Microsoft Project: Critical Path Identification Tools

Talking a Walk Down the Critical Path

As an experienced project manager, you know that the critical path is made up of a series of tasks that must finish on schedule. Any task on the critical path that will affect whether the project finish date is delayed is called a critical task. Thus far in the project planning process, the most common view has been the Gantt Chart. You can view the critical path using any Gantt Chart view. Knowing when a task is slipping or late or when a project's end date must be adjusted enables you to make important decisions for your team.

Project 2007

Using the Gantt Chart Wizard, you can apply formatting to visualize which tasks are on the critical path. However, in Office Project 2007 the critical path is not displayed by default.

Applying the Gantt Chart Wizard to display the critical path is a great way for you to see (in color) exactly which tasks are on the critical path and will affect the project finish date. To display the critical path on the Gantt Chart, follow these steps:

  1. Choose View and Gantt Chart.
  2. On the Formatting toolbar, locate and click the Gantt Chart Wizard button. Alternatively, you can choose Format and then Gantt Chart Wizard from the Menu bar.
  3. On the Welcome To The Gantt Chart Wizard page, click Next to begin.
  4. On the second page of the wizard, select Critical Path and click Next.
  5. On the third page of the wizard, select Resources And Dates. (Note there are other choices.)
  6. On the next wizard page, select Yes to show link lines between dependent tasks. Click Next.
  7. Click Format It and then Exit Wizard.

Project 2010

Calculation of the critical path is a little more automated in Project 2010. All tasks, after all, are on the path to project completion. Project therefore decides based on your task duration and task slack whether or not a task is critical. Once you have listed your tasks and estimated durations or dates, you can then ask Project to identify those tasks deemed critical. Initially in the project represented in the view below, only the ending task was identified as critical. However, asking Project to calculate multiple critical paths shows us several tasks that require some focus.

There are two ways to ask Project 2010 to show you the critical path. FIrst, you can go to the Format tab (it's a contextual tab, meaning it appears only when it's relevant), look in the Bar Styles group, and find the checkbox for Critical Tasks. Selecting this will highlight the minimal tasks that Project deems must be accomplished to finish the projecct. You can also go to the View tab, in the Data group, and click on the Filter icon. In the drop-down box, choose Critical. Again, your critical path will be highlighted.

Sometimes Project identifies only the final task as critical. In order to manage your options, go to the backstage view and click on Options, then choose Advanced. Scroll down to the section at the bottom section called Calculation Options for This Project. Select the box for Calculate Multiple Critical Paths. You can also adjust slack time in this section.

Analyzing the Critical Path

Once you've seen your project's critical path, you can determine what steps, if any, need to be taken. To be certain that tasks are completed you can break them up into smaller tasks and also assign extra staff to handle them. You might decide that certain steps can be bypassed in order to shorten th path of your project. If you reevaluate task dependencies, your project gets an extra flexibility so that Project (the software!) can take a different look at it.

Both Project 2007 and Project 2010 display the critical path in the Network Diagram view. (This view is known in Project 2007 as the PERT chart view.)

Additional Tools You Can Use

Be sure to take advantage of all our of Bright Hub Project Management experts. In addition to a whole host of articles available on using Microsoft Office Project 2007 as well as Project 2010, we also have many articles related to project management software reviews and several on project management theory and methodology. And, don't forget to check out our Media Gallery for downloadable project management tools and files.