What Is Critical Path Analysis?

Critical path analysis is a project management technique used to chart every task involved in a planned project while identifying the latest date each can be completed without jeopardizing the overall deadline. This method takes into account the interdependent roles of each functional part of a team.

This planning method is designed to anticipate any potential snags in the process. The final plan serves as a type of roadmap for the team to follow from start to finish.

Understanding the Critical Path

Anyone scheduling a project hopes to deliver it in the shortest possible time. But the most critical date for each major task in a project is the last date at which it can be completed without jeopardizing progress on one or more other major tasks.

For example, a critical path analysis for a planned new product launch might include these tasks:

  • Acquiring prototype parts and equipment.
  • Creating a product prototype.
  • Hiring and training product support team.
  • Testing product prototype.
  • Preparing marketing materials.
  • Launching a prototype in a test market.
  • Gathering and analyzing feedback from tests.
  • Finalizing products.
  • Launching products.

Key Takeaways

  • The critical path is the longest possible time a project will take to complete.
  • A critical path analysis details every task in a project and how long it will take to finish.
  • The analysis must consider dependencies between tasks.
  • The analysis is used to track a project from start to finish.

Clearly, the product prototype can't be built before the parts and equipment arrive. The company can't analyze feedback from the test before the product support team is hired. And it can't finalize the product before it gets that feedback.

For those reasons, at least three tasks on this list must be completed by a set date or any one of them will jeopardize the entire product launch: Acquiring prototype parts and equipment, hiring and training support staff, and gathering and analyzing feedback from tests.

That latest date at which these three tasks must be completed is crucial to the completion of other tasks on time. Those dates are on "the critical path." The final delivery date will reflect the last date at which every task on the critical path can be completed.

On the other hand, preparation of the marketing materials may not be on the critical path. Although it is crucial that they are completed by the launch date, a delay before then would not delay the product rollout. The completion date for this task has "float."

Creating a Critical Path Analysis

Most project managers these days use software tools to help them construct a critical path analysis.

To begin, the project manager must input all the data relevant to the analysis. That includes a list of all the major tasks that must be completed and how long each will take, in both the best case and the worst. The dependencies among all these tasks must be indicated, and each task must be identified as either critical or floating.

The result is a complex chart that identifies the final project deadline as the latest possible completion date of all of these dependent tasks.

Implementing a Critical Path Analysis

Critical path analysis is a method of planning and implementing a complex project that takes into account the sequence of activities that must occur for its successful completion. Inevitably, the unexpected occurs, and the critical path analysis must be revised.

The critical path analysis is used to track progress throughout the duration of a project. Team members use it to alert each other and management of potential problems and unexpected events. Changes that may have an impact on critical path activities generally require management review and approval.