Book review: Critical Chain

Critical ChainI wasn’t keen to read Criticial Chain.Business novels and stories that I have read in the past, like John Kotter’s Our Iceberg is Melting, have been contrived. Authors tend to pick a story and shoehorn in the business lessons.

Critical Chain by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, who died in 2011, is different. The characters are well-rounded, and while there is rather a lot of exposition (showing instead of telling), it is handled intelligently, using the university setting as a backdrop. Students and professors explain concepts to each other in a way that doesn’t feel forced (most of the time).

There are several different story elements woven together, which makes it read more like a ‘real’ novel. There’s the university chair who wants to get more students into her faculties. There’s the bright business brain who is taking courses in order to improve performance at his company and generate real business results. There’s the professor with a spendthrift wife who is desperate for tenure and will try anything to show the value of his courses in the real world. It’s a shame the title of the book is so uninspiring.

The concept of critical chain

Somewhere in the middle of this novel you realise that you suddenly know what critical chain is all about. Professor Rick, our protagonist, explains it like this:

“Let’s leave critical path to be what everyone else calls a critical path, the longest path. But we know that what counts is the constraint, and the constraint is the longest chain of dependent steps. Since we must acknowledge that dependency can be the result of a resource, we better provide another name for the chain of steps that are the constraint.”

“Why not ‘critical chain’?” Brian suggests.

And so critical chain methodology is born. In short, it’s a way to streamline processes so that you avoid bottlenecks and increase throughput. In business terms, that means understanding the handoffs between people in the project team. It’s a way to take critical path scheduling a step further: not only do you have to consider the links between tasks, but also the dependencies between people doing those tasks.

Another big piece of critical chain thinking is to measure what is important. There are several examples in the book of companies using the wrong metrics to measure their business processes – metrics that show them as ultimately performing well when financially the company is not achieving what it should.

Measuring what’s important struck a chord with me as that’s a big part of the customer satisfaction model Exceed that my co-author Phil Peplow and I wrote about in Customer-Centric Project Management.

A book for generating ideas

This book does contain diagrams, but it isn’t a textbook that will help you implement critical chain in your organisation. Instead, I found it more useful for generating ideas, and for challenging the way you think about scheduling. If you read it and find that you do want to take the theory further, you will have to use other texts, or buy in consultancy to help you do so.

If you want to broaden the way you think about project planning, this book could help you do so. Written in 1997 it is now a classic text, but it still comes across as timely and challenging. I’m sure many companies have not yet adopted this structured way of scheduling, or even informally adopted some of the work principles that drop out of critical chain thinking.

You probably wouldn’t want to go back to this book over and over again, but if you can find it in your PMO library or borrow a copy from a colleague, it is worth a read.

Buy on
Buy on


  1. Jeff Furman says

    Thanks Elizabeth, very helpful review.

    – For more about Critical Chain, your followers might like to see the very good section: “Managing the Critical Chain,” in Chapter 20 of Bonnie Biafore’s book: “Successful Project Management” (Microsoft Press). Bonnie goes into “Defining the Critical Chain” and “Using Time Buffers Effectively,” and gives examples with illustrations from MS Project.

    – My favorite book in the style of The Goal and Critical Chain is NOT about project management! Richard Bach, who wrote the classic “Jonathan Livingston Seagull, also wrote “Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah,” also bringing in a wise mentor who somehow appears and provides very timely advice. Some of your readers might like it.

    • says

      Jeff, thanks for these recommendations. It is always good to know where people can go to get more information if they want to take a topic further. I have read Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but not the Illusions book, so I might look that up when I have some more time.

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