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Meet Milestones With Critical Chain Project Management

April 12, 2019

They say there are two ways to skin a cat (ew), and there are even more ways to manage a project.

Critical chain project management, or CCPM, is one of the many project management approaches you or your company could use to complete projects under budget, and on a deadline. 

Read on to learn more about whether CCPM is right for your current endeavor and your team.

What is critical chain project management?

Aside from a difficult phrase to say five times fast, CCPM is a popular project management methodology. Many consider it to be an alternative (edgy) to other more traditional methods, such as those encouraged in the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK).

Before we go further into CCPM, there are a few vocabulary words you should know. The first is “critical path.” The dictionary defines this phrase as, “the sequence of stages determining the minimum time needed for an operation, especially when analyzed on a computer for a large organization.” 

critical path example


Critical path example courtesy of SmartSheet 

Secondly, let’s discuss the Theory of Constraints (TOC). TOC is a solutions-oriented theory. Essentially, it requires project managers to ask what about the current circumstances needs to change, and how should that change be brought about. CCPM is derived from the theory of constraints.

Are you keeping up? All of this was developed by Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt, the father of CCPM.

Critical chain method

The cornerstone of the CCPM method is that it fixes bottlenecks and unclogs blockers. Doing so gets teams back on a more predictable schedule. CCPM takes a very methodical approach to scheduling out projects by taking the following four steps.

1. Calculates the average duration of specific steps

As stated, CCPM is a methodical strategy. Instead of guessing how long a task or project might take, project managers use calculated averages to determine a more accurate timeline. Some encourage project managers to determine aggressive duration estimates.

2. Starts with the end date and works backward

This is also referred to as the “as late as possible” schedule. Project managers should use a project, portfolio and program management software solution to work backwards through a project life cycle. Each stage of the project is set to begin on the latest possible start date, which shows teams how backed up their project can get and still close on time.

This is different from more traditional project management methods, which ask teams to begin as early as possible. That tactic is not always effective, as the average duration has not been calculated.

3. Label the critical chain

In projects, it is very likely that something will go wrong. In this step, you proactively determine which steps or dependencies could fail and result in a delay. This list of steps that could elongate the project and affect deadlines is known as the critical chain, which we mentioned earlier. Any steps outside of the critical chain are known as the feeding chain.

4. Place buffers throughout

Once you’ve established the critical chain within your plan, it’s time to decide where you are going to place your project, feeder, and resource buffers. These buffers are safety nets that help ensure you succeed regardless of circumstances outside of your control.

project buffers example

 Image courtesy of ActiveCollab

  • Project buffer: A solo buffer that is added toward the end of the schedule. It appears after the last task but before the final deadline.
  • Resource buffer: These buffers account for a lack of resources that may occur throughout the project life cycle.
  • Feeder buffer: Feeder buffers are strategically situated after the feeding chain but before the critical path tasks.

Buffers are also known as cushions. Project managers should determine where these buffers should go and size them accordingly. For example, if a risk is small, the buffer should be, too.

Once buffers have been added to the project schedule, the critical chain is complete and the project may begin.

Critical thinking

As you may have gathered, CCPM is not a traditional method. It defies the long held idea that projects should be scheduled from start to finish. But in doing so, it creates a failsafe of sorts. It shows exactly how you can miss certain boundaries and deadlines, and still get a project to the stakeholders on time. 

And in an industry that is constantly aiming to find a more effective way to meet project milestones and see project plan success, CCPM could be the method for you. 

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