Why Managing Critical Path is Critical!

Practicing PMs should review their schedules on a regular basis to gauge if their project is on track or need some active management to correct any schedule deviation. If there is any deviation, there are a number of project management techniques that can be used to bring it back on schedule. This is where critical path method technique comes for the rescue!

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines the critical path method or more commonly termed critical path as “the sequence of schedule activities that determines the duration of the project.” Project managers can also apply the critical path methodology technique to “determine the amount of float on various logical network paths in the project schedule network to determine the minimum total project duration.”

Critical path method is a modeling technique and is commonly used with all forms of projects, including construction, aerospace and defense, software development, research projects, product development, engineering, among others. Any project with interdependent activities can apply this method of mathematical analysis

To identify a critical task is to construct a model of the project including the following:

  • A work breakdown structure
  • Estimating the time duration required for each activity
  • And dependencies between the activities

What is a Critical Task?

A task in your project schedule becomes critical if:

  • It has no slack
  • It has a Must Start On or Must Finish On date constraint.
  • It has an As Late As Possible constraint in a project scheduled from a start date.
  • It has an As Soon As Possible constraint in a project scheduled from a finish date.
  • It has a finish date that is the same as or beyond its deadline date.

Note that a task stops being critical when it’s marked as completed, because it then can no longer affect the completion of successor tasks or the project finish date

What is Fast-Tracking?

Fast tracking means that activities that are normally done in sequence are done partially in parallel by adjusting the resource availability upfront. For instance instead of waiting for entire design of your IT project to be completed, you consider starting a chunk of development/coding work in parallel. Fast-tracking at times involves risk that could lead to increased cost and some rework later. For example if the design changes at a later stage, development work done in parallel to design may lead to complete or major re-work! So Project Managers have to evaluate based on unique situation of their projects after careful consideration of trade off.

If you’re willing and able to spend more to accelerate the schedule, fast-tracking may be a viable option for you.

Crashing the project schedule

“Crashing” the schedule means to throw additional resources to the critical path without necessarily getting the highest level of efficiency.

For instance, let’s say one person was working on a ten-day activity on the critical path. If you were really hard pressed to shorten this timeframe, you might add a second resource to this activity. Additional resources may come from within the project team, or they may be loaned temporarily from outside the team so crashing usually always leads to some additional incremental cost to the project. Additionally you may also like to evaluate following techniques depending on your project situation;

  • Schedule overtime.
  • Shorten the duration or work on a task on the critical path.
  • Change a task constraint to allow for more scheduling flexibility.
  • Break a critical task into smaller tasks that can be worked on simultaneously by different resources.
  • Revise task dependencies to allow more scheduling flexibility.

In conclusion, both Fast-Tracking and Crashing should be applied only on Critical Tasks on your project schedule, as if they are applied on non-critical tasks they won’t be much useful. Also note that Fast-Tracking is always considered first line of defense mostly because it does not increase your project cost.

Shyam Verma, PMP, ITIL
IT Project & Program Delivery Professional
LinkedIn:spverma. Twitter: Shammy11
This article is also available on blog site http://pmpower.wordpress.com

Managing Project Scope Effectively

For most projects, keeping the project schedule and cost in control pose the biggest challenge and stake holder expectation after the level of quality. A tight definition and active management of project scope can not only deliver instant results but also relive you of unnecessary squeeze on your project resources. Here are some ideas that can put you back in track or give you some directions on your next high profile project!

  • Scope statement: at times the scope of your project is not very clearly defined from the beginning or is under defined to say the least. Please remember the scope statement that was prepared at the time of Pre-Sales stages or before the actual analysis phase may not be sufficient or complete. So spend some time verifying the fact if some additional things made their way or something that was cut to meet timeline or budget constraint. It is a good practice to serialize key business requirements for estimation of time and cost. Also remember the initial scope statement is only for an interim period until the scope definition is completed as part of planning phase.
  • Objectivity of outcome: compare the statement “Improve service by providing an information system to respond to customer inquiries.” With “Able to answer customer queries last 2 monthly statements and last 60 days transaction over the phone.” Clearly focusing on the outcome brings more clarity and saves lot of vagueness and future disputes with your customer over actual intent. It is recommended that scope definition or project charter is developed in iteration essentially with customer involvement using an authorized document format.
  • Managing Scope Creep: This is a common problem where requirements are not clear and complete. Essentially this is due to incorrect interpretation of the requirements or due to requirement gaps in the scope definition. Sometime additional requirements come up after more clarity emerges or there are changes in stakeholder expectations due to changes in external environments. Therefore it is essential that your project plan has provision to incorporate and approve new requirements and modifications in existing one after careful consideration of impacts by project CCB (change control board) or governance board
  • Project deliverables: An internal deliverable is something that project produces as part of the project for internal use e.g. E-R diagram while an external deliverable is something that project team provides to the business users. I have seen some PMOs require that assigned PMs define internal and external deliverables (with agreed templates) and track at least phase by phase to ensure timely delivery and sign off with customer. This is a good practice and provides a level of comfort and confidence to the stakeholders as well.
  • Functional specifications: Scope definitions could be done using multiple techniques. This could also help in closing missed gaps. One of the techniques is to capture major functionalities by using decomposition. This could be done at the same time with data definition if possible. However if that is not practical the functional specification could provide the required data requirement.
  • Specify Assumptions: Each project initiatives have some or the other dependencies represented by assumptions. It is recommended that each of these assumptions are documented at relevant deliverables and followed up at the earliest. As the false assumptions could pose potential challenges to the project plans in terms of schedule milestones, resources, quality and cost constraints.

While most project managers focus too much on these two constraints however the biggest issue that results in to time as well as cost overrun is not able to manage scope of the defined project. Therefore, a tight definition and active management of project scope can not only deliver instant results but also relive you of unnecessary squeeze on your project resources.

Shyam Verma, PMP, ITIL
Program & portfolio Mgnt professional
LinkedIn:spverma. Twitter: Shammy1

Creating Excel WBS

So you are small team working on projects and don’t have MS Project or similar automated tools to plan your project WBS? Don’t despair your very own MS excel can do the trick for you. Here is how!

Decompose Your Project

Before you begin to create your Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) in Microsoft Excel, you should first decompose your project. Decomposing your project means identifying deliverables, and breaking each deliverable down into its component tasks. You will keep doing this until you get to the smallest work packages possible. You then should assign an ID to each work package based upon the relationships between the task items. These work packages will then make up the items of your WBS. For information on decomposing projects, you will want to check out my series on decomposition, especially How to Decompose your Projects.

Setting up Excel

Once you have properly decomposed your project, you should set up Microsoft Excel to receive your data. Open a new worksheet. Across the top, create at least the following columns:

  • Task ID
  • Task Description
  • Predecessor
  • Owner
  • Role
  • % Complete
  • Start Date
  • Finish Date
  • Deliver To

After creating the columns, you will format the cells. The first cell to format is the Task ID cell. To do this, highlight the column you have designated for the task ID numbers by clicking on the letter at the top of the column. If you do not format the cells, when you type “1.0”, the computer will automatically reformat it to “1.” Right click on the selected column and choose “format cells” from the drop-down menu. Then, in the “Format Cells” menu, choose “Number” and set “Decimal Places” to “1.” The next cell you will need to format in the same way is the “predecessor” cell. This cell will track task dependencies, so you will need to be able to have accurate decimal points here. Set this cell up the same way you set the task ID cell up. Set the duration cell up to accept numbers and the start and finish date columns to accept dates entered.

Enter Your Data

Once you have your Excel Worksheet set up, you can enter your data. Enter in everything you have from your papers where you decomposed your project. Once you have entered your data into the Excel Worksheet, you will be ready to move on to the next step.

Using Conditional Formatting

Once all of your data has been entered into the Excel worksheet, you can play around with the conditional formatting feature. Say you wish to create a report of all the tasks due within a given time range. Highlight your start and finish date columns by click-and-dragging over the two letters representing those columns. Next, select “Conditional Formatting” from the Excel toolbar. Once you have done this, select “Highlight Cell Rules” and then “A Date occurring….” From the drop-down menu that appears, you will select “next week” and instantly all of your tasks due next week will be highlighted.

You can use conditional formatting to highlight tasks that have been assigned to a specific person, tasks that are on the lowest end of completion, and tasks associated with a specific milestone or deliverable. One more useful feature is “data bar.” This bar will graphically represent percent complete column. Access it in conditional formatting menu. Read more:http://www. Brighthub.com/office/project-management

Shyam Verma, PMP, ITIL
Program & portfolio mgnt professional
LinkedIn:spverma. Twitter: Shammy11