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How to Deliver Projects on Time, Part 1

We all manage projects. Whether it be organizing an event, overseeing some home improvements or as a formal Project Manager(PM) we often need to successfully string a series of tasks together. In this first part of the series I will consider strategies to how to determine those string of tasks to enable you to deliver your project on time.

How to deliver projects on time Introduction

No matter which way you cut it, delivering a project late is never a good thing. It loses the confidence of stakeholders, demotivates the team, costs money(both from project expenses and opportunity costs) and can have knock on effects to other projects. So, how to deliver a project on time?  Sometimes the only thing saving a project from this perilous fate is the Project Manager and the cunning tactics that they can deploy to deliver the project on schedule. Such tactics are worth their weight in gold and certainly worthy of extensive coverage. This means that

you, the fine reader, and budding Project Manager extraordinaire, will be treated to not only one article on this topic, but three

you, the fine reader, and budding Project Manager extraordinaire will be treated to not only one article on this topic, but three. In this first part in this series on how to deliver projects on time, I will cover strategies relating to the formation of critical path activities. The second article on how to deliver projects on time will deal with critical path optimization strategies. The third article on delivering projects on schedule will be more obscure strategies, which may be a lifesaver someday.

Let’s kick off with this article on how to deliver projects on time with some background information on Project Critical paths.

What is a Project Critical Path?

Before we set about with some strategies to ascertain the project critical path, let’s spend some minutes to define what a critical path is and how to go about determining it for your project. Simply put, the critical path is a sequence of tasks that must be completed on schedule in order for the project to be completed on time. Let’s take an example to show how this works. Since I am writing this over my morning coffee, I will use this important project – making breakfast as an example. In this case, the scope of the project will be to deliver a hearty meal of coffee, toast and two boiled eggs. Such a project can be illustrated by means of a Gantt chart, shown below. The bars represent the length of time needed for each task. What we can see is that the breakfast will not be ready until the eggs are ready. All that egg work of boiling them and peeling them takes the longest time of any of the breakfast making tasks. Additionally, the acts of boiling and peeling the eggs must be done in series. We cannot peel the egg until it has been boiled. This sequence of tasks, the boiling and peeling, represent the critical path for the breakfast project. The addition of those two task durations determine the minimum overall project duration. So, that’s the critical path items.

How to deliver projects on time: Critical Path definition

Getting the eggs ready ultimately determines when breakfast is ready!

Before I leave this example, let me take a moment to pay homage to the remaining tasks as there are also some important points to learn from that. The making of the coffee and toast are not critical path items. That means,

  • It would be possible to delay or extend the making of either the coffee or toast and still have my breakfast ready on time.
  • The extent to which I can delay the delivery of the toast or coffee without impacting the overall breakfast delivery time is known as “slack”. If the slack is zero, then you cannot delay the task for it is on the critical path.

Now that we know what a critical path is, let’s consider how to find out what the critical path is for your project and how it can help you to deliver your projects on schedule.

Strategy #1 – Identify your Project’s Critical Path

There are would recommend going through the following steps.

Step 1 – Create a work breakdown / task list

Create a task list to describe the work to be done. Breaking the work down to smaller digestible chunks is useful in determining actionable tasks which when completed ultimately deliver the goal. To illustrate this, consider again the breakfast example where the large task “Make Breakfast”, can be broken down into the small actionable constituents of making toast, coffee etc.

Make Breakfast (main task)

Make Coffee (subtask 1)

Make Toast (subtask 2)

Boil eggs (subtask 3)

This breaking down of the larger tasks is critical for determining the critical path. Another tip for doing this is the use of a mindmap. I find this an excellent tool for sketching out project tasks before adding the resource and scheduling details. A couple of recommendations would be iThoughts for iOS and Freemind for the PC. The former is probably the best mindmapping tool for iOS devices and the latter is free. You can check out my detailed review on iThoughts for iOS devices and iThoughts for Windows later if you are interested in applying such tools.

There are lots of other premium mindmapping apps such as Mindjet, Mindgenius and iMindmap which integrate mindmapping and project management functionality but for creating a simple project outline, Freemind would be sufficient.

How to deliver projects on time using Freemind to Outline tasks

Freemind is excellent for sketching out project tasks

Now that we have a view of our tasks we need to import that to some project management software. I would recommend MS Project or RationalPlan. MS Project is the most established player in this field but comes at a hefty price, $590. RationalPlan comes in at a much lower $57 for Windows and the grand price of $0 for Linux. Here is the direct link for RationalPlan for Windows.

Step 2 – Create links between dependent tasks

The next step is to create dependencies between the tasks. Dependencies indicate which tasks must be completed in order for the subsequent task to be started. For example, peeling the eggs is dependent on the boiling eggs task. These links must be made within the project management tool. In RationalPlan this is done using the little chain icon, “Link tasks”.

How to deliver projects on time Linking Tasks

Linking dependent tasks in Rational Plan

At this point I would also recommend entering the task durations for the tasks. When this is complete it is time to view the critical path. This is done in RationalPlan by clicking the “Schedule tasks” link.

Rational Plan Critical path view

Strategy #2 – Reduce the tasks in the critical path

In deciding how critical a task is and whether it can be eliminated, apply a little “Gemba”.

Now that we have our critical path, we can clearly see the sequence of tasks that will determine the length of the project. If we wish to shorten the project schedule, the fastest way is to eliminate tasks on the critical path. Eliminating tasks that are not on the critical path don’t really improve the end date of the project so there is little benefit in eliminating those, so focus on the critical path items. That said, there can be some second order benefits to eliminating non critical path activities such as freeing up resources to give a hand with the critical path activities.

Often it is not a trivial step to delete tasks from the critical but given it is the most effective in reducing project time scales it is a powerful tool, but one to be deployed with caution. A few comments in the topic of critical path task elimination.

Removing critical path tasks may fundamentally alter the scope of the project. Ensure there is buy in for such fundamental changes from project stakeholders. In deciding how critical a task is and whether it can be eliminated, apply a little “Gemba”. I picked up this philosophy from Peter R. Scholtes’ great book, “The Leader’s Handbook: Making Things Happen, Getting Things Done”. His definition of Gemba is “Gemba is the assembly of critical resources and the flow of work that contribute to those efforts that directly add value to the customer”. This is a good way to judge not only the value of your critical path activities, but indeed all of the tasks that you do. If you want to more about this topic, you can check out my article on Gemba, “Boosting Productivity the Gemba Way“, where I describe how it can be used for enhanced productivity.

Strategy #3 – Identify the correct critical path dependencies through atomisation

It can be the case that the project is extended because the correct critical path dependencies have not been identified. One cause of this is by grouping several tasks under one, overarching description which occupies one line in your project plan. The problem is that if that grouped task is in the critical path, no subsequent task can be started until the grouped task has been completed in its entirety. This is how it is represented in your plan. This is less than optimal, which not only delays subsequent tasks but the entire project. Let’s look at two scenarios, the first with grouped tasks and the second where we have atomized the a large grouped task into smaller subtasks.

In the Gantt chart below we see that the subsequent task B can only be completed when task A is fully complete.

Large grouped tasks, Task A and Task B

Now let’s consider the situation where we break down Task A to smaller tasks, A.1, A.2 and A.3. We recognize that only the output from Task A.2 is needed to commence Task B which means that we can reflect that in the Task dependencies. Task A.2 will then link to Task B. On completion of Task A.2, Task B will begin immediately and run concurrently with Task A.3. The end consequence of all of this is that since we started Task B earlier and Task B is on the critical path, the project will finish earlier. Success.

Task A has now been atomized to smaller tasks

Strategy #4 – Reducing the quality of the critical path items

Managing a project is often regarded as a balancing act between the project scope, cost, time and quality. This is a minor upgrade to the traditional triple constraints of scope, cost and time.

The Traditional Triple Constraint Project Management Triangle

Changing any one of these will impact the others. So, if you increase the scope of the project, you will likely increase the cost also. Likewise, if you reduce the quality or omit steps you may be able to reduce the time required for that activity, and likely also reduce the scope and cost for those steps. Since stakeholders are not usually big fans of “reducing quality”, best to approach this with care and apply sparingly.

Strategy #5 – Keep an eye on the emergence of new critical paths

While much of this article covers determining the critical path and the optimization of that path one must not forget about how the critical path can change. If non critical path tasks are delayed they can form a new critical path which can lay your painstakingly prepared critical path optimization plans to waste. This underlines the importance to not only closely monitor the progress on your critical path but also other tasks that should be in progress and on track. If those tasks that should be started, are not started, then the start date should be adjusted accordingly. The delay of that start date may cause a new critical path to be formed. You can see an example of this below where the delay to Task E has just created a new critical path which ultimately will delay the project.

Tasks A to D define the Critical Path

Delaying Task E creates a new Critical Path

It is rather tedious to review all tasks and update the start dates and so I will help you out a little here. In MS Project it is possible to write macros to automate tasks and i have used this function to enable auto updating of the start dates and therefore the auto updating of the project plan. You can refer to my article, MS Project Hack – Automatically update Project Planning, for a description on how this is done and access to the macro coding.

How to deliver projects on schedule summary

That’s the first part of this series on how to deliver projects on time.  This covered the determination of the critical path and some tweaks for optimisation. Hopefully there are a few strategies to help you find out which are the key tasks which will ultimately determine when your project can be finished and finished on time. If you found it useful, make sure to share on your choice of social network using the little buttons on the left.

In the next part of the series I will discuss strategies to further optimize or hack the critical path to your advantage to help deliver the project on schedule, or with the planets all in alignment, even ahead of schedule. Stay tuned for that or alternatively subscribe to our newsletter to get it sent direct to your inbox,


Brendan Toner

Let me welcome you to this alcove of the internet. In this little productivity blog, I detail the trials and tribulations of trying to use my time more effectively utilising the latest productivity tools and techniques. I hope you enjoy the articles, cheers! Brendan Toner, author of Done Before Brekky

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1 Response

  1. July 31, 2017

    […] Brendan Toner begins a three-part series on using the Critical Path method to deliver a project on time. 10 minutes to read. […]

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