Not all critical-path activities are critical

Activities included on a critical path include those that must be completed on time in order for a project to meet its deadline. Project Mentor Tom Mochal explains the importance of determining which activities should be included on 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
Donna had just implemented the new marketing-information database that her team had worked on for the last few months, and she invited me to attend their project conclusion meeting. The project was completed three weeks behind schedule and 15 percent over budget. These are not terrible numbers, but an interesting discussion with the project team uncovered the causes and how they could have been avoided.

“Knowing what we know today, what might we have done differently on the project to hit our deadline and budget?” Donna asked her team.

“For the first half of the project, everything seemed to be going according to schedule,” Bill, one of the database administrators, said. “But some of the design decisions we made up front didn’t pan out like we hoped, which caused us rework delays later.”

“That’s a good point,” Donna noted. “The design work is critical on a project that is deploying new technology. For a project like this, that work should have been on the critical path.”

“I think we also lost some focus toward the middle of the project,” Betty added. “As we started to create the physical database, we were heading into the holiday season. I think things started to slip at that point.”

Donna agreed. “It’s imperative to maintain work focus around the holidays. If I had to do it again, I would have added some of those activities to the critical path as well.”

Donna also noted that she had difficulty understanding some aspects of the team’s project-management tool. Specifically, the tool was cluttering the critical path with lots of insignificant activities. Other longer and more important activities were not on the path. “The next time I run a project, I’m going to move the more important activities onto the critical path so that I can place the proper amount of management focus on them,” she said.

The discussion on lessons learned from the project was a good one, but I didn’t want the team to encounter other problems on their next project from having a faulty understanding of critical path.

Mentor advice
It’s essential to understand that a project critical path does not provide any guidance as to what activities are important. From a technical standpoint, the critical path is the sequence of activities that must be started and completed on time for the entire project to close on time. In other words, there is no “float,” or slack, on any activity on the path. Imagine that you have a project that will take 300 days to complete. If the first activity on the critical path is one day late, the project will take 301 days to complete, unless another activity on the critical path can be completed one day earlier. There is a method for calculating critical path that requires a forward pass and a backward pass through the schedule. It’s easy for a computer to calculate, but it can get very tedious for people.

That said, note that I haven’t mentioned the relative importance of the activities on or off the critical path. In Donna’s case, she implies that activities included on the critical path are up to the project manager’s discretion. She is confusing those important activities that require extra team focus with those on the critical path. These need to be separated. The critical path may contain all the important activities on the project, or it may not. Understanding the critical path involves determining which activities are critical to complete on time. But other, “noncritical” activities may also be very important and require extra diligence and focus as well.

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.

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