Successful Critical Chain Project Management | Lucidchart
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Looking for helpful strategies that drive timely, cost-effective project completion without overworking your team? One of the most popular project management methodologies that achieves those goals is critical chain project management (CCPM).

Companies like Mazda, Texas Instruments, and Lucent Technologies are implementing critical chain project management. Why? The answer is simple: The approach helps project managers organize tasks and resources to achieve the most efficient path to project completion, every time. Before adopting the critical chain methodology, read our guide to ensure you understand the basics of this methodology.

The basics of critical chain project management

Critical chain project management helps you identify both resource and task dependencies to help you complete projects as efficiently as possible.  

Let's look at an example—a SaaS company wants to add a new feature to their budgeting app. In order to get this new feature live, you’ll need to make sure that these tasks are completed:

Tasks:

  • Hold a kickoff meeting
  • Write specs for the new feature
  • Design the user experience/flow
  • Code the MVP (minimum viable product)
  • QA the code
  • Release as a beta feature
  • Make adjustments/improvements based on the beta feedback
  • Release improved feature to all product users
  • Write tutorials
  • Publish and promote tutorials
  • Write press release
  • Publish press release

If you look at the tasks list, it’s clear that you have to do certain tasks in serial, one after the other. For example, you can’t QA the code until after it has been written, and you can’t publish tutorials before you’ve written them. Other tasks can be completed as parallel processes—for example, you could write tutorials for the new feature while it’s in beta testing. One of the easiest way to see exactly which steps need to be completed in serial vs. in parallel is to diagram your tasks:

Use this critical path template

Critical path project management methodology template

Critical path project management methodology template (Click on image to modify this template)

The most time-consuming string of tasks that must be completed in serial will determine how quickly you can complete your project. In the diagram, those are the tasks that are colored in coral. By identifying this string, you’ve just found the critical path to project completion.

The critical chain project management method goes one step further to look at the resources  (ex. people, equipment, a physical space) you will need to complete your tasks. In our example, here are some of the resources you’ll need:

Resources needed:

  • Large meeting room for the kickoff meeting
  • Product manager
  • Software engineer
  • PR manager
  • QA team
  • Copywriter
  • Social media specialist

Looking back at this list, you know you’ll need a product manager to write the specs for the new feature, but he’s out on vacation for the next month, so that will affect the project timeline. The copy writers will need to write tutorials and write a press release, so it's important that you build in time to make sure they don't have to multi-task. You’ll need a big meeting room to hold the kickoff meeting, but it’s only available on Fridays every other week. Once you look at resource availability, you can be more precise when you determine deadlines for each task.

Critical chain project management also includes buffers to account for unforseen circumstances:

Use this critical chain project management template

Critical chain project management methodology template

Critical chain vs. critical path

So to sum it all up–what's the difference between critical chain and critical path methodology? 

For critical path method, you would:

  • Focus on finding the string of tasks that would take the longest time to complete, and organize the other project tasks around it.
  • Take time to find the optimal solution for the project's task organization and workflow
  • Not include explicit buffers for the project
  • Monitor project health based on whether or not the deadlines for individual tasks were being met

For critical chain method, you would:

  • Take resource constraints / dependencies into account when planning projects 
  • Plan a workflow that is near-optimum (or "good enough")
  • Add explicit time buffers to your project plan (project buffer, feeding buffers, and resource buffers)
  • Monitor project health based on how quickly you are consuming your buffers

Of the two, critical path is the less flexible option, so it's better used for clearly-defined projects with few stakeholders. Critical chain is a more flexible modification of critical path method that helps prevent inefficiencies such as task switching (where switching tasks can be less efficient than focusing on one task at a time), Parkinson’s Law (tasks expand to fill the time they have been allotted) and student syndrome (where employees wait until the last minute to start a task). 

7 tips to follow for successful Critical Chain Project Management

Consider these tips to create a successful critical chain project management process:

1. Identify the critical chain

Before you can get started, you need to identify the most important tasks, as well as the tasks that will take the longest to complete. These tasks will become your critical path. To help you identify your critical path, we recommend creating a work breakdown structure.

Use this work breakdown structure

Work breakdown structure template

Work breakdown structure template (Click on image to modify)

This structure breaks down large projects into smaller, more manageable pieces. In CCPM, a work breakdown structure can help you determine where you will need the most resources. Additionally, it will show which tasks are going to take the most time. For a successful CCPM process, begin your project with the most important tasks first and then work in descending order.

2. Determine resource constraints

Critical chain project management focuses on resources—so consider any constraints you might experience as you assign employees to tasks. For example, you’ve set aside 10 days for Tom to design your new website, but Tom is going on vacation for seven days during the allotted time. This is considered a resource constraint. To keep the project on track, you schedule Jane to work on the design in Tom’s absence. By identifying resource constraints early in the process, you avoid any downtime or delays.

3. Limit your team’s focus

In critical chain methodology, it’s important to keep your team focused on individual tasks as the practice will lead to more productive, harmonious, collaborative, and innovative behaviors. All these factors contribute to timely task completion and efficiency.  

4. Eliminate multitasking

When employees switch between different tasks, productivity drops and task durations increase. And, ultimately, team morale decreases as your team members try to keep the project moving forward.

The critical chain project management process keeps employees focused on fewer items at time, which allows teams to execute projects faster. For successful CCPM, you want to ensure your team has enough on their plate to stay focused, but not enough that they will have to multitask in order to get things done.

5. Create 50/50 time estimates

Successful critical chain processes cut the estimated time needed for projects in half. The idea isn’t to stress out your team members; it’s to avoid wasted time and push them toward a more efficient timeline. (Remember that you’ll have buffers in place if the reduced time estimate isn’t realistic.)

Sometimes employees procrastinate, waiting until the last possible moment to start or even stretching out a task to fill time. By cutting the time needed for a task in half, you create a sense of urgency in your team. This practice will push them to stay focused and finish their tasks on time.

6. Implement buffers for uncertainties or unexpected changes

After you cut the estimated time needed by 50%, that 50% is then used as a buffer. It acts as a shock absorber for the project should a task take longer than anticipated to complete. One study showed that implementing project buffers with the CCPM process leads to employees finishing projects 25% faster.  

7. Create a detailed project model

If you’re using critical chain methodology, you’re likely taking on a large, complicated project. To ensure timely project completion, create a detailed project model that your entire team can use. The model allows your team to see how well the project is progressing.

The project model should include time estimates, task descriptions, assigned resources, time buffers, and finish dates. To help you create a successful CCPM model, take a look at this article that discusses everything you need to know about creating project management diagrams. Additionally, it shows which diagrams you can use to create a CCPM model. We’d recommend staying away from a Gantt chart. Instead, you can use a project network diagram, cross-functional flowchart, or a timeline.

Why implement critical chain project management?

Organizations that adopt CCPM experience much more timely project completion. By focusing on the resources needed to complete a project, project managers create a process that is simple and easy to manage.

Critical chain project management allows a team to see the entire project lifecycle. Most importantly, it helps them see how their efforts move the project forward.