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By Duane Craig
August 13, 2018
Construction project scheduling is a lot like playing whack a mole — every time you think you've got everything fixed, a new problem pops up. So, before you decide to plug all the holes and hope for the best, try these three tactics.
Confirm the Scope
A natural give-and-take goes on long before anybody even starts thinking about the schedule. First, owners try to max out the features and then cringe at the red ink. Next, they try to cut costs by dialing everything back except their pet features. However, that leaves them feeling like they're sacrificing quality everywhere else. And, on it goes.
So, by the time you start building the schedule, you are basing it on a project with multiple starts, stops, and terminations woven into its fabric. Did the budget people keep up and make sure the specifications matched the final scope? Did the estimators make all the changes and adjustments required for building an accurate work breakdown? Did new requirements no one had thought about creep in?
If you're building a schedule or trying to make one work, start by reviewing the final scope documents and the updated plans. That's where you will find the reality of what you're trying to schedule.
Ask Yourself A Lot of Questions
After the gyrations with the scope, there is a long process before scheduling begins. There were opportunities to get things right, and many chances to get things wrong. Any mistake has consequences, and the earlier they were made in the process, the more consequences for the schedule.
Tasks out of order, missing requirements, undersized equipment, activities with resource constraints, unrealistic completion times, and excessive lag all point to someone making incorrect assumptions along the way. When you develop a questioning approach to the schedule, you'll be surprised at how many incorrect assumptions others have made. Some will be minor, like assuming a quick way to get materials from Point A to Point B exists. For others, on the other hand, you'll have to stretch your imagination to come up with solutions.
One place to focus is at the intersection of where one trade picks up and the other leaves off. Did the electrical estimator assume the existing main panel will stay? Did the plumber assume the demolition crew would remove the wall tiles? How about the painters? Did they assume the baseboard wouldn't be installed when they got their go-ahead to paint the walls?
That last question also hints at another good reason to think in questions. When out of sequence, tasks and activities make it very difficult to assign resources accurately. And, if you're working on a schedule that's already developed, watch for places where someone assigned resources to a group of tasks. This is a risky business. You almost always want to assign resources at the task level. Otherwise, you could miss assigning an important resource, like a piece of equipment or a third-party inspection. Whenever you spot any of these errors-in-logic, the time you spend correcting them will save you a lot of headaches down the line.
Focus on Productivity
If time is of the essence, then productivity is the essence. It's the essence of what it takes to bring the project in on schedule. When you go searching for productivity improvements, you're not just looking for ways to improve human productivity. You want the schedule that allows the productivity to flourish.
For instance, productivity suffers when people wait for materials. In many cases, you can get materials to workers at the right time by setting up proper conditions. You might confirm there's a telehandler for the roofing activity. To improve speed and safety, you might make sure the general conditions include grading and graveling a path across uneven ground. Study the schedule to find places where machines can pick up the slack or help to reduce human fatigue factors.
When it comes to human productivity, you have to consider the factors causing fatigue. People doing repetitive motions need more breaks to stave off muscle spasms and fatigue. When people have worked 50 hours without a day off, they are already less productive. So, if you have a six-day schedule, you can boost productivity by having fresh crews every sixth day. And, wherever you can reduce overtime, you'll reap productivity gains, reduce costs, and lower the accident rate.
Another major productivity drag is waiting for instructions. This problem is almost always traced back to surprises. Maybe new information caused a change order, or weather caused a delay. Scope changes arising from incomplete or inaccurate design are all too common. Your schedule doesn't know about these events until they happen.
Hence, build in a contingency activity at the very end of the schedule. In deciding how many days to assign to the contingency, consider the potential surprises and the known variables you can't be quite sure about. That includes items like final delivery of that unique prefab component coming from three states away, or the requirement to get not one, but two, third-party sign-offs on a building energy system.
If you liked this article, here are a few eBooks and webinars you may enjoy:
Project Management Guide: Part 2- Scheduling
5 Questions to Ask when Selecting a New Project Management System
6 Common Scheduling Mistakes That Can Cost You Time and Money
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