Project Management

Understand the critical path to put your project on the road to success

Your project deadline has been moved up a month. How do you allocate resources to meet the new due date? Project mentor Tom Mochal advises you to learn about adjusting the critical path.

Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on real-life situations. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

The dilemma
Teri is the project manager assigned to make all the hard copy reports that support the factory floor available through the Web. She had to replan the remainder of the project after the vendor that supplies the reporting tool decided not to bring its Web-enabled tool to market.

“My manager has given me additional people to work on this project so that it will not take more than 30 days longer than our original estimate,” Teri said. "But the extra people are not having the desired impact. The work plan still shows us over two months behind schedule, and I cannot seem to make the time up. It’s as if the extra people aren’t there at all.” She asked me for help.

“Do you have any ideas as to the cause?” I asked. “It may be that the new people are just having a hard time getting up to speed?”

“That’s the confusing part,” Teri replied. “I am assigning them work and a deadline date. For the most part, they are getting the work done on time. But it’s not having the impact to the end date that I would expect. I wonder if there is some kind of glitch with the project management software.”

“That’s always a possibility,” I said. “But maybe there is another problem. Can you run a report for me showing the critical path? Let’s take a look at how those activities are scheduled out.”

Teri looked at me with a perplexed expression. “The critical what?” she asked. I realized that I might have found the problem.

Mentor advice
Critical path is a term that most Project Managers recognize, but do not fully understand. The critical path is the sequence of activities that must be started and completed on time for the entire project to be completed on time.

Activities that are not on the critical path can be started earlier or completed later without jeopardizing the final completion date for the project. However, activities on the critical path must start and end as scheduled. If one activity on the critical path is delayed by one day, the entire project will complete one day later (unless another activity on the critical path can be completed one day earlier). Every project, no matter how simple or complex, has a critical path.

Many project managers don’t know why it is important to identify the critical path. Teri’s case is a great example of why. If she is to shorten the overall schedule, she must accelerate activities on the critical path.

Noncritical activities can be accelerated, but they will not make the entire project end any earlier. Based on this initial conversation, it appears that Teri is using her extra resources on activities that are not on the critical path. That’s why the projected end date for the entire project is not changing, even though she is applying extra resources to get some of the work done early.

Proposed solution
Here’s how to apply the mentor advice to Teri’s dilemma. First, Teri should use her project management tool to identify the critical path. Then, she should assign any additional resources to activities on the path. This is the only way to ensure that the entire project completes earlier than scheduled.

Here is one word of caution, however. As Teri shortens activities on the critical path, she may find that the critical path changes. Therefore, Teri should go through a repetitive process of applying resources and then recalculating the critical path. This will ensure that her accelerating techniques are always applied to the activities that will impact the overall end date.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project-management and life-cycle skills. He's also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America, and has developed a project-management methodology called TenStep.

What project management questions do you have? Tom Mochal will answer those that affect the widest number of readers. Post a comment below or send us an e-mail.

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