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The CPSL – What Does the Critical Path Mean to You?

David Tyerman, 7 June 2018

As fascinating a subject as critical path analysis is, I wonder just how well the concept translates into real significance during the execution of your project, in other words, just how important is the critical path to those assigned with responsibility for the various work packages? I was fascinated then to read an account of critical path work execution in the world of Elon Musk. Perhaps you’ve heard of his exploits sending rockets into space for a fraction of cost of more established organisations (with increased payloads too), or perhaps you are familiar with one or more of his renewable energy projects such as Tesla or Solar City? His business ambitions seem to have no constraints, and neither it seems does his attitude towards how others should be focused towards their given objectives.

‘SpaceX’, the organisation that Musk established for space travel projects, had, amongst an array of other matters, significant challenges in perfecting their rocket propulsion systems, and so a SpaceX team headed off to the Texan desert blowing things up an generally having fun with copious amounts of fuel and a very large box of matches. Imagine then how overjoyed they were to finally meet their goals and to be able to report back to Musk that their area of the project had been successful.

“Finally, in the fall of 2004, the engines were burning consistently and meeting all their requirements. This meant that Mueller and his team could breathe easy and that everyone else at SpaceX should prepare to suffer. Mueller had spent SpaceX’s entire existence as the “critical path” – the person holding up the company from achieving its next steps—working under Musk’s scrutiny. With the engine ready, it was time for mass panic,” Mueller said. “No one else knew what it was like to be on the critical path[1]”

No doubt Mueller (one of the SpaceX co-founders and a mechanical engineer) and his team celebrated with a bottle of Remy Martin drank out of paper cups (as seemed to be their tipple and vessel of choice), but their joy wasn’t solely associated with having conquered the propulsion systems, but also with the fact that some poor sod was soon to be on Musk’s ‘critical path s**t list’ (CPSL). Nobody wants to be on this. To be associated with this means a massive amount of scrutiny and stress from Musk and to know in no uncertain terms that you’re holding the project up. It seems that all managers in Musk’s organisation at this time were doing everything they could to keep off the CPSL and hence divert attention onto some other unsuspecting target! How refreshing I think.

“Anyone at SpaceX who held the launch back went onto Musk’s critical-path s**t list. Musk would hound the person responsible about the delays but, typically, he would also do everything in his power to help solve the problem”

It is also interesting and powerful to observe that Musk’s scrutiny and attention to the beholder of the CPSL title also gained his support as well as his unrelenting pressure.

If you now turn your attention to the project schedule adorning the wall of your site cabin, or to the last version of the project schedule sent to you from the regular progress update, how worried does the person in charge of the critical path areas of work look? Are they losing sleep or losing focus? More often it’s the latter as the project schedule, and in particular the relevance of the critical path may have become somewhat of a redundant threat.

So my challenge to you is this – can you reconstruct a project environment so that to be assigned to the project critical path is akin to being handed a proverbial hot potato. In other words, if everybody did all they could to avoid being associated with the CPSL instead of focusing effort on the critical path itself, would this be a more powerful way to be able to execute projects faster and more efficiently?

[1] “Elon Musk – How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping Our Future”, Ashlee Vance, 2015