What Is a Critical Path Analysis?

For a project manager, few tools are as valuable as critical path analysis. But what is critical path analysis and why is it important? This technique, also commonly called the critical path method, gives PMs clarity into project dependencies while helping them map out deadlines and monitor project progress. 

Read on to learn why it’s so crucial for project managers and their teams, and how you can most effectively use the critical path method by implementing the right project management tools

What is critical path analysis?

In order to understand critical path analysis, it’s important to know what the critical path itself is. In every project, there are tasks that absolutely must be completed before the project can be considered successful. These are the critical tasks. 

What’s more, certain critical tasks are going to have to be completed before other critical tasks can be performed. These tasks are connected by a dependency, meaning that the completion of one is dependent upon the completion of the one before it. 

Critical path analysis is a project management technique in which the project’s critical tasks are identified and sequenced according to their dependencies. The result of the critical path analysis is the project’s critical path — that is, the chain of non-negotiable, dependent tasks that must be performed in sequential order before the project can be successfully completed. 

Why is critical path analysis important?

Since its development in the late 1950s, the critical path method has been adopted by project managers across industries and sectors for good reason: it’s highly effective for mapping project life cycles and setting realistic timelines for both individual task and overall project completion.

Although a project may contain multiple task sequences, there can only be one critical path. This is why the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines the critical path method as “the sequence of scheduled activities that determines the duration of the project.” Because the project cannot be considered complete or successful until every critical task has been executed, the critical path sets the schedule for the entire project. 

Since it plays such a key role in scheduling, critical path analysis is also important for avoiding bottlenecks that can hamstring projects and lead to delayed delivery

Critical path analysis example

Conducting a critical path analysis comes down to a few key steps: 

  1. Identify and list all the tasks associated with the project. This includes listing every deliverable that will be required. 
  2. Separate the critical tasks from the non-critical ones. 
  3. Place the critical tasks in sequential order, noting all dependencies. 
  4. Determine the earliest start date, latest start date, earliest finish date, and latest finish date for each critical task. 

To illustrate the concept, let’s look at a critical path analysis example. 

Say you want to bake a birthday cake (we’ll keep it simple and use a pre-made cake mix). First, list all the tasks that go into the project. In this case, that could include:

  • Purchasing the cake mix, eggs, oil, frosting, and any other decorations or accessories such as candles.
  • Heat up the oven. 
  • Prepare the cake batter by combining the eggs, oil, and mix in a bowl. 
  • Pour the batter into a cake pan. 
  • Bake the cake according to the time listed on the cake mix box.
  • Once baked, frost and decorate the cake as desired. 
  • Put the candles on the cake. 

Next, analyze your task list and determine the critical tasks and the non-critical ones. For instance, is frosting the cake essential to the cake’s delivery? Or is it a non-critical task? Once you’ve determined the cake’s critical path, you can figure out the timeline based on the earliest and latest start and end dates for those critical tasks. 

Critical path analysis tools

Of course, conducting a critical path analysis is simplified when you have the right tools and technology on your side. With Wrike, you’ll be empowered with a project management platform designed specifically to help you coordinate resources, determine dependencies, and monitor schedules across multiple projects at once. 

Wrike’s built-in Gantt charts also help you visualize your projects’ critical paths and track their progress from start to finish. If you’re ready to see just how Wrike can help you and your project teams increase efficiency and streamline operations, fill out the form below to begin a free two-week trial today!

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