The Critical Path Method

The Critical Path Method

One of the most common outcomes of the schedule network is the identification of one or more critical paths. Right at this point, let us say that the critical path, and in fact there may be more than one critical path through the network, may not be the most important path for purposes of business value or functionality. However, the critical path establishes the length of the network and therefore sets the overall duration of the project. If there is any schedule acceleration or delay along the critical path, then the project will finish earlier or later, respectively.

As a practical example of the difference between paths that are critical and functionally important, the author was once associated with a project to build an Intelsat ground station. The business value of the ground station was obviously to be able to communicate effectively with the Intelsat system and then make connectivity to the terrestrial communications system. However, the critical path on the project network schedule was the installation and operation of a voice intercom between the antenna pedestal and the ground communications control facility. The vendor selected for this intercom capability in effect set the critical path, though I am sure that all would agree that the intercom was not the most important functionality of the system. Nevertheless, the project was not complete until the intercom was delivered; any delay by the vendor (there was none) was a delay on the whole project.

Some Characteristics of the Critical Path

We have so far described the critical path as the longest path through the network. This is true and it is one of the clearest and most defining characteristics of the critical path.

A second idea is that there is no float or slack along the critical path. Having no float or slack means that if there is any change in durations along the critical path, then the overall schedule will be longer or shorter. In effect, such a characteristic means there is no schedule "reserve" that can isolate vagaries of the project with the fixed business milestones. In point of fact, almost no project is planned in this manner and the project manager usually plans a reserve task of time but not performance. We will see in our discussion of the "critical chain" concept that this reserve task is called a "buffer" and is managed solely by the project manager. Figure 7-3 illustrates this idea. For purposes of identifying and calculating the critical path, we will ignore the reserve task.

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Figure 7-3: Reserve Task in Network.

A third idea is that there can be more than one critical path through the network. A change in duration on any one of the critical paths will change the project completion date, ignoring any reserve task.

Another notion is that of the "near-critical path." A near-critical path(s) is one or more paths that are not critical at the outset of the project, but could become critical. A path could become critical because the probabilistic outcomes of durations on one of these paths become longer than the identified critical path. Another possibility is that the critical path becomes shorter due to improved performance of its tasks and one of the "near-critical" paths is "promoted" to being the critical path. Such a set of events happens often in projects. Many project software tools have the capability of not only identifying and reporting on the near-critical path, but also calculating the probability that the path will become critical. Moreover, it is often possible to set a threshold so that the project manager sees only those paths on the report that exceed a set probability of becoming critical. In addition, it is possible to identify new paths that come onto the report or old paths that drop off the report because of ongoing performance during the course of the project.

Lastly, if there is only one connected path through the network, then there is only one critical path and that path is it; correspondingly, if the project is planned in such a way that no single path connects all the way through, then there is no critical path. As curious as the latter may seem, a network without a connecting path all the way through is a common occurrence in project planning. Why? It is a matter of having dependencies that are not defined in the network. Undefined dependencies are ghost dependencies. An early set of tasks does not connect to or drive a later set of tasks. The later set of tasks begins on the basis of a trigger from outside the project, or a trigger is not defined in the early tasks. Thus the latter tasks appear to begin at a milestone for which there is no dependency on the earlier tasks. In reality, such a network is really two projects and it should be handled as such. If addressed as two projects, then each will have a critical path. The overall length of the program (multiple projects) will depend on the two projects individually and the ghost task that connects one to the other. Such a situation is shown in Figure 7-4.

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Figure 7-4: One Network as Two.

Calculating the Critical Path

Calculating the critical path is the most quantitatively intensive schedule management task to be done, perhaps more complicated than "resource leveling" and the calculation of merge points. Though intensive, critical path calculations are not hard to do, but on a practical basis critical path calculations are best left to schedule network software tools. The calculation steps are as follows:

  • For each path in the network that connects all the way through, and in our examples we will employ only networks that do have paths that connect through, calculate the so-called "forward path" by calculating the path length using the earliest start dates.

  • Then for each path in the network, work in the opposite direction, using latest finish dates, and calculate the "backward path."

  • One or more paths calculated this way would have equal lengths, forward and backward. These are the critical paths. All other paths will have unequal forward and backward lengths. These paths are not critical.

  • The amount of forward-backward inequality in any path is the float or slack in the path. Overall, this path, or any one task on this path, can slip by the amount of the forward-backward inequality and not be more than critical and therefore not delay the project.

Calculating the Forward Path

Figure 7-5 shows a simple network with the forward path calculation.

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Figure 7-5: Forward Path Calculation.

We must adopt a notation convention. The tasks will be shown in rectangular boxes; the earliest start date will be on the upper left corner, and the earliest finish will be on the upper right corner. The corresponding lower corners will be used for latest start and finish dates, respectively. Duration will be shown in the rectangle.

In the forward path calculation, notice the use of the earliest start dates. The basic rule is simple:

Earliest start date + Duration = Earliest finish date

Now we have to be cognizant of the various precedence relationships such as finish-to-start and finish-to-finish, etc. All but finish-to-start greatly complicate the mathematics and are best left to scheduling software. Therefore, our example networks will all use finish-to-start relationships. There is no loss in generality since almost every network that has other than only finish-to-start relationships can be redrawn, employing more granularity, and become an all finish-to-start network.

Working in the forward path with finish-to-start relationships, the rule invoked is:

Earliest start of successor task = Latest of the early finish dates of all predecessors

The final milestone from the forward path analysis is an "earliest" finish milestone. Again, unless explicitly shown, any final management reserve task of unallocated reserve task is not shown for simplicity. If it were shown, it would move out, or shift right, the final milestone to align with the program milestones from the business side of the balance sheet.

Calculating the Backward Path

Now let's calculate the backward path. The very first question that arises is: "What is the date for the latest finish?" The backward path is calculated with the latest finish dates and all we have at this point is the earliest finish date. The answer is that if there is no final reserve task in the network, the latest finish date of the final milestone is taken to be the same as the earliest finish date calculated in the forward path. Having established a starting point for the backward path calculation, we then invoke the following equation:

Latest start = Latest finish - Duration

In calculating backward through the finish-to-start network, we use the earliest of the "latest start" dates of a successor task as the latest finish for a predecessor task. Figure 7-6 shows these calculations for our example network.

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Figure 7-6: Backward Path Calculation.

Finding the Critical Tasks

Figure 7-7 shows the critical path calculation in one diagram for our example network. To find the critical path, it is a simple matter of identifying every task for which either of the following equations is true:

Earliest start (or finish)


Latest start (or finish)

Earliest start (or finish) - Latest start (or finish)


0 = float or slack

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Figure 7-7: Critical Path Calculation.

Those tasks that obey the equations just given have zero slack or float. Such zero-float tasks are said to be critical and they form the one or more critical paths through the network.