Takeaway: Learn how to view the critical path in Microsoft Project and interpret the data.
In my previous column, I explained the purpose of the critical path and why project managers need to be concerned about monitoring the project’s critical path during schedule execution. This tutorial has step-by-step instructions on how to view the critical path in Microsoft Project and interpret the data.
I use the same Microsoft Project file from last week’s column. If you need to download the file, you can download it from my article on Network Sensitivity and the Critical Path. Let’s get started.
To see the Gantt Chart View, follow these steps:
- Open your project schedule in Microsoft Project.
- Go to View | Gantt Chart View.
- Go to View | Table | Entry. (See Figure A)
Sample project schedule
To start the Gantt Chart Wizard, follow these steps:
Gantt Chart Wizard dialog box
- Choose the task information options and click Next. (I prefer to keep the default Resources and Dates options.)
- Keep the default links between the dependent tasks option and click Next.
- Click the Format It button and exit the wizard.
Figure C displays the formatted Gantt chart.
Critical path Gantt Chart
With the formatted Gantt Chart, you can easily see the critical path and the project dependencies. If any of these tasks are delayed, then the project’s end date will be impacted. Task 4 is not on the critical path, so it has several days of float in the schedule before it impacts the project schedule.
If you want to get a list of just the critical path tasks (Figure D), you can use the Group By option in the Microsoft Project toolbar. I often use this view to determine which tasks and resources are on the critical path. This extra level of detail helps me understand what needs to be accomplished and who is responsible for the task.
Critical path tasks
To view the critical path tasks, follow these steps:
- Confirm the Standard toolbar is displayed. It should be there by default, but if it isn’t, you can go to View | Toolbars | Standard.
- Click the Group By drop-down box (Figure E) and select Critical from the list of Values.
Group By option
The critical and non-critical tasks will be conveniently grouped for further analysis and reporting (Figure E).
The Schedule table is useful when you want to understand the slack in the schedule. With the critical tasks grouped, you can quickly view the available slack in the non-critical tasks.
To view the slack in the project schedule, follow these steps:
- Go to View | Table | Schedule.
- The Schedule table will be grouped by Critical and Non-Critical tasks (Figure F).
The Network Diagram is another view that is helpful in understanding the critical path. A Network Diagram is the classic Activity on Node schedule dependency diagram you may have seen in project management courses or in the Project Management Body of Knowledge.
To view the Network Diagram, go to View | Network Diagram. You can also click the Network Diagram in your View Bar, which is located on the left hand side of the screen. Figure G displays the Network Diagram.
The tasks highlighted in red display the critical path, while the blue tasks are not on the critical path.
Microsoft Project can also create the standard forward pass and backward pass views with early starts and late finish data that you likely calculated if you prepared for your PMP exam. I’ll cover this more advanced topic in a future tutorial.
If you’d like to see a video tutorial of these steps in action, please view my How to View the Critical Path in Microsoft Project video.