Working on a project requires a lot of technology that helps you succeed with your results. One of the necessary techniques is the critical path method which allows you to visualize your project roadmap and prioritize the essential tasks that need to be done.
This blog will deeply analyze how this critical path method can help you manage your task dependencies, timeframes, and teamwork.
What is the critical path method, and why use it?
The CPM method was developed in the late 1950s to respond to the increased costs due to inefficient scheduling. Since then, it has become a popular project management technique used to identify activities needed to complete projects and determine their schedule. As the tasks are the key to the project timeline, any delay in the task performance will influence the rest of the project.
This technique used can influence your project management results in various ways:
- Improve future planning. CPM can be used to compare your actual results and expectations so that you can use the data for future planning according to your experience.
- Facilitate your resource management process of planning and scheduling your team’s resources and activities. With this technique, you can easily prioritize tasks and deploy resources more efficiently.
- Help avoid bottlenecks by showing you the dependencies between different tasks and enabling you to keep the activities in sync.
How to find a critical path?
Here are 6 steps you should follow to find your critical path.
1. Use a work breakdown structure
It is a tool that helps you organize your project by hierarchy and view critical dependencies between tasks by listing all the tasks required to proceed with your project. It is the foundation of your CPM. Once you have on board everything that needs to be done, you can start identifying task dependencies.
2. Identify you dependencies
Now you can determine the task that depends one on another based on your breakdown structure. At this step, you can also comprehend the tasks that could be done in parallel.
3. Create network diagram
In this step, you should turn your breakdown structure into a network diagram putting tasks in each box chronologically and using arrows to depict task dependencies.
4. Estimate task duration
It is the moment of task duration estimation which you can do based on your experience and knowledge of previous project data or industry standards. The Asana team also recommends using the forward pass and backward pass technique.
- The forward pass is used to calculate early start (ES) and early finish (EF) dates by using a previously specified start date. The calculation starts with 0 at the ES of the first activity and proceeds through the schedule. This technique allows for the early allocation of resources to the project.
- A backward pass is used to calculate late start (LS) and late finish (LF) dates. The calculation starts with the last scheduled activity and proceeds backward through the entire schedule.
These two techniques can also be used to determine each task’s float or scheduling flexibility.
5. Calculate the critical path
For calculating your critical path manually, the first step is to write down the start and end times next to each activity. For example, the beginning of the first activity is a 0, when the end time is the duration of this activity. The next activity you identified with your breakdown structure starts at the end time of the first activity (if they can not be done in parallel). The same logic remains for all the activities you mentioned as crucial to completing the project. In the end, you will have lots of different sequences of tasks.
Then, it would help if you determined the duration of the entire sequence by analyzing the time you put into the tasks. The most extended sequence of activities is your critical path. Once you have it, you can build the project schedule according to your critical path.
Here’s what the critical path diagram might look like:
6. Calculate the float
If you want to find out how much the task can be delayed without impacting subsequent tasks or the project end date, calculate the float, which refers to your tasks’ flexibility. It is a crucial resource covering project management risks or unexpected issues.
Remember that your critical tasks always have zero floats. Only the tasks besides your critical path could be delayed without affecting the project completion date.
Calculating the float can be done with an algorithm or manually. Use the calculations from the section below to determine the total float and free float.
To calculate your float, you should determine your total float and your free float below.
- Total float: This is the amount of time an activity can be delayed from the early start date without influencing the project finish date. To calculate the total float, you should minus your Early Start from Late Start or your Early Finish from the Late Finish.
- Free float: This is the amount of time your activity can be delayed without influencing your further activity. To calculate the free float, you should minus the Early Finish of your current task from the Early Start of your next task.
For project managers can benefit from float calculation in several ways:
- It keeps your project schedule on track. The more flexible you are, the more chances you have to finish earlier or on time.
- It helps you to prioritize your tasks by identifying the activities with free float and postponing some tasks with high flexibility.
- As we already mentioned, the float can also enable you to cover your project risks or unexpected issues that come up.
How to use the CPM?
The CPM allows you to respond more confidently to some challenges that could come up during your project, reacting to some issues and meeting up deadlines.
1. Compress schedules
Taking into account that project deadlines may be pushed up, knowing the CPM, you can use two schedule compression techniques: fast tracking and crashing. During the fast-tracking, you identify the activities that could be done simultaneously and run them in parallel, speeding up your project duration. Whereas in the crashing technique, you should allocate more resources to accelerate your activities but also approve the with your stakeholders and the project scope.
2. Resolve resources shortage
Suppose your project meets the resource issue, for example. In that case, some team members are overloaded, or you need the necessary equipment. You should use the resource leveling technique that involves resolving overallocation or scheduling conflicts to ensure a project can be completed with the available resources. With this technique, you will adjust your project start and end dates and keep in mind that you may need to readjust your critical path.
3. Collect data for future use
As your project runs, you can always compare your expectations with the reality, the original critical path to the actual critical path, and use this data as a reference to make in the future more relevant and accurate estimations about your project.
As we have seen, the CPM can help project managers to visualize their project workflows better and keep everything under control, from the time and schedule to different tasks that could be postponed or are the key to the project completion. All these could be tracked through Asana, one of the most popular project management tools.
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