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What Is Critical Path Method (CPM) Project Management?

The critical path method (CPM) of project management helps you plan projects and keep them on track to meet deadlines. This technique allows you to figure out how long it should take to complete each step of the project in order to create an accurate timeline with regular reviews of progress toward the key deliverables. CPM can help reduce inefficiencies, identify resourcing needs and make it easier to manage budgets, so it’s important to understand how to effectively use it for your own company.

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What is the critical path method of project management?

CPM project management is a method of identifying key tasks over the course of a project to ensure that you deliver results on schedule. The process established how tasks can best be scheduled based on the order in which they need to be completed and the duration of each task. You can establish the critical path method in collaboration with other teams or use project management software to analyze more detailed data.

This method of project management sets out clear expectations and opportunities in order to adapt and review the plans for a project. You may be able to define your own timeframe, or you may have an external deadline that you need to adhere to. Using a critical path project management system can make your planning much more effective. It can also allow you to reallocate resources more efficiently when facing unexpected delays or additional tasks.

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Common types of critical paths

Using CPM relies on everyone understanding how their contribution fits into the schedule. A visual representation of the planned workflow is usually the most effective way to show the timeline, tasks and deliverables.

There are a few different ways of representing the tasks associated with a project when using the critical path method:

  • Work breakdown structure:Using a tree structure to represent the hierarchy of the tasks, each element of the project is broken down into groups of individual tasks.
  • Project evaluation and review technique (PERT):This flexible approach, which incorporates elements of uncertainty, focuses on the time it takes to complete a project and allows scheduling even with minimal details.
  • Activity-on-node diagram:This diagramming method displays the precedence of activities using nodes connected by arrows to show the direction of workflow through the process.
  • Flowchart:This is a step-by-step representation of the processes used to complete tasks with arrows to direct you along the path.

Your critical path diagram should show the longest path between the start and finish of a project. It should include the duration of each task, dependencies and "float" tasks, which are tasks that can be delayed.

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How to identify a critical path

In order to determine your project’s critical path, follow these steps:

  1. List the tasks required
  2. Assess the length of time required for each task
  3. Check task dependencies
  4. Identify key milestones and deliverables
  5. Plan your critical path

1. List the tasks required

First, you need to separate the project into a list of tasks. This may involve using a work breakdown structure to organize the tasks involved in the project. By identifying the important deliverables and deadlines, you can calculate the timeframe your project needs.

2. Assess the length of time required for each task

Once you’ve listed all the tasks you need to complete, figure out how long each step will take. Use estimated times for tasks if necessary. Some tasks may have a period of lag or times where they don’t require any resource input for a portion of their duration. This could include tasks such as running an automated report, allowing concrete to set or waiting for an appointment to meet with a stakeholder.

3. Check task dependencies

If one or more of your tasks cannot be completed until another has been finished, then you need to ascertain the details of these dependencies as well. Dependent tasks need to be scheduled in a way that eliminates clashes and ensures that delays don’t disrupt the entire plan.

4. Identify key milestones and deliverables

Depending on the nature of the project, you may need to report your progress to external stakeholders. These may form the basis of your milestone planning, but it can also be dependent on external deadlines or events.

5. Plan your critical path

Once you have all this information, calculate how long your list of tasks could reasonably be expected to take. Determine the most important tasks to schedule and calculate the earliest each task could start. It’s also possible to give tasks deadlines for completion to ensure that they don’t delay the project’s overall timeline.

This method of organizing the tasks required for a project will help you find the most efficient way to schedule each project element. It makes it easier to allocate resources, assess reporting systems and finalize timelines.

Critical path FAQs

Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about the critical path method in project management:

When can you use the critical path method?

CPM can be used to improve the efficiency of almost any project because it helps keep work on track. You may have tasks that can "float" without affecting the project’s end date, so you can plan the workloads of those working on the project to be as efficient as possible.

How does the critical path method help work out the shortest time required to complete a project?

It may seem counterintuitive to choose the longest path between the various project tasks, but the critical path is the one that includes the most important tasks. If there are tasks that are dependent on the completion of critical tasks, they must be included in your path to ensure that the timelines are accurate and to reflect the order in which the various elements must be prioritized.

What do the terms "float" and "slack" mean in regard to CPM project management?

Some tasks can be delayed without impacting the completion time. These can be assigned a value for "float" or "slack," which describes how long they can be delayed without affecting the project’s completion. Critical tasks have no float, as the critical path relies on their completion within the deadline. If you can delay a task without affecting dependent tasks, it’s called "free float," and if delaying a task will have no impact on the overall project, it’s called "total float."

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