Don’t let your critical path become a highway to heartbreak


  • The critical path is the longest time it will take to complete a project and is just as important on small projects as it is on big ones.
  • You can find the critical path by identifying the main tasks that determine project success.
  • When you identify the factors that could derail your critical path, you’ve reduced the risks in the project.

Whether you use Gantt Charts or not, every project you do has a critical path and when it hits a dead end, you’ve got big problems. You don’t have to know logarithms and algorithms to keep your critical path open, but if you ever want to master construction schedules you do need to know what that path is, where to find it and what affects it.

If you’re using a project management tool like Primavera or Microsoft Project you know software can handle many aspects of tracking your critical path on projects. But let’s face it: There are countless projects where people use spreadsheets for the schedule, or a yellow legal pad. The critical path is harder to see for those projects, making it more likely managers will miss variables that could throw a project off schedule. It doesn’t have to be that way. On small projects, you can still enjoy the advantages of tracking the critical path without using software.

Find the path

Knowing the critical path is key to understanding the longest time it will take to complete a project’s tasks. As an example, let’s use a small project with three tasks. You need to paint the drywall in a room. This means you’ll have to prepare, then cut in, then roll. To prepare, you have to gather the tools and materials—let’s say you allotted an hour for that task. The room doesn’t have any closets so you figure two hours to cut in. Finally, you allot an hour to roll the field. You haven’t allowed any slack or cushion in your estimate of times, so the project from start to finish should take four hours.

If you skip any one of those three steps, you can’t complete the project, so those three tasks make up your critical path.

If you skip any one of those three steps, you can’t complete the project, so those three tasks make up your critical path. Now, suppose the people who did the drywall didn’t get finished early enough for their work to cure and be ready for paint. This will affect your critical path because your painter will have to wait for the drywall work to cure before starting.

In an ideal world, the fix is pretty simple. Once the drywall work is cured, send the painter back to do the painting. But it’s not so simple if the painter is a sub and is expected on another job at that time. You can’t adjust payment downward to the painter either because it’s not their fault they can’t finish. And you’ll have to send someone else back in and pay extra to have the painting finished.

Discover the risks

You’ve just discovered your critical path is in jeopardy. But you need to know the potential risks long before the unfixable happens. Here’s how:

On your spreadsheet or legal pad where you track the schedule, highlight the three critical path steps for the painting. In just a few minutes, you can brainstorm the most likely situations that might arise to derail the schedule.

  • The painter doesn’t have the right materials
  • The painter shows up late, or doesn’t show
  • The drywall doesn’t get done on time

Sure, it’s possible the painter might get sick shortly after starting and it’s possible the owner might change the color at the last minute. But those aren’t likely unless the painter is a sickly person or the owner has a history of making last minute changes. So, just focus on the most likely culprits.

Without finished drywall, your start time is definitely dead in the water.

Take actions to reduce risks

When you look at the risks you’ll no doubt conclude that the most critical upset would be the drywall not getting finished. You can always rush around and get the right materials to the painter, and you can even put another painter on the job if your first choice is a no-show or late. But without finished drywall, your start time is definitely dead in the water.

So, you might decide to set up reminders for the drywall crew. You might also require them to notify you if their portion of the work falls behind by more than a day. Lastly, you might factor in a cushion of a day or half a day between planned drywall completion and painting, to account for possible delays. You’ve just added some insurance to your critical path, and you were able to do so because you knew what your critical path was.

The critical path exists on all projects that have time and quality constraints. When you identify the critical path, you cut through all the variables to focus on the events most likely to subvert your project. More than that, you uncover and mitigate potential problems threatening your schedule and a timely completion.

Sign up. Stay fueled.