. The process of making a sandwich depends on having a few key elements, bread, butter, and fillings. Without any one of these key elements, it’ll be impossible to make your sandwich.

  • Cut Bread
  • Butter the bread
  • Add filing
  • Additional piece of bread on top

There are several other tasks you may choose to take to make the perfect sandwich. You might want to season, add dressing or additional condiments. Maybe even add some lettuce, some tomato or even a second filling. These additional steps are in addition to the core steps in making a sandwich.

But on the other hand, if you forget to get the bread, or have any filling you won’t have a sandwich. The critical tasks are core to making the sandwich-making project a success.

The Critical Path method similarly looks at projects or processes but has a broader focus. This method states that the successful completion of a project or process depends on “critical path” tasks getting completed on time.

How It Works

Whatever you’re working on, regardless of its budget or size, there will be some core tasks vital for its completion. There will be other tasks required, but these are secondary or in addition to the core elements. The core elements are critical, whereas the secondary tasks are not.

Critical tasks have to be performed if the project or process is you want it to be successful. You must also complete these tasks in a particular order.

Elements of Critical Path Method CPM include:

  • Identification of all the tasks necessary for the completion of your projects and how they depend on each other
  • Estimation of the time it will take to complete each of the critical project tasks
  • Calculation of CPM based on the previous two elements
  • Focus on the plan, schedule, and how you’re going to control the critical tasks
  • Defining project milestones and outputs
  • Defining the expectations of many stakeholders with regards to the deadlines

What Are the Benefits?

There are countless benefits to be gained from using CPM. They include:

A reduction in delays: It helps in the identification of the most crucial tasks in any project or process. With this information, managers can optimise work and reduce delays.
Visualisation of dependencies: As this method depends on all project tasks being listed, it makes it easier to see any dependencies and underline any that are necessary.
Improves organisation: When a project or process is incredibly complex, CPM allows managers to break down the deliverables into sequences and then into tasks.
Efficiency is optimised: When you map the path, it gives you a better idea of what tasks are more important. Armed with this information, managers can efficiently allocate resources, add or remove those resources depending on how vital specific tasks are.
Calculating float: Float is a term used to define how much delay is allowable before it impacts the schedule of the project or process. It’s an integral part of CPM as it helps with the effective distribution of resources.

Negatives of using CPM / CPA

Let’s finish up by looking at some of the possible flaws because CPM is not perfect. It doesn’t, for example, take into account resource dependencies. Another problem is that non-critical elements get less attention than is needed.

Critical Path Method is a useful tool, but it does require continuous monitoring. Developments and changes may happen, and it’s not possible to predict or plan for every situation. However, CPM does allow you to react quickly should something unexpected happen.

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