Managing the Critical Path

A Project is by definition a temporary endeavor. This means that it has a definitive starting point and a definitive end point. No matter if it is a small home improvement effort lasting only a couple of days; or a real state mega deal spanning millions of dollars and years of development. As Project Manager you are in charge of determining, scheduling, and managing all the activities and resources required to complete that initiative in the given time frame.

In a small project like your home improvement, you may only a single set or path of activities. In other words only one start activity, followed by more activities to be done in sequence until the last activity completes the effort. Once you arrive at projects of certain size you will have more than one path of activities. Different sets of depending on one another but irrespective and in parallel of others. Like you may have on the Real Estate development.

Once all the paths are determined for the project, then the Critical Path can be identified. It is the set of dependent activities that will require the longest time to complete during the execution of your project. As such it will determine at the earliest possible completion date for your Project. It is called critical to reflect the fact that should any of those activities take longer than expected to complete, the overall delivery date of the Project will be impacted. Any activity on other paths can have some room to suffer delays before impacting the project itself, but not the critical path. Yes, you can have more than one Critical Path on the same project. Also you may have near critical activities which do not take as long as the Critical Path, but which can be pretty close to that duration. 

Given the impact that a delay on this set of activities represents for the project, it needs special attention in all phases of the Project Management process. First security measure regarding these activities, and the most basic one, is to actually identify which is that path for your Project. This may be a tedious task if you come from a culture which is not really used to worry about being late. However it is worth it since it will prevent the potential moral and financial impacts of a Project delivered late. 

Once it is being determined you may want to look at the team members assigned to those activities. You may want to make arrangements for those activities to be completed by skilled and experienced team members. If most activities on your Critical Path happen to be performed by junior team members, then you have an important risk factor for your overall schedule right there. 

You may want to look at tools like fast tracking or crashing these activities so the Critical Path may take less time to complete. If these efforts are successful, and the time required to complete the Critical Path is decreased; another path will become the Critical Path and so on. These techniques are also used when you evaluate the feasibility of decreasing the overall duration of the project. 

Keep in mind that the Critical Path, as the entire schedule of the Project for that matter, relies on the estimates provided by the team members for the corresponding activities. So it is pretty important that these estimates are as accurate as possible, elaborated by team members with some experience in the same kind of activity that needs to be completed. Otherwise there would be just guesstimates that may end up impacting the project. 

As with many other aspects of the Project Management process, monitoring and controlling is a vital step. You can’t manager what you don’t monitor and measure. You need to be on top of any changes in activities duration as the Project goes on so you can effectively detect any variances and act accordingly. This holds particularly true for something like the Critical Path. 

- Sergio Calvo.

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