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How To Use the Project Critical Path Technique

Dick Billows, PMP

Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

The critical path is the longest sequence of tasks in a project. It determines the project’s duration and completion date. It’s easy to use project critical path analysis to determine the duration and optimize your project plans to finish as quickly as possible. Let’s see an example of how to correctly use the critical path technique. Project Schedule & Software Main Page

Chris Pimbock, the Impudent Project Manager, walked over to a vacant seat the crowded passenger boarding area at gate #63. Chris joined two sullen business travelers waiting to fly home on a Friday evening. They were staring out through the big plate glass windows of the terminal at a mechanic standing atop an aluminum ladder working on the jet’s port engine.

The blue-suited professional sitting to Chris’ left muttered, “The gate attendant better wake up. Those dopes have to get another mechanic working on that engine pronto!  That’s a critical path task. Without working engines, we won’t go anywhere!”

The thoroughly-wrinkled passenger across the aisle growled, “Naah, that captain and his crew all keep looking at their watches. I bet they are about to go off duty. Without a crew, we won’t go anywhere. Getting a new crew is what that gate attendant should be working on instead of reading a magazine. That’s the critical path.”

Feigning ignorance, Chris Pimbock asked, “How do you know what’s on the project critical path?

With an exasperated sigh, the guy in the blue suit said, “Experience. Hey, I do this stuff for a living and I know a critical path task when I see one.” The other man nodded agreement.

Chris casually looked over the boarding area at gate #63 and the tarmac. The fight crew was still sitting in the corner chatting. The food truck was parked on the tarmac with the driver reading a magazine A fuel truck waited with the driver watching the mechanic. The gate attendant had left her station and gone to help at the next gate, #61, to get the passengers for that flight checked-in and on board.

The rumpled guy shouted at Chris, “Is that stupid gate attendant gonna get more mechanics? Wait, look the food truck just drove off. That gate attendant is an idiot; ignoring us and working at another gate! Now we’ll have to wait even longer for another food truck while she helps her buddy at the next gate.”

Chris said, “Ahh, give the woman some credit, she knows what she is doing.”project critical path

“That’s crazy. Look the fuel truck is leaving too!” the wrinkled PM snorted. “All she cares about are the passengers at gate #61!

Chris frowned and asked, “So the gate attendant should be assigning more mechanics to the critical path task and getting another fuel truck. Is that critical too?”

The two PMs sneered at Chris. One muttered, “Duh.”

The other PM nodded sadly and said, “Sure. You’ve got to really watch the project critical path tasks like a hawk. And when you add more people you get the tasks done faster.”

Just then the first PM said, “Look,” and pointed out the window at the mechanic who was waving frantically at the gate attendant and holding up a broken wrench and mouthing the words, “Need a new wrench!”

The gate attendant was too busy at the other gate to look out the window. Failing to catch the attendant’s eye, the mechanic picked up his broken wrench and tried to work with it, shaking his head in frustration.

Chris said, “What happened?”

“Thanks to that moron at the gate, this whole thing will be delayed even longer. The mechanic needs a new tool and she couldn’t see him because she has abandoned us and gone to gate #61. I’m gonna tell her what a dope she is!”

As the wrinkled PM rose to walk to the counter, Chris noted that the plane at gate #61 was leaving. He said, “I would give it a minute or two before you make a jerk of yourself.”

The wrinkled PM slumped back down and said. “That gate attendant has really botched this flight. We’re going to be here for hours.”

They settled back into their chairs and in a moment the gate attendant picked up a black microphone and cleared her throat.

The blue suit predicted, “Now, that dope is going to cancel the flight.”

The loud speakers in the waiting room hissed as a new food truck arrived and the attendant said, “Our new airplane will be pulling up to gate #61 momentarily. Please move to that gate now. We will board in 5 minutes, the plane is fueled, the food is on board and we’re ready to go.”

Chris said, “I guess that gate attendant did the calculations and decided that the sequence of tasks involved in fixing the plane, fueling it, provisioning the food and replacing the crew was longer than getting us a new plane that was ready to go. She used the duration data, not just guesses about what task was critical. She kept her eye on the right critical path the whole time. Most importantly she focused on the correct scope; getting us home tonight, not just fixing the plane.”

Project Critical Path Summary

To learn to identify and optimize the project critical path, consider taking one of our online, instructor-led courses. In these courses, you’ll get coaching from an expert instructor as you practice applying the “best practice” techniques to realistic project case studies. You can work at your own pace to fit your schedule.

 

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