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Microsoft Project 2010 : Reviewing the Big Picture (Critical Path Analysis)

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The critical path can be defined like more long way through your project and as a whole determines the date of completion for the project. The tasks which are on the critical path do not contain not slackness, thus if these tasks slip, a delay will have like consequence the chain of the tasks in your project. It is important to review the critical path of your project because it determines if your project can be accomplished within the deadlines.

Not knowing your critical path and what you can do to reduce it can cause problems, such as the following:

  • The overall project schedule might be extended unnecessarily.

  • As the project manager, you need to monitor the schedule to guard against slippage. If tasks are not on the critical path, improving the speed of delivering them will not change the project end date.

  • The critical path can and does change very quickly during the life of a project. As the project manager, you must continuously monitor the amount of slack available for tasks so that unexpected problems do not arise.

  • Your sponsor or client might be willing to shorten the schedule by using different task scheduling techniques or spending more money. You need to be able to identify these opportunities to your sponsor or client.

What Is My Current Critical Path?

The critical path is the longest path of linked tasks in the project and includes all tasks that impact the overall project end date if any of them are delayed. Some tasks have slack and, therefore, are not considered critical. Free slack is the amount of time a task can be delayed without delaying any successor tasks. Total slack is the amount of time a task can be delayed without delaying the finish date of the project. In addition to critical tasks, your project contains the near-critical tasks, tasks that are considered high risk and can potentially become critical. If a near-critical task slips and it is close to critical, it can jeopardize your critical path. This scenario is often overlooked, but when reviewing your critical path, pay attention to the tasks that can become critical if project conditions change.

You can use Microsoft Project to help you distinguish your critical path by applying a different text style to these tasks using the Text Styles tool. To do so, select the Format tab, Format, Text Styles. In the Text Styles dialog box under Item to Change, select Critical Tasks. Select a distinct font style, color, background color, and so on to help you visually distinguish critical tasks, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The critical-path tasks are styled in red, bold, italic font to help easily distinguish them from the rest of the schedule.

By default, Microsoft Project critical tasks are tasks with total slack less than or equal to 0. You can change the tolerance level and set the total slack to a different number you feel more comfortable with. To do so, open the Options dialog box by selecting the File tab, Options, Advanced, Calculation Options for This Project and change the number displayed in the Tasks Are Critical If Slack Is Less Than or Equal To option to, say, 4 days. As a result, additional tasks that are near-critical are then added and become part of the critical path, as shown in Figure 12.2.

Figure 2. Task D is a near-critical task because its Total Slack is greater than 0, but it is part of the critical path because the tolerance has been changed to 4 days.


Be aware of the impact of manually scheduled tasks on the critical path. A manually scheduled task scheduled to finish last on the project will always be “The” critical path. A manually scheduled task with a duration that extends beyond the end of the project but without a specified end date will wipe out critical path calculations completely. Always be sure your manually scheduled tasks are scheduled to finish before at least one auto-scheduled task to eliminate these issues. If manually scheduled tasks should be included in the critical path calculation, it’s a strong indication that their task mode should be changed to Auto-Scheduled.

You can display the Total Slack column in your current view to help you distinguish between the true critical tasks and the near-critical ones. To do so, click the column header, right-click, and then select Insert Column. In the Column Definition window, select Total Slack under Field Name and then click OK. Tasks whose Total Slack is less than or equal to 0 are your critical tasks, and tasks with slack greater than 0 that are still marked as part of your critical path are the near-critical ones.

How Can I Reduce the Duration of My Critical Path?

You will encounter situations when you need to reduce your project’s total duration. Here are two established methods for reducing your schedule duration and therefore the critical path:

  • Crashing— This common project management term refers to a method used to decrease the duration of an activity by assigning more resources. The distinguishing point of crashing when compared to the second method (fast tracking) is that crashing employs changes to resources to reduce the critical path. Be cautious because when you add more resources, you also add more cost, so be aware of the tradeoff conditions when using this method.

  • Fast tracking— This common method is used to reduce your project’s critical path duration by shortening a sequence or path of activities via overlapping or accomplishing activities in parallel. The fast-tracking method takes advantage of changes made to the activities schedule to reduce the critical path. This method might increase the quality risks to your project because activities are started before the original intended sequence.

Both of these methods achieve the same result but have different effects on your project.

When decreasing the critical path duration, you do have to be aware of the effects this has on the rest of your project attributes, such as scope, cost, and quality. All these variables are interdependent, so when you change one variable, one of the other variables has to change in order for the project to maintain balance. For example, if you crash your project schedule by adding additional resources to the project, your project cost will increase to accommodate for the pay of the added resources. Similarly, if you use the fast-tracking method and break a critical task into smaller tasks worked on by different resources, the quality of the project may suffer because the work is being divided between a lot of different people.

Strategies for Crashing the Schedule

As it was mentioned in the previous section, crashing the schedule is a technique used to help you reduce your critical path by making changes to the way the resources are scheduled in your project. This section discusses methods you can use to crash your project schedule.

Assigning Additional Resources

The first method for crashing your project schedule is to assign additional resources to the critical path tasks. Adding resources will in turn decrease the duration, thus shortening the critical path. When using this method, be aware of the effects it has on the rest of your project. If you have unlimited use of resources, this method can be a great way to reduce the critical path without it having any effects on your overall project. However, if you have to pay for the additional resources you add, you are increasing the overall cost of your project, which can put your project over budget. Carefully weigh your options to make sure that the tradeoffs you are making are worth it.

Scheduling Overtime

Another way to crash your schedule is to arrange overtime for the resources already assigned to the critical path tasks. This option can work well, but you must ensure that the resources are available to work overtime and that the amount of overtime is reasonable and not going to burn out your resources. You can schedule overtime by modifying the task’s calendar to schedule resources to work, for example, on Saturdays. Besides having negative effects on your resources, this method can also influence other aspects of your project, such as budget, if your resources are contracted to be paid overtime.

Strategies for Fast Tracking the Schedule

As mentioned previously, fast tracking is a technique used to reduce your project’s critical path duration by making changes to the way tasks are scheduled within your project. This section discusses methods you can use to fast track your schedule.

Parallel Scheduling

The first option is to revise the task dependencies to allow more parallel scheduling. This overlaps the activities within your schedule to shorten the overall critical path duration. There are times when this option is not feasible because the critical path tasks have Start-to-Finish relationships, and one cannot be started until the previous one is fully completed. In addition, this can have an effect on your project resources. For example, if you have the same resource working on the two tasks that you schedule to be performed in parallel, either the resource will be unable to complete his or her assignments or he or she will have to work overtime. This, in turn, can have an effect on your budget, if this resource gets paid an additional rate for the overtime hours. Make sure you evaluate the consequences of parallel scheduling and ensure that this will not cause further problems within your project.

Decomposing Tasks

The second option for fast tracking is to break critical tasks into smaller tasks that can be worked on simultaneously by different resources. The tradeoff of using this method is that it can potentially decrease the quality of work being performed on the tasks because you have many different people performing separate parts of the task. This can cause inconsistencies in the final product. In addition, ensure that the resources are available to perform the work that you schedule to prevent having resource-overallocation problems in the future.

Changing the Scope of Your Project

Changing the scope of your project is really a third technique that does not fit under either crashing or fast tracking the schedule, but it does enable you to reduce the length of your critical path. This option, however, generally requires the involvement of your project sponsors in that you must receive their approval. This option is commonly used on product development projects. For example, if the goal of a project is to release software as soon as possible, you may need to remove some of the features from the original design in order to have the project finish on time. The removed features can then be released as a patch later in the product life cycle or moved to a consecutive phase of the product release.

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