When it comes to planning projects, there are plenty of methods to choose from. One of the most common is the critical path method (CPM), which helps project managers identify and track the tasks that are necessary to complete a project.
The CPM takes into account each task’s duration and dependencies, as well as the overall timeline for the project. This allows project managers to focus on the tasks that have the biggest impact on the project’s overall timeline.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how the CPM works and how you can use it to manage your projects more effectively.
Critical path method, explained
So, what exactly is the critical path method? In short, it’s a way of organizing and tracking the tasks involved in a project so that you can identify and manage any potential risks.
The CPM works like this: project managers break down their project into a series of tasks, then create a timeline for each task. They also identify which tasks are dependent on others — that is, which tasks can’t start until other tasks have been completed.
Once all of this is done, the project manager can use the CPM to create a “critical path” for the project. The critical path is the sequence of tasks that have the biggest impact on the overall timeline — if any one of these tasks takes longer than expected, it will delay the entire project.
The CPM can also help project managers identify and manage any risks associated with individual tasks. For example, if a task is likely to be delayed, the project manager can work to minimize the impact of that delay on the overall timeline.
History and origins of CPM
In the 1950s, lots of progress was being made in terms of workplace efficiency and productivity. One of these advances was the critical path method (CPM), which revolutionized how work projects were managed. The creation of CPM is credited to two men, DuPont engineer J. Gordon Shenson and Remington Rand engineer Morgan R. Walker.
The two collaborated in the early 1950s to develop a way to optimize the planning and scheduling of construction projects. With a goal of reducing the amount of time and money wasted on inefficient projects, they used mathematical formulas to calculate the longest path of tasks (or “critical path”) that needed to be completed in order for a project to be finished on schedule.
The critical path method proved to be very successful, and soon enough, Kelley and Walker published an in-depth paper on the subject that quickly became a standard reference for project managers.
For a while, the cost of computing was a significant barrier to wider adoption of CPM. However, the advent of computers in the 1960s finally allowed managers to start using CPM on a large scale. The method has been refined over the years, but its basic tenets remain the same: identify the critical path, optimize for speed and minimize waste.
Benefits of using critical path method
There are several benefits to using the critical path method:
It can help you stay on track
As time is one of your most important controllables when it comes to project management, using a tool like the CPM is essential for staying on track. The CPM can help you identify and manage any potential delays, so you can make changes to your timeline as needed.
For instance, if you realize that a task is going to take longer than expected, you can adjust the rest of your timeline accordingly. This will help ensure that your project stays on track and doesn’t run into delays.
It can help you identify risks
The CPM can also help you identify any risks associated with individual tasks. It does so by taking into account each task’s duration and dependencies. This allows you to plan for potential risks, so you’re not caught off guard if something goes wrong.
For example, if you know that a task is likely to be delayed, you can work to minimize the impact of that delay on the overall timeline. Alternatively, you may choose to re-prioritize tasks if a delay is unavoidable.
It can help you make better decisions
The CPM isn’t just about identifying and managing risks — it can also help you make better decisions about your project. By taking into account each task’s duration and dependencies, the CPM can help you identify which tasks are most important to the success of your project.
This can help you make decisions about how to best spend your time and resources. For instance, if you know that a particular task is critical to the success of your project, you may want to invest more time and resources in ensuring that it is completed on time.
How to use the critical path method
Now that you know a little bit more about what the critical path method is and what it can do for you, let’s take a look at how you can actually use it to manage your projects.
1. Break down your project into tasks.
The first step is to break down your project into a series of tasks. This can be done in any number of ways, but it’s typically easiest to start with the end goal and work backwards.
For example, if you’re writing a report, your tasks might include:
- Researching information
- Writing the report
- Editing the report
- Proofreading the report
Each of these tasks can then be broken down into even more specific tasks, as needed.
2. Create a timeline for each task.
Once you have a list of tasks, it’s time to create a timeline for each one. This will help you visualize how each task relates to the others and how much time is needed for each one.
To estimate the duration of a task, you can use any number of methods, such as estimating how many hours it will take to complete or using historical data. Make sure to allow for some leeway, as unexpected delays can always happen.
3. Identify dependencies.
Next, you’ll need to identify which tasks are dependent on others — that is, which tasks can’t start until other tasks have been completed. This will help you create your critical path.
Dependencies can be identified in a number of ways, such as by looking at the task’s description or by using a chart like Gantt chart.
4. Create your critical path.
It is now time to create your critical path. This is done by plotting out the sequence of tasks that have the biggest impact on the overall timeline.
The critical path will change as you make changes to your timeline, so it’s important to revisit it regularly. It may look something like this:
5. Monitor your progress.
The final step is to monitor your progress and make any necessary changes to your timeline. This will help ensure that your project stays on track.
It’s a good idea to revisit your critical path regularly and update it as needed. This will help you stay focused on the tasks that are most important to the success of your project.
Tips for creating a successful critical path
As with any project management method, the framework in and of itself cannot guarantee success. However, there are a few things you can do to help increase your chances of success:
One of the biggest mistakes project managers make is setting unrealistic goals and timelines. This often happens when they’re trying to impress their bosses or clients. However, it’s important to be realistic about the amount of time each task will take.
This doesn’t mean you have to low-ball your estimates, but it’s important to allow for some flexibility. Remember, things always come up during a project and you don’t want to be forced to rush through the last few tasks just to meet your deadline.
Communicate with your team
The other key to a successful critical path is communication. Make sure to keep your team up-to-date on your progress and any changes to the timeline. No one wants to feel as though they’re working in the dark.
To do this, you might consider running regular status meetings or using a project management tool that allows for real-time updates.
Be prepared to make changes
As we mentioned earlier, the critical path is constantly evolving. This means that you need to be prepared to make changes to it as needed.
This may include re-ordering tasks, adjusting the duration of tasks, or even adding new tasks. The important thing is to be flexible and be prepared to adapt as your project progresses.
The critical path method is a valuable tool for project managers. It can help you stay on track, identify and manage risks, and make better decisions about your project.
To use the CPM effectively, you need to first break down your project into tasks, create timelines for each task, and identify dependencies. Then, you can use this information to create your critical path.
It’s important to monitor your progress and make changes to your timeline as needed. This will help ensure that your project stays on track and finishes on time.
Ready to put the critical path method to use on your own project? Use the tips above to get started.