Finding Roadblocks in the Critical Path

Mark Meshulam

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Most projects are composed of multiple steps, and often these steps are performed by more than one person. In the art/science of scheduling for project management, these steps are called activities.

When an activity is completed, it is said to have attained its milestone. One might simplistically think of a project as a succession of activities which, laid end-to-end, eventually complete the project.

But when is life ever that simple? Projects are rarely so linear that when one activity reaches its milestone the next starts.

In the real world there are many activities which interact in different ways. For instance, there are “independent" activities which can run simultaneously and apart from each other. However they almost always come together at a certain point, that is to say they share a common milestone. The shared milestone could be the project endpoint, or it could also be a waystation along the path to completion.

Similarly, there are also “dependent" activities which can't even start until the previous activity reaches its milestone.

Most projects contain a macrame of interweaving activities, both independent and dependent. It is a task of project management to discern and manage the “critical path", that chain of activities within the weave which truly drives, or delays the project.

Charting these activities, showing anticipated time durations and dependencies is a first important step toward getting your project under control. There are numerous charting systems which all have the same basic elements. Some search words for you to explore further: “Gantt", “PERT", “CPM chart".

These systems can also add other levels to your analysis such as the allocation of resources to each activity, early and late starts, and also progress reporting. They are scalable so that projects ranging from baking a turkey to building a nuclear power plant can all be planned and tracked.

And, as you might imagine, there are herds of software vendors galloping to help you. Try a word search on “scheduling software" and see what I mean. In construction, where I spend most of my time, I see people using Microsoft Project for medium sized projects and Primavera for the mega-projects. But even Microsoft Project can be overkill for a smaller project with only a few handfuls of activities.

A key factor in scheduling, and keeping your project on track is the analysis of previous performance data, observation and gut-instinct.

If you have inaccurate estimates of activity durations, project performance will obviously be affected. Use data from past projects to make your current schedule better and more realistic.

Spending the time to actually watch the work and talk to people will help tremendously in not only planning but also the successful implementation of the schedule. On the ground, hands-on “subjective" data is at the core of any project and should not be ignored.

Training of workers to spot bottlenecks will yield great results. When terms such as “bottleneck" and “roadblock" become a part of every meeting, they become absorbed into team thinking. Your most effective project will be the one in which all participants have the tools to be scheduling experts.

Copyright 2005

Mark Meshulam offers: hotkey screen grabs and keyboard shortcuts, email ticker reminder system, and send large files with FTP using download links.


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