Processes and projects generally go faster when the critical path is identified and given constant attention. But what exactly is the critical path?
In short, it is the sequence of tasks determining the
time needed to get something done.
Shorten the critical path and the work gets done faster. Allow tasks on the critical path to take more time, and the work takes longer. (The elapsed time to complete the work won't change if the tasks not on the critical path take somewhat longer.)
For these reasons, understanding the critical path is the key to getting anything but the simplest things done on time, or better still, faster.
Five steps to figuring out the critical path:
- Lay out the tasks necessary to get something done.
- Identify which of those tasks must be completed before another specific task can begin.
- Line up each task in a flow chart based on those dependencies. So if task D can't start before task A is completed, task D is linked to task A (but not tasks B or C).
- Estimate the time needed to complete each task.
- Make the lines in the flow chart represent the time to complete each task.
The longest line that snakes through the tasks that are dependent on a previous task is the critical path.
Understand What is Required
The first step, laying out the tasks, requires knowing what those tasks are. If the project is something you have done before, this should be not too difficult.
For example, in my corporate days, there were many instances in which I was able to shorten the time to close the books and report. I have faced this situation frequently enough that I can figure out the critical path easily. Same for laying out the steps to develop a 13-week cash flow
for the first time. It’s likely that you also have circumstances where past experience allows you to identify the necessary tasks quickly.
In some cases, while
may not be familiar with the situation, there may be others who are, whether within your organization or as outside experts (knowing what must be done, how, and how long, is what experts are good at).
For example, when I first entered the rent-a-car business, I was immediately charged with consolidating seven accounting offices into one regional office. The industry was completely new to me, so I traveled extensively and listened to what people thought needed to be done. Many had been in the industry for a long time and with different companies. I had lots of in-house experts and I listened. Further, I used my experience with similar functions in other businesses as a reference point.
Using my background and the input of the experts, we developed a high-level list of tasks; from that, a critical path emerged. We followed it, adjusted along the way, and nine months later all accounting was being done in a single, brand new, regional office.
Sometimes, of course, you need to know the critical path for something that has never been done before. Or, you have done it before but today's circumstances are radically different. In those cases, consider breaking the project into smaller chunks that are in approximate order. Then dive in a chunk at a time.
Above all, when the terrain is new, listen, adjust, and listen some more, continuing to fine-tune as you go.
When the Critical Path is Stalled
If the critical path gets bogged down, try to understand why and take steps to clear it.
Not enough resources? Get more. Are someone’s priorities not in synch with the project? Straighten out the priorities. Are decisions being made based on wrong or incomplete information? Uncover the facts and shed light on the confusion.
All that said, if the critical path will be stalled for a while, work on the other tasks. They need to get done as well. In particular, look for things you can do that are on or close to the critical path to your goal.
A few more tips…
Periodically reassess. Along the way, the status of the project may change. If that happens, take care to see if the critical path has changed, too. There may be new tasks, new obstacles, tasks that are no longer critical, or a change in the required duration of existing tasks.
Challenge the sequential nature of tasks. Can more tasks be done in parallel (i.e., parallel to the critical path)? This can shorten the critical path and allow the project to be completed faster. It also allows key players to delegate tasks, only doing what they really need to do.
Monitor by walking around. People need to feel free to tell you if things have changed or if your understanding of reality turns out to be misguided in some form. In formal status meetings, it is often easier to not speak up and just kick the can down the road, so facilitating informal communication can be key. You can’t listen if you are not readily available to listen. And, often, people won’t speak up unless you engage with them.
Understanding the tasks necessary to lay out the critical path — and monitoring them closely from there — is essential to ensuring that the necessary work in your organization gets done properly and on time.
If you begin by getting your arms around the critical path at the outset, you'll save time, money, rework, and frustration.