For years, the calculation of the “Critical Chain” – the shortest path to the end of the project – was considered the holy grail of project analytics. But this period came to a complete end with the rise of continuous delivery (spoiler alert – we think that it was wrong from the get-go). Some people still claim that the critical chain is important, but overlook the fact it can’t be calculated for most modern project plans. The Critical Chain is dead, and let’s see why.
Once Upon a Time…
Critical chain analysis did well in manufacturing, and then, along with the Gantt chart, migrated to project management. To make a long story short, a chain of machines became a chain of activities. The adaption of the Gantt chart was not without consequences – not only for calculating the project’s shortest path, but also as a way for thinking about the structure of the project.
Leaving aside the problematic comparison between machines and people, this terminology was followed by a common and even more awkward mistake: assigning project risk to the critical chain. As soon as this happens, it leads the project manager to invest time in the wrong places.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Let’s be Project Manager Clint Eastwood for a moment, and assume our project only has three vendors. They are the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. You are now kicking off your project with this trio.
The Good is professional and accurate. He estimates the project will last 12 weeks, no less. This is based on his experience and it is what he can deliver. He is not willing to compromise.
The Bad doesn’t really give two cents. In fact, your failure has already made him happy in the past. He will give you dates and estimations that sound great, but which he can’t possibly deliver. He says the project will last five weeks.
The Ugly is neither good or bad. He actually wants to help you, but he doesn’t really know-how. With pressure from you, he is forced to provide aggressive targets which he will not be able to meet. He estimates the project will last eight weeks.
Now you go to your desk to calculate your critical chain. You introduce the project risks in red. Then, you finally (and wrongly) conclude that the Good vendor is your main problem because he is the longest chain in your plan!
Is that really where the risk lies?
As you focus your efforts on the wrong risk, you totally miss Mr. Bad, who can’t stop laughing, and Mr. Ugly – who will unintentionally surprise you at the last minute.
Calculating the Critical Chain
The calculation of a critical chain in production lines assumes there’s a start and an end to the process, chains of machines, and different machine capacities. Finding the critical chain means identifying the bottlenecks. Fixing the bottleneck in one place moves the problem, and the critical chain, elsewhere. When this process is repeated several times, the production line eventually becomes faster, more efficient, and more productive.
Applying this to project management sounds nice on paper. But modern projects have no start and end – they are cyclical in nature. Their agility makes the comparison to manufacturing lines irrelevant. Moreover, the simple formulas used to calculate a critical chain do not work anymore, since there are many start points, end points, and floating chains. Critical chain calculation is simply a dead end.
The Risk Is In Between
If the risk is not in the critical chain, then where is it? We suggest that in modern projects, the risk is in the coordination plan. You will most likely find risk where the company engages its core process, and where work streams connect with other work streams. Simply put, the risk lies where one team hands off to another.
Links and dependencies within a specific workstream are less likely to drive coordination issues. Links and dependencies between workstreams are more likely to create issues, conflicts, and even finger pointing. This is where the project team’s attention needs to be.
In order to tackle this risk, the project must have a very robust coordination plan. Critical chain analysis deals with all links and dependencies as if they’re the same. It isn’t capable of revealing coordination issues!
How Does Proggio Help?
The “project map” diagram used in Proggio highlights cross-workstream links. It actually ignores (visually, not logically) links that are part of a sequence. Those links are part of the project structure but don’t require the same kind of focus as cross-workstream links.
When reviewing a complete project plan, the links between workstreams call your attention to planning how they should be handled. When moving activities around, any impact in other workstreams jumps into attention – and intuitively, efficiently, turns the project team’s attention to the right places.
Moreover, the structure of the project map helps control floating, unlinked tasks by visually locating them on the timeline. As soon as the “Today” line hits an activity, it will be under attention – even if not part of any chain. It is all about getting work done as planned and as coordinated. The critical chain is not necessary for modern project planning. Experience it yourself, with a free trial of Proggio!