Project Management

View the critical path in Microsoft Project

Learn how to view the critical path in Microsoft Project and interpret the data by reading this tutorial by Dr. Andrew Makar.

In my previous column, I explained the purpose of the critical path and why project managers need to be concerned about monitoring the project's critical path during schedule execution. This tutorial has step-by-step instructions on how to view the critical path in Microsoft Project and interpret the data.

I use the same Microsoft Project file from last week's column. If you need to download the file, you can download it from my article on Network Sensitivity and the Critical Path. Let's get started.

To see the Gantt Chart View, follow these steps:

  1. Open your project schedule in Microsoft Project.
  2. Go to View | Gantt Chart View.
  3. Go to View | Table | Entry. (See Figure A)

Figure A

Sample project schedule

To start the Gantt Chart Wizard, follow these steps:

  1. Go to Select Format | Gantt Chart Wizard. You can also right-click the Gantt Chart and select the Gantt Chart Wizard from the pop-up menu.
  2. When the Gantt Chart Wizard starts, click Next.
  3. Select the Critical Path radio button (Figure B) and click Next. Figure B
  4. Gantt Chart Wizard dialog box
  5. Choose the task information options and click Next. (I prefer to keep the default Resources and Dates options.)
  6. Keep the default links between the dependent tasks option and click Next.
  7. Click the Format It button and exit the wizard.

Figure C displays the formatted Gantt chart. Figure C

Critical path Gantt Chart

With the formatted Gantt Chart, you can easily see the critical path and the project dependencies. If any of these tasks are delayed, then the project's end date will be impacted. Task 4 is not on the critical path, so it has several days of float in the schedule before it impacts the project schedule.

If you want to get a list of just the critical path tasks (Figure D), you can use the Group By option in the Microsoft Project toolbar. I often use this view to determine which tasks and resources are on the critical path. This extra level of detail helps me understand what needs to be accomplished and who is responsible for the task. Figure D

Critical path tasks

To view the critical path tasks, follow these steps:

  1. Confirm the Standard toolbar is displayed. It should be there by default, but if it isn't, you can go to View | Toolbars | Standard.
  2. Click the Group By drop-down box (Figure E) and select Critical from the list of Values.

Figure E

Group By option
The critical and non-critical tasks will be conveniently grouped for further analysis and reporting (Figure E).

The Schedule table is useful when you want to understand the slack in the schedule. With the critical tasks grouped, you can quickly view the available slack in the non-critical tasks.

To view the slack in the project schedule, follow these steps:

  1. Go to View | Table | Schedule.
  2. The Schedule table will be grouped by Critical and Non-Critical tasks (Figure F).

Figure F

Schedule table

The Network Diagram is another view that is helpful in understanding the critical path. A Network Diagram is the classic Activity on Node schedule dependency diagram you may have seen in project management courses or in the Project Management Body of Knowledge.

To view the Network Diagram, go to View | Network Diagram. You can also click the Network Diagram in your View Bar, which is located on the left hand side of the screen. Figure G displays the Network Diagram. Figure G

Network Diagram

The tasks highlighted in red display the critical path, while the blue tasks are not on the critical path.

Microsoft Project can also create the standard forward pass and backward pass views with early starts and late finish data that you likely calculated if you prepared for your PMP exam. I'll cover this more advanced topic in a future tutorial.

If you'd like to see a video tutorial of these steps in action, please view my How to View the Critical Path in Microsoft Project video.

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About

Dr. Andrew Makar is an IT program manager and is the author of How To Use Microsoft Project and Project Management Interview Questions Made Easy. For more project management advice visit http://www.tacticalprojectmanagement.com.

4 comments
vilansmit
vilansmit

Thanks Dr.Makar, Your guide through viewing the critical path was of great help.

ryanspears
ryanspears

Great info. Thanks, Dr. Makar. My company is using OnePager Pro (from Chronicle Graphics) in conjunction with Microsoft Project to show our projects' critical paths. OnePager takes our data from Microsoft Project, creates a one-page Gantt chart, and illustrates the critical path. We use this in PowerPoint presentations to our senior management and to our customers. Here's a link to the OnePager tool we use: OnePager Pro

cscott4
cscott4

But good information none the less.

amakar
amakar

Hi - Thanks for the comment. A lot of my tutorials are written in a simple and direct how-to style. I could give you the 200 page dissertation on the topic, but who'd read it? I'm a big fan of the tactical approach that helps PMs deliver...but it helps to have a little theory too! Thanks! Dr. Andrew Makar http://www.tacticalprojectmanagement.com Tactical PM Project Status Report: Generate meaningful project metrics in less than 60 seconds

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