What Is Critical Path Analysis? And How It Works
By Indeed Editorial Team
Updated 24 June 2022
Published 20 May 2021
The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.
It's the management's responsibility to find resources and organise their teams to finish required tasks, regardless of their leadership style. Team leaders must develop a method to help them manage a project, including providing teams with timelines, resources and motivation. The most recommended way is a critical path for teams to follow. With this approach, it becomes easy to identify essential tasks and allocate deadlines.
In this article, we discuss what critical path analysis is and how to apply it to optimise your project management process.
What is critical path analysis?
Critical path analysis, also known as the critical path method, is a technique where project managers map out priority tasks that you need to complete for efficient and timely project delivery. It often involves analysing and identifying the required time for completing each task and how those tasks relate to each other.
With a proper critical path, you'll have a rational idea of the project's schedule and workers' allotment on micro-projects along the way. A critical path also helps you to track the progress of your projects and set realistic deadlines along the way. To adjust the project's current course, you can check the critical path process and find out which tasks need any changes to complete the project efficiently and on time. You can also use the critical path's guidelines to ensure that your team remains on track.
How a critical path analysis works
Critical path analysis works by identifying the interdependence of tasks and the crucial steps to take from the start to completion of a project. It also identifies non-critical tasks that can play an essential role in completing the project. As an active measure to keep the project going, it's vital to avoid non-critical tasks as they might delay the project if you don't complete them in time.
Project managers and scientists typically use this technique to map out the most crucial tasks in projects and use that information to measure the estimated completion date. They have to keep track of each task to ensure that it is on schedule and whether there are necessary adjustments. The timelines are often expressed using a Gantt chart, which represents dependencies in a complex project.
Why is critical path analysis important?
The concept behind critical path analysis is that you cannot commence a new activity until other crucial tasks are complete. Therefore, before starting any project, you must lay down all the essential aspects of a project. Start by evaluating tasks based on their relevance and urgency. This evaluation should help you define and identify both critical and non-critical tasks, making their allocation easier.
Critical path analysis also guides you in tracking and monitoring the progress of a project plan throughout its course to completion. Based on the ambiguity of tasks, you can assign appropriate durations and therefore plan on the expected delivery of the project. You must keep track of each milestone and encourage your teams to complete their tasks early to ensure that you meet the deadline. If the tasks are ambiguous, you can set estimated completion times and make adjustments as necessary.
Critical path analysis is often used in industries that deal with complex projects such as construction, defence, aerospace and product development. With this technique, it becomes easy to organise your team to handle various tasks. It also ensures that you can accomplish the work, even with minimal supervision. This technique gives your team the freedom to navigate the dependencies while remaining focused on the job.
How to use critical path analysis
To successfully apply CPA to a project, here are the steps you should follow:
List the involved tasks in the project
Assign each task with a letter
Identify sequential tasks and their order
Allocate timelines or deadlines for each task
Identify the critical path
Chart the path
1. List involved tasks in the project
To start the CPA for your project, compile a complete list of tasks that you need to complete for achieving your goal. While creating the list, it is essential to distinguish between parallel and sequential tasks using the STAR technique. Sequential tasks need to be completed in a particular order as they progress from previous tasks, while parallel tasks are independent of the other. A list will make it easier to identify different tasks and classify them into a specific category.
2. Assign each task with a letter
Using letters is a convenient and simple way of identifying tasks on the list. The reason for using letters instead of numbers is that numbers are used to allocate time. Therefore, when you choose to use letters, it will minimise the chance of confusion between the two. Additionally, when you identify your tasks with letters, it minimises the amount of text on your chart, making it easy to organise.
3. Identify sequential tasks and their order
While still on the same list, identify the tasks that need to be completed before the others. Create a separate column that will mark every predecessors' task. Write the letters of immediate predecessors to ensure a connection, and the project flows smoothly. However, as you mark sequential tasks, identify the independent tasks and arrange them separately. Marking all tasks makes it easy for you to organise them.
4. Allocate time/deadline to each task
For your project to be successful, it is essential to create a timeframe to guide you through the process. Therefore, it is essential to determine how long each task will take to complete and indicate that besides the task. This information will make it easy for you to estimate the duration of the entire project.
5. Identify the critical path
Now that you have all the sequential or parallel tasks lined up with their duration, identifying a critical path is easy. The critical path is a simple analysis of the project based on your starting task.
For instance, if you are thinking of developing a new product, start by performing consumer research and follow it by designing product concepts, developing prototypes, finding components suppliers, manufacturing products, developing marketing campaigns and launching promotions. Your critical path will highlight that sequence to give you an order on how to accomplish your project.
6. Chart the path
Now that you have everything written, you can easily create a critical path chart. The chart will guide you in visualising the flow of activities towards fulfilling your project. In chart critical path analysis, there are two primary options.
Gantt Chart Critical Path Analysis: This chart looks like a timeline with project duration noted at the top and tasks featured beneath as bars. The bar's beginning shows when the task begins, while its end shows the completion time. With this chart, there is a possibility of several bars sitting parallel to others, indicating that there are tasks that can happen concurrently. However, although the chart has a clear visualisation of each task's time frame, it doesn't show the connection between tasks on parallel paths.
PERT Diagram Critical Path Analysis: Program Evaluation and Review Technique gives a clear view of all the parallel and sequential tasks and their connections to each other. It keeps all the tasks in separate circles with arrows in between connecting the circles. This method makes it easy for you to understand which tasks to complete on a priority basis. The arrows also point out where parallel paths merge, giving you an overview of how you can organise your work.
What happens when you complete the project earlier?
At times, you may overestimate a specific project, and the team completes it earlier than expected. When this happens, you can go back through your critical path analysis and re-evaluate your project. You will need to assess whether the project documents are up-to-date and if the product meets the objectives that the project had set out to accomplish.
It's essential that you initiate the project closure procedure in the official Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK) guide. This procedure involves evaluating the project performance, delivering the project to the relevant management, and debriefing the teams. You can write a formal letter to the customer inquiring if the deliverables are satisfactory and acceptable. If they are adequate, you can release your teams so that they can revert to their functional managers or get assigned to new projects.
When you complete the project on time, it's also good to review the project to help your team capture the lessons learnt. The team explores what went well and the priority tasks that were completed successfully. Suppose the customer prefers to stay on schedule to avoid overburdening. In that case, you can also focus on other agendas such as building trust and alignment, effectiveness in your team and schedule and budget improvement and management.
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