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The Smartest Tool in the Shed
By Missy England
June 19, 2016
*This is Part 2 of a three-part series. Check out Part 1: Planning, to dive into estimating, risk assessment, and more.
Construction project planners know the details of the schedule inside and out. They can look at a Gantt chart and easily see the relationship between tasks, the durations assigned and the resources committed. They can also readily recognize the critical paths and see exactly how things are running and if they are running behind schedule. Unfortunately, few others in the construction process are interested in the symbols and graphs planners rely on. This is why, as soon as the schedule is designed, astute planners practice the art of talking and writing in terms tailored to their audiences.
In “Choosing Project Success,”J.F. McCarthy emphasizes the communication challenges planners face when he writes, “Many people do not like to plan; they prefer to operate and react, and many people cannot understand interrelations between activities. Furthermore, most people are incapable of using the graphs, mathematical symbols and tables that are part of scheduling.” This means the planners become some of the only people in their trade who understand these resources, making them futile to everyone else involved in the build. McCarthy’s advice for those who develop the schedule is to translate their contributions in layman’s terms and numbers.
Circulating a Gantt chart to work crews to illustrate their tasks, along with their respective resources and time constraints communicates very little to them. However, the same chart, shared with the subcontractor planners, will not only be understood, but expected, as they speak the same “language” of planning and scheduling. Work crews need straightforward communications without ambiguity. For example: Install the electrical outlet boxes with the necessary wiring between June 10th and 20th. If you include an illustration for further clarification, McCarthy advises providing a simple bar chart without distracting critical path annotations.
Project meetings focusing on communicating aspects of the schedule are crucial. In part because you want to make sure the schedule is realistic for all those doing the work, but also to get buy-in from all stakeholders. Gather detailed estimates from subcontractors and others involved when creating the schedule and find out if there are limitations that have arisen that were possibly overlooked.
Schedule meetings with your teams to keep everyone on the same page. However, try to avoid scheduling them when other forms of communication will suffice. Meetings are successful when:
It’s become more important to have a firm handle on managing communications, especially with all the document storage options now available. Project management solutions such as Procore include document management functions that greatly simplify the organization of all project documentation. From submittals and change orders to RFIs and punch lists, the right document management solution makes sure actionable items are acted upon, that notifications occur on time and that people have the right information when they need it.
Managing verbal communications related to the schedule is a bit more challenging since discussions often happen spontaneously, and even when planned, there are technical and legal limitations related to recording them. Even if recording is an option, there are challenges of storing, sorting, searching and archiving audio files to ensure they are quick and easy to locate. It often falls on the participants to create their own verbal or written record of the conversations, within a reasonable amount of time. But many don’t document their interactions and tend to rely solely on their memory to direct their responsibilities. If the communication between the two was effective, meaning both parties clearly understood what the other said and meant, it’s likely both parties will make the appropriate and agreed-upon decisions. But if the communication was muddled, or both parties left with a different understanding, the decisions most likely won’t be aligned.
The person talking tends to assume their message is clear and precise, but that’s not always the case. When those communicating share a common ground, they have a good chance of understanding one another. However, when people of different backgrounds and professions communicate, the possibility for error increases. To make sure you understand one another, you have to ask the simple, and often over-looked, question, “Do you understand?” If you don’t ask this when there’s a possibility of misunderstanding, you are contributing to the confusion. Effective listening, removing distractions and occasionally summing up what the other person has said also helps make verbal communications more effective.
The schedule is ultimately the tool that will determine project success. Ensuring it is communicated accurately, consistently and completely, with all stakeholders involved, is the only way to utilize its potential.
Bottlenecking, due to limited resources in high demand, can potentially be resolved if schedules are created based on available resources. For example, a construction project with environmental problems requiring a special team of remediation experts may result in delays if finding enough experts proves to be impossible. A series of linked projects dependent upon a common resource, such as a construction crane, may cause delays if, due to space and safety issues, adding additional cranes is out of the question. Taking the time to review your schedule based on the resources available, can save you time and money and keep your project on track.
A resource-based approach is often used in conjunction with the Critical Path Method (CPM), but there may be some projects where using this as the exclusive scheduling technique is appropriate. Consider a project where short-supply resources are needed for more than one task, making it impossible for the CPM to work. As Chris Hendrickson, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University states, this happens because CPM scheduling “assumes that no resource availability problems or bottlenecks will arise.” There are also additional methods for dealing with resource limitations. For example, the scheduler could set up resource constraints first and then add precedence constraints. Another option would be to set up resource-challenged activities into groups that receive special attention.
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Regardless of the chosen process, the schedule must ultimately reflect the resource limitations and effectively deal with them, or the issues have to be dealt with manually. One such manual approach is a reservation system for handling resource bottlenecks in which the resource in short supply is identified early in the planning stages. Therefore, participants that need the resource can reserve it at a predetermined time. In computer-managed projects, this process has been further refined by independent software agents and referred to as a Multi-Agent System.The agents are autonomous, each representing either a process or a resource,and negotiate the right matches between processes and resources. Accordingto T. Horenburg, J. Wimmer & W. A. Günthner’s paper, “Resource Allocation in Construction Scheduling based on Multi-Agent Negotiation,” these systems have been tested and proven highly reliable and capable of returning high-quality solutions for resource-constrained project scheduling problems.
CPM scheduling alone can accommodate all resource constraints, or can be done in concert with resource-based scheduling. For example, when there is only an occasional resource limitation, you could start with the CPM and address the resource constraints as needed. If there are multiple resource constraints, then it might be more beneficial to deal with the resource issues first. Furthermore, it may be advantageous in some instances to proceed by following both approaches at the same time. There are many different ways to deal with scheduling problems– including those arising from resource constraints– and many times it simply means modifying the CPM.
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