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Critical Path Method (CPM) in Project

Management
By Fahad Usmani 102 Comments

If you have experience in project management, you might have heard about the critical path
method (CPM) a project modeling technique developed by Morgan R. Walker and James
E. Kelly in late 1950 (Wikipedia).
The critical path method (CPM) is used extensively by project planners worldwide for
developing the project schedule in all types of projects including IT, research, construction.

This method is a basis of the project schedule and is discussed very broadly in the PMBOK
Guide. You can expect to see two to three questions, or more, in your PMP exam from this
topic.
In this blog post, I will discuss the critical path with a real world example, identify the critical
path in a network diagram, and calculate the float for each path. I will then list some of the
benefits and limitations of the critical path method.
Once you become familiar with it, I will walk you through every step required for calculating
Early Start, Early Finish with forward pass, and then calculate Late Start, Late Finish with
backward pass.
Make sure you understand each step described, otherwise you might face some difficulties
when working with these calculations. If you feel you need any clarification, feel free to
reach out to me at any time.

Critical Path
If you look at any network diagram, you will notice many paths originating from one point
and ending at another point. Every path will have some duration, and the path with the
longest duration is known as the critical path.
The critical path can be defined in many ways including:

The longest path in the network diagram, or

The shortest duration in which the project can be completed.

Dont you think these two definitions are similar, but different, or are they opposite to each
other?
No, in fact, both definitions are trying to convey the same message. They might seem
opposite to you because the first definition is talking about the longest path and the second
definition is talking about the shortest duration.
However, they both are the same.
For example, lets say you received a project to build three buildings in one location. The first
building is the largest building, the second building is a medium sized building, and the third
building is the smallest building.
You develop the network diagram which consists of three paths; each path resembles each
building.
You calculate the duration for each path. For the first building, the duration is 31 months, the
second building will take 18 months, and the third building will require 13 months.
The first path represents the largest building, the second path represents the medium sized
building, and the third path, the smallest building.

Now, review the above diagram.


Did you notice that the path for the first building is the longest duration of all three? It is
thirteen months longer than the second path, and 18 months longer than the third path. This
means that if you start working on the first building, you can wait 13 months before working
on the second building because you can complete second building in 18 months.
Likewise, you could wait 18 months to start working on the third building because it will take
only 13 months to complete. This means that even if you start working on the third building
after 18 months from the project start date, you can complete it on time.
This waiting period is known as float or slack.
So, which is the critical path in this network diagram of three paths?
Of course, it is the longest path on the network diagram, because you cannot complete your
project before constructing the first building. Although you can complete the other two
buildings quickly, until you complete the first building, your project is not considered
complete.
Hence, the critical path is the longest path on the network diagram.
Now, what is the shortest duration in which you can complete the project?
Sure enough, it is 31 months, because you cannot complete your project before 31 months,
and this is the duration of the critical path.
Hence, the critical path is the shortest duration in which you can complete the project.
So, you see, both definitions are the same.

We can conclude that the critical path is the sequence of activities from start to end, and it has
the laongest duration among all paths in a network diagram.
In ideal conditions, a network diagram, and therefore, the project, should have only one
critical path. However, if the network diagram has more than one critical path, you will be in
a difficult situation. In this case, you will have to manage more than one path in parallel.
As we know, the critical path has the longest duration, and its duration is known as the
duration of the project. Since activities on a critical path have no float or slack, no activity
should be delayed. If this happens, the project will be delayed. However, if there are delays,
you can use a schedule compression tool, such as fast tracking or schedule crashing, to bring
the project on track.
Visit: Fast Tracking and Crashing
Note: You must always update the network diagram if there is any change to it so that you
can have a better understanding of activities and predict the float, project completion dates,
etc.
Procedure for Finding the Critical Path in a Network Diagram
The following is the procedure to find the critical path on a network diagram:

Draw the network diagram.

Identify all paths in the network diagram.

Find the duration of each path.

The path with the largest duration is the critical path.

Lets see the above procedure in action.


Example:
Based on the below network diagram, identify the total paths, critical path, and float for each
path.

The above network diagram has five paths; the paths and their duration are as follows:
1. Start -> A -> B -> C-> End, duration: 31 days.
2. Start ->D -> E ->F -> End, duration: 18 days.
3. Start -> D -> B -> C -> End, duration: 26 days.
4. Start -> G ->H ->I -> End, duration: 13 days.
5. Start -> G -> E ->F -> End, duration: 16 days.
Since the duration of the first path is the longest, it is the critical path. The float on critical
path is zero.
The float for the second path Start ->D -> E ->F -> End = duration of the critical path
duration of the path Start ->D -> E ->F -> End
= 31 18 = 13
Hence, the float for the second path is 13 days.
Using the same process, we can calculate the float for other paths as well.
Float for the third path = 31 26 = 5 days.
Float for the fourth path = 31 13 = 18 days.
Float for the fifth path = 31 16 = 15 days.

Calculate Early Start (ES), Early Finish (EF), Late Start (LS), and Late
Finish (LF)

We have identified the critical path, and the duration of the other paths, its time to move on
to more advanced calculations, Early Start, Early Finish, Late Start, and Late Finish.
Calculating Early Start (ES) and Early Finish (EF)
To calculate the Early Start and Early Finish dates, we use forward pass; we will start from
the beginning and proceed to the end.
Early Start (ES) for the first activity on any path will be 1, because no activity can be started
before the first day. The start point for any activity or step along the path is the end point of
the predecessor activity on the path plus one.
Formula used for calculating Early Start and Early Finish dates.

Early Start of the activity = Early Finish of predecessor activity + 1

Early Finish of the activity = Activity duration + Early Start of activity 1

Early Start and Early Finish Dates for the path Start -> A -> B -> C -> End

Early Start of activity A = 1 (Since this is the first activity of the path)
Early Finish of activity A = ES of activity A + activity duration 1
= 1 + 10 1 = 10
Early Start of activity B = EF of predecessor activity + 1
= 10 +1 = 11
Early Finish of activity B = ES of activity B + activity duration 1
= 11 + 12 1 = 22

Early Start of activity C = EF of predecessor activity + 1


= 22 +1 = 23
Early Finish of activity C = ES of activity C + activity duration 1
= 23 + 9 1 = 31
Early Start and Early Finish Dates for the path Start -> D -> E -> F -> End

Early Start of activity D = 1 (Since this is the first activity of the path)
Early Finish of activity D = 1 + 5 1 = 5
Early Start of activity E = EF of predecessor activity + 1
Now there is a trick. Since the Activity E has two predecessor activities, which one will you
select? You will select the activity with the greater Early Finish date. Early Finish of activity
D is 5, and Early Finish of activity G is 3 (we will calculate it later).
Therefore, we will select the Early Finish of activity D to find the Early Start of activity E.
Early Start of activity E = EF of predecessor activity + 1
=5+1=6
Early Finish of activity E = 6 + 7 1 = 12
Early Start of activity F = 12 + 1 = 13
Early Finish of activity F = 13 + 6 -1 = 18
Early Start and Early Finish Dates for the path Start -> G -> H -> I -> End

Early Start of activity G = 1 (Since this is the first activity of the path)
Early Finish of activity G = 1 + 3 1 = 3
Early Start of activity H = 3 + 1 = 4
Early Finish of activity H = 4 + 4 1 = 7
Early Start of activity I = 7 +1 = 8
Early Finish of activity I = 8 + 6 1 = 13
Calculating Late Start (LS) and Late Finish (LF)
We have calculated Early Start and Early Finish dates of all activities. Now it is time to
calculate the Late Start and Late Finish dates.
Late Finish of the last activity in any path will be the same as the Last Finish of the last
activity on the critical path, because you cannot continue any activity once the project is
completed.
Formula used for Late Start and Late Finish dates:

Late Start of Activity = Late Finish of activity activity duration + 1

Late Finish of Activity = Late Start of successor activity 1

To calculate the Late Start and Late Finish, we use backward pass; i.e. we will start from the
last activity and move back towards the first activity.
Late Start and Late Finish Dates for the path Start -> A -> B -> C -> End

On a critical path, Early Start, and Early Finish dates will be the same as Late Start and Late
Finish dates.
Late Start and Late Finish Dates for the path Start -> D -> E -> F -> End

Late Finish of activity F = 31 (because you cannot allow any activity to cross the project
completion date)
Late Start of activity F = LF of activity F activity duration + 1
= 31 6 +1 = 26
Late Finish of activity E = LS of successor activity 1
= LS of activity F 1
= 26 1 = 25

Late Start of Activity E = LF of activity E activity duration + 1


= 25 7 + 1 = 19
Late Finish of activity D = LS of successor activity 1
If you look at the network diagram, you will notice that activity D has two successor
activities, B and E. So, which activity will you select?
You will select the activity with the earlier(least) Late Start date. Here, Late Start of activity
B is 11, and Late Start of activity E is 19.
Therefore, you will select activity B which has the earlier Late Start date.
Hence,
Late Finish of activity D = LS of activity B 1
= 11 1 = 10
Late Start of Activity D = LF of activity D activity duration + 1
= 10 5 + 1 = 6
Late Start and Late Finish Dates for the path Start -> G -> H -> I -> End

Late Finish of activity I = 31 (because you cannot allow any activity to cross the project
completion date)
Late Start of activity I = 31 6 + 1 = 26
Late Finish of activity H = 26 1 = 25
Late Start of activity H = 25 4 + 1 = 22
Late Finish of Activity G = 19 1= 18 (we will choose the late start of activity E, not activity
H, because the Late Start of activity E is earlier than the Late Start of activity H)

Late Start of activity G = 18 3 + 1


= 16
Calculate the Free Float
I have already written a detailed blog post explaining the total float and free float.
I strongly recommend you read my blog post on total float and free float to get a better
understanding.
Visit: Total Float and Free Float
Formula for the Free Float:

Free Float = ES of next activity EF of current activity 1

Benefits of the Critical Path Method


The following are a few benefits of the critical path method:

It shows the graphical view of the project.

It discovers and makes dependencies visible.

It helps in project planning, scheduling, and controlling.

It helps in contingency planning.

It shows the critical path, and identifies critical activities requiring special attention.

It helps you assign the float to activities and flexibility to float activities.

It shows you where you need to take action to bring project back on track.

Although the critical path is very useful tool in project planning, it also has some limitations
and drawbacks.
Limitations and drawbacks of the Critical Path Method

Because the critical path method is an optimal planning tool, it always assumes that
all resources are available for the project at all times.

It does not consider resource dependencies.

There are chances of misusing float or slack.

Less attention on non-critical activities, though sometimes they may also become
critical activities.

Projects based on the critical path often fail to be completed within the approved time
duration.

To overcome these shortcomings of the critical path, the critical chain method was developed.
In the critical chain method resource constraints are also taken into consideration while
developing the network diagram.
Visit: Critical Chain Method in Project Management

Summary
The critical path method has helped many project managers develop and manage their
schedule. In the critical path method, you will draw a network diagram with multiple paths.
The path with the longest duration is known as the critical path. During your project
execution your main emphasis will be on this path, because this is the longest duration path
and the duration of this path will be duration of the project.
As a project manager you have to keep an eye on your network diagram and take prompt
corrective action whenever necessary.

The Critical Path Method (CPM)

The Critical Path Method (CPM) can help you keep your projects on track.
Critical path schedules...

Help you identify the activities that must be completed on time in order to
complete the whole project on time.

Show you which tasks can be delayed and for how long without impacting
the overall project schedule.

Calculate the minimum amount of time it will take to complete the project.

Tell you the earliest and latest dates each activity can start on in order to
maintain the schedule.

Recommended Resource...

A Basic Guide to Activity-On-Node and Critical Path Method


The CPM has four key elements...

Critical Path Analysis

Float Determination

Early Start & Early Finish Calculation

Late Start & Late Finish Calculation

Critical Path Analysis


The critical path is the sequence of activities with the longest duration. A delay in any of
these activities will result in a delay for the whole project. Below are some critical path
examples to help you understand the key elements...

Using the Critical


Path Method (CPM)
The duration of each activity is listed above each node in the diagram. For each path, add the
duration of each node to determine it's total duration. The critical path is the one with the
longest duration.
There are three paths through this project...

Use Critical Path


Analysis to find Your Critical Path

Float Determination
Once you've identified the critical path for the project, you can determine the float for each
activity. Float is the amount of time an activity can slip before it causes your project to be
delayed. Float is sometimes referred to as slack.
Figuring out the float using the Critical Path Method is fairly easy. You will start with the
activities on the critical path. Each of those activities has a float of zero. If any of those
activities slips, the project will be delayed.
Then you take the next longest path. Subtract it's duration from the duration of the critical
path. That's the float for each of the activities on that path.

You will continue doing the same for each subsequent longest path until each activities float
has been determined. If an activity is on two paths, it's float will be based on the longer path
that it belongs to.

Determining Float
Using the critical path diagram from the previous section, Activities 2, 3, and 4 are on the
critical path so they have a float of zero.
The next longest path is Activities 1, 3, and 4. Since Activities 3 and 4 are also on the critical
path, their float will remain as zero. For any remaining activities, in this case Activity 1, the
float will be the duration of the critical path minus the duration of this path. 14 - 12 = 2. So
Activity 1 has a float of 2.
The next longest path is Activities 2 and 5. Activity 2 is on the critical path so it will have a
float of zero. Activity 5 has a float of 14 - 9, which is 5. So as long as Activity 5 doesn't slip
more than 5 days, it won't cause a delay to the project.

Early Start & Early Finish Calculation


The Critical Path Method includes a technique called the Forward Pass which is used to
determine the earliest date an activity can start and the earliest date it can finish. These dates
are valid as long as all prior activities in that path started on their earliest start date and didn't
slip.
Starting with the critical path, the Early Start (ES) of the first activity is one. The Early
Finish (EF) of an activity is its ES plus its duration minus one. Using our earlier example,
Activity 2 is the first activity on the critical path: ES = 1, EF = 1 + 5 -1 = 5.

Critical Path
Schedules
You then move to the next activity in the path, in this case Activity 3. Its ES is the previous
activity's EF + 1. Activity 3 ES = 5 + 1 = 6. Its EF is calculated the same as before: EF = 6 +
7 - 1 = 12.
If an activity has more than one predecessor, to calculate its ES you will use the activity with
the latest EF.

Late Start & Late Finish Calculation


The Backward Pass is a Critical Path Method techique you can use to determine the latest
date an activity can start and the latest date it can finish before it delays the project.
You'll start once again with the critical path, but this time you'l begin from the last activity in
the path. The Late Finish (LF) for the last activity in every path is the same as the last
activity's EF in the critical path. The Late Start (LS) is the LF - duration + 1.
In our example, Activity 4 is the last activity on the critical path. Its LF is the same as its EF,
which is 14. To calculate the LS, subtract its duration from its LF and add one. LS = 14 - 2 +
1 = 13.
You then move on to the next activity in the path. Its LF is determined by subtracting one
from the previous activity's LS. In our example, the next Activity in the critical path is
Activity 3. Its LF is equal to Activity 4 LS - 1. Activity 3 LF = 13 -1 = 12. It's LS is
calculated the same as before by subtracting its duration from the LF and adding one. Activity
3 LS = 12 - 7 + 1 = 6.
You will continue in this manner moving along each p

Key Steps in Critical Path Method


Let's have a look at how critical path method is used in practice. The process of using critical
path method in project planning phase has six steps.
Step 1: Activity specification

You can use the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) to identify the activities involved in the
project. This is the main input for the critical path method.
In activity specification, only the higher-level activities are selected for critical path method.
When detailed activities are used, the critical path method may become too complex to
manage and maintain.
Step 2: Activity sequence establishment

In this step, the correct activity sequence is established. For that, you need to ask three
questions for each task of your list.

Which tasks should take place before this task happens.

Which tasks should be completed at the same time as this task.

Which tasks should happen immediately after this task.

Step 3: Network diagram

Once the activity sequence is correctly identified, the network diagram can be drawn (refer to
the sample diagram above).
Although the early diagrams were drawn on paper, there are a number of computer softwares,
such as Primavera, for this purpose nowadays.
Step 4: Estimates for each activity

This could be a direct input from the WBS based estimation sheet. Most of the companies use
3-point estimation method or COCOMO based (function points based) estimation methods
for tasks estimation.
You can use such estimation information for this step of the process.
Step 5: Identification of the critical path

For this, you need to determine four parameters of each activity of the network.

Earliest start time (ES) - The earliest time an activity can start once the previous
dependent activities are over.

Earliest finish time (EF) - ES + activity duration.

Latest finish time (LF) - The latest time an activity can finish without delaying the
project.

Latest start time (LS) - LF - activity duration.

The float time for an activity is the time between the earliest (ES) and the latest (LS) start
time or between the earliest (EF) and latest (LF) finish times.
During the float time, an activity can be delayed without delaying the project finish date.
The critical path is the longest path of the network diagram. The activities in the critical path
have an effect on the deadline of the project. If an activity of this path is delayed, the project
will be delayed.
In case if the project management needs to accelerate the project, the times for critical path
activities should be reduced.
Step 6: Critical path diagram to show project progresses

Critical path diagram is a live artefact. Therefore, this diagram should be updated with actual
values once the task is completed.
This gives more realistic figure for the deadline and the project management can know
whether they are on track regarding the deliverables.

Advantages of Critical Path Method


Following are advantages of critical path methods:

Offers a visual representation of the project activities.

Presents the time to complete the tasks and the overall project.

Tracking of critical activities.