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Critical Chain
by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, 1997, North River Press, softcover, 246 p., $19.95 from the publisher or bookstores.

This is a 'must read' book for managers and others interested in effective project management. There are several important concepts and insights to be obtained here. The lessons in the book are so good that one can easily tolerate several flaws (my opinion).

Critical Chain is a novel about a young business professor. He and his Executive MBA class learn together, using the Socratic method, as they discover and apply radical new project management concepts. The principal side characters are a young task force charged with dramatically reducing a modem manufacturer’s time-to-market cycle.

As with Goldratt’s earlier novel-style books (best known are The Goal and It’s Not Luck), reading the story is an entertaining way to learn. Plan to invest a whole day of reading and reflecting, if possible. This book is worth it.

Key Ideas

The Critical Chain Approach

The critical chain is the sequence of activities—with explicit consideration of constraining resources—that determines the length of the project. The critical chain would be the same as the customary critical path except that some  resources may be unavailable when needed. The critical path constraint model is modified to include sequencing scarce resources.

Additional Ideas

I found these additional concepts interesting:

Goldratt is recognized as the creator (or at least promoter) of "Theory of Constraints" (TOC). His landmark book is a novel called The Goal (over 2 million copies, authored with Jeff Cox), is about de-bottlenecking manufacturing operations. His process, whether talking about inventory or time, is essentially the same:

  1. IDENTIFY the constraint
  2. EXPLOIT the constraint (make sure the activity being worked upon, or the constraint, is being done as best possible with the present resources).
  3. SUBORDINATE other activities to the constraint. Don’t start activities (production) prematurely.
  4. ELEVATE the constraint: Look for ways to shorten the time required at the constraint.

The analogy between production management and project management is appropriate and effective.

Some Issues

Despite some great ideas, Goldratt comes across to me as eccentric. Maybe the mystique is part of his appeal. Here are several of what seem to be problem areas in Critical Chain that detracted from the good material:


Despite the several distractions, this book provides insights to important issues. Reading Goldratt has always been provocative. I’m recommending this as essential reading to everyone working in project management.

This book has been receiving wide acclaim.  A review, expanding greatly on Goldratt's novel, is "Bringing Discipline to Project Management" by Jeffrey Elton and Justin Roe, Harvard Business Review, March-April, 1998, pp. 153-159.  They caution that projects are seldom production processes.  The challenge is to manage a portfolio of projects in a sea of innovation.  New technologies, changing requirements (e.g., Internet software), and people issues confound logical approaches.  "Critical Chain starts with a set of talented and driven project managers and assumes the resource constraints are inside the work of the project, not in its leadership.   In truth, leadership may be the larger constraint."


See Tip 39 on a related book,
Project Management in the Fast Lane: Applying the Theory of Constraintsc


—John Schuyler, November 1997.  Revised March 2000 and Jan. 2006

Copyright 1997-2006 by John R. Schuyler. All rights reserved. Permission to copy with reproduction of this notice.