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What is a Critical Path and Why your Business Needs it?

Working in fashion manufacturing means that often one spends vast amounts of time discussing THE critical path and making sure production runs on time. For those new to the concept – this is an important moment. Not understanding what the importance of the fashion critical path is, can only spell trouble for your business.  So let’s take a look at what that is, how to create one and why it is so important to a business.


What is a Critical Path?

In the apparel industry, the fashion critical path is actually a production plan that contains a list of all of the necessary activities that are required to be done within a particular time frame. This ensures that your production orders are shipped successfully within the estimated time of delivery (ETD).

A smart merchandiser maintains the critical path in order to identify the crucial tasks, which if not attended to, could impact on delivery schedules for the products. This method of working and tracking production was originally developed in the 1950s by DuPont and was first used in missile-defence construction projects. Since then, it’s been adapted to other fields, including hardware and software product research and development.

In the fast-paced fashion industry, the global sourcing environment is increasingly complex. With numerous processes, multiple functions and suppliers in different countries, it’s a necessity that they all work together as a virtual orchestra to produce products within a short timeframe.

Why is Critical Path Important?

The critical path is more important than ever when you consider these additional, mitigating circumstances: Suppliers dealing with more product design and development, including sourcing, testing and materials approval, as well as the reduction in production lead times reduced from 90 days to 60 and on occasion 40. In light of these facts, it’s a good idea to keep on top of things and to plan strategically.

Even if your factory of choice sources all of your raw materials and trimmings it’s still important to develop a critical path in product development.  You can create it to chart the design process – and it could include the following deadlines:

  • When designs should be finalized;
  • First sample approval;
  • Second sample approval;
  • Production of the final sealed sample;
  • When to place production;
  • When the order should be ready; 
  • Delivery to the warehouse.

Don’t commit to using a particular fabric that you then discover will take months to produce or that has high minimums.

How to Set-up a Critical Path for your Production?

  • One of the first steps in maintaining the critical path is to know the origin of everything you require to complete your orders.
  • Secondly, it’s a good idea to know how long it will take to get all your supplies once you’ve placed your order.

Keeping abreast of lead times for delivery of fabric and trims is something that should be dealt with, before showing your range to buyers.

Don’t commit to using a particular fabric that you then discover will take months to produce or that has high minimums.

This would have a profound effect on your ability to deliver your goods within the agreed time frame.

Remember that overseas manufacturers close for the holidays so enquire about this before you commit to ordering your materials and trims.

  •  Communicating with the factory is paramount and will ensure the smooth execution of your dockets. The factory will have a queuing system in place, which you, no doubt will be a part of.

However, if your materials and trims are not delivered at the same time, along with all of the other necessary components, you will go to the back of the queue. This will have a knock-on effect on your deliveries and could mean the cancellation of your orders.

  • The factors required to ensure your collection is produced on time also include services such as pattern cutting, printing, embroidering and any other special finishes on fabrics and trims.  
  • One of the biggest hurdles to delivering your orders on time is in regards to how the factory performs once they have received all of your components.

If you visit a factory in March and they quote you a delivery of three weeks, don’t assume that it will still be three weeks if you only give them the docket in May, when the whole industry is so much busier.

Bottlenecks occur in the factories during busy periods. These include the typical periods of April to June for Autumn/Winter deliveries and October to December for Spring/Summer. 

To create your own critical path document, there are several steps that should be followed:

  1. Define the tasks.
  2. List them in an ordered fashion.
  3. Create a flowchart that shows each task in relation to each other.
  4. Identify the critical paths (relationships) between the tasks.
  5. Identify the non-critical paths (relationships) amongst the tasks.
  6. Determine the expected execution time for each task.
  7. Devise alternatives for the most critical plans.

The intention behind following these steps is to initiate the following outcomes:

  • To define the shortest time possible to complete the project.
  • To define the longest path of planned activities to the end of the project.
  • To define the earliest and latest that each activity can start and finish without making the project longer.
  • To define which activities are “critical” (i.e. on the longest path) and which have “total float” (i.e. can be delayed without making the project longer).

The main purpose of creating a Critical Path is for identifying the critical tasks required.

Software for creating your own Critical Path is available from platforms such as Fastreact and Isync Solutions.

Working on a critical path in place will keep your costs down if you’re just starting up in business or don’t have too many styles to keep a track of.

So, remember that a Critical Path can be made for any process or project and its main purpose is for identifying the critical tasks required. By defining which tasks are more important, you will be able to prioritize them and if necessary, delay any tasks that are less urgent. This will ensure that your products are created, produced and delivered at the right times throughout the season. Keeping files with all of your documentation will enable you to produce a comprehensive critical path that maintains a continuous flow between yourself and the factory.