Using Critical Path Analysis to Keep Projects on Track

by Craig Anthony

2 min read

Critical path analysis is a project management technique that identifies the activities needed to complete a task, the time required, and the relationships between task-related activities. Learn how to use this tool in your small business to increase the effectiveness of your actions.

Benefits of Critical Path Analysis

Critical path analysis helps you plan all the tasks that are related to a business project. Overall, the method is about schedule preparation and resource planning. You can monitor all project-related activities continuously and easily identify any actions that you need to take to keep the project on schedule. The method has four main benefits and uses:

  1. It helps you identify each activity that you must complete on or before a specific date to finish the entire project by a scheduled date.
  2. It determines which activities or tasks you can delay without affecting the project’s on-time completion. If you can delay a task, critical path analysis helps determine how long you can delay it.
  3. It helps you calculate the minimum amount of time it will take to complete the entire project.
  4. It determines the earliest and latest dates each specific activity of the project can start to maintain the overall project schedule to keep the entire project progressing.

How to Use Critical Path Analysis

The main concept behind this method is that a large project is essentially a sequence of activities. Some activities can’t be completed – or even started – until other activities are finished. As a simple example, you can’t serve coffee until it has been brewed. It can’t be brewed until it is ground. It can’t be ground until it is portioned, which can’t be completed until it is unpacked. These are sequential tasks. Other activities, known as parallel tasks, don’t depend on other tasks. You can do these tasks at any time during the process of completing the project. First, list all activities and tasks required to complete the entire project. For each activity, list the earliest date it can be started, how long it is estimated to take, and whether the activity is sequential or parallel. List out what each sequential task depends upon. Next, order all of these tasks as logically as possible based on earliest start date and dependency on each other. Critical path analyses are represented as circle and line diagrams. Draw out a diagram where each activity is written within a circle, and the flow of tasks from one circle to the next is connected by arrows. This visualization helps uncover further sequential dependencies. Various software products exist to make the process easier, such as Microsoft Project, Smartsheet, and Power Angle.

Estimate Activity Time With Program Evaluation and Review Techniques

A program evaluation and review technique is used during critical path analysis to make more conservative estimates of the time it should take for each activity. It helps to protect against the natural bias of creating unrealistically short completion time frames. The formula is:Estimated Activity Time = (Shortest Possible Time + (4 x Likely Time) + Longest Possible Time) / 6

References & Resources

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