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Critical path analysis

The process of representing a complex project by network and using it to identify the most efficient way to complete that is called Critical path analysis. It utilizes a chart, consisting of a series of circles, each representing a particular part of a project, and lines representing the activities that link the parts together.

CPA is similar to PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique) but uses a deterministic model, ie. the duration of the activities and their cost are know with certainty. This method was originally developed around 1957 to assist in the building and maintenance of chemical plants at du Pont. The first step here is to decide what the tasks are, which tasks depend on which and how long they will each take. Once you have defined the relationship between the tasks and their durations you need to derive two numbers for each task:

  1. The earliest starting time for the task (EST)

    . Starting from the earliest (starting) task in the project, the EST of the task is the EST of the preceding (dependant) task plus the previous one's duration. This is calculated for each task.
  2. The latest starting time for the task (LST)

    . Starting with the last task in the project, the LST of the preceding task is the LST of the task minus its duration. This is calculated for each task.

The difference between these two numbers is the float of each task. This is something that cannot be associated with the tasks inside a critical path. You will understand why.
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Critical path analysisCritical path analysis (CPA) is used to organize and plan projects so they are completed on time and within budget. The project is structured so tasks that are dependant on each other are identified so that critical tasks can be identified.

A Critical path analysis reviews a series of events or tasks in terms of start dates and end dates, as well as interdependencies among such tasks to identify critical tasks (to the project). These are tasks that, by definition, cannot be delayed or take longer than their estimate without impacting the time the overall project will take. There is no slack (or float) in them.

These tasks give the critical path. Other tasks in the project could have happened slightly earlier or later or take longer without affecting the duration of the project (providing they remain within their float). That's why tasks outside this mesh only, have 'float' time associated with them.

Within a project it is likely that you will display your final project plan as a Gantt Chart (using Microsoft Project or other software for projects of medium complexity or an excel spreadsheet for projects of low complexity).The benefit of using CPA within the planning process is to help you develop and test your plan to ensure that it is robust. Critical path analysis formally identifies tasks which must be completed on time for the whole project to be completed on time. It also identifies which tasks can be delayed if resource needs to be reallocated to catch up on missed or overrunning tasks. The disadvantage of CPA, if you use it as the technique by which your project plans are communicated and managed against, is that the relation of tasks to time is not as immediately obvious as with Gantt Charts. This can make them more difficult to understand.

A further benefit of Critical path analysis is that it helps you to identify the minimum length of time needed to complete a project. Where you need to run an accelerated project, it helps you to identify which project steps you should accelerate to complete the project within the available time.

Remember, it is important to identify project opportunities on the critical path in order to reduce the overall lead time. Project opportunities in process areas not on the critical path will reduce the duration of the subprocess, but result in increased float time rather than impacting total lead time.

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