Scheduling: Art or Science?
Ulf Wolf / May 2018
While some say that project scheduling isn’t brain surgery, others say that brain surgery, by comparison, is but a leisurely stroll through a park.
Most agree, though, that when it comes to scheduling and coordinating with other trades, experience is the best teacher. It is only the “been there, done that” that truly drives home the importance of an elegantly dovetailing and workable project schedule.
Here’s a look at how some AWCI members view this ongoing challenge.
What are the most overlooked factors in project scheduling?
Gabriel Castillo, estimator at Pillar Construction, Inc. in Virginia, does not hesitate: “Lack of drawing detail; shop drawing approval turnaround and trade coordination; lead- and fabrication-times.”
Neither does Gilly Turgeon, president of Green Mountain Drywall Co., Inc. in Vermont: “Time, time, and time.”
“The factor most often overlooked is material lead times,” says Chuck Taylor, director of operations at Englewood Construction, an Illinois general contractor. “Another important factor is subcontractors overcommitting and underperforming, especially when we are forced to use the lowest ‘qualified’ bidder since one always gets what one pays for.”
Says Barry Fries, president of B.R. Fries Associates, LLC, a New York general contractor, “Weather delays, float [how much an event or activity can be delayed without delaying the overall job completion] and shop drawing approval.”
Observes John Kirk, owner of Kirk Builders in California, “Overlooking the time inspections can take tops the list. A close second is that the MEP trades will no doubt forget or mislocate their work, or not have it installed when we begin drywalling. Lastly, not figuring how long the project management team will need to figure out the job and submitting (and hearing back on) RFIs. Schedules are usually blown during the first half of a job.”
For Greg Smith, executive vice president of Superior Wall Systems in California, it’s “proper sequencing of work between the trade partners. It’s not as simple as ‘You go, then I go, then he goes.’ Ideally, we would all like to have the floor to ourselves, but that never happens. So, dovetailing the relevant trade partners through an area means a very successful project.
“Secondly, we see too little detail on the lath and plastering side of things, and we’re rarely given time for lathing trims. Additionally, plaster cure times are something most schedulers don’t understand—adding this to an already tight schedule that has not accounted for this can lead to vibrant discussions.”
For Richard Wagner, owner of RWE – Richard Wagner Enterprises, LLC in North Carolina, the top factor is “reality, knowing what is possible and what isn’t.”
Lee Zaretzky, president of Ronsco, Inc. in New York City, agrees: “The most overlooked factor is what is real and what is not. Add to that architect/owner/decision-maker response time and the ripple effect of delays caused by this.”
The way Phil Ruffin, president of Pontiac Ceiling & Partition, LLC in Michigan, sees it, “Accurate durations, accurate sequencing and actually following and maintaining the schedule that was laid out.”
Robert Aird, president of Robert A. Aird, Inc. in Maryland, highlights other trades: “We can anticipate the durations of our work, but not that of other trades. If the other trades are of the lowest-bidder kind, they will oftentimes hold us up or do unacceptable work (substrates, through-wall fixtures, etc.) that must be fixed before we can do ours.”
Howard Bernstein, president of Penn installations, Inc. in Pennsylvania states it succinctly: (1) Delays caused by trades preceding those in the finish trades; (2) See number one; (3) See number two.”
Craig Daley, president of Daley’s Drywall & Taping in California takes this view: “Weather and drying times for taping mud are two of the biggest factors. On a good day with 70 percent humidity, mud dries in one day; at 90 percent humidity, it takes two extra days that no one plans for.
“Also, in many buildings, the windows are not large enough to stock drywall through, so it’s important to stock ahead of window installation so you’re not packing. Some clients think it’s easy to haul drywall up stairs, but just ask them to help carry a bundle and they soon get the message.”
“In my view,” adds Norb Slowikowski, president of Slowikowski & Associates, Inc., an Illinois consultant, “the most overlooked scheduling factor is that foremen are, as a rule, not trained on how to do weekly planning and two-week look-ahead scheduling.”
How does too much or too little scheduling detail affect a project?
Says Castillo, “You often hear, ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ The answer is, ‘One bite at a time.’ Small, detailed bites are easy to digest. Small, tangible milestones are easy to identify, remember, measure and attain.”
“I don’t think,” says Turgeon, “that we have seen a project with too much scheduling detail in the last 10 years, while too little detail is the norm.
“Most scheduling over the last five years has everybody working on top of each other. It’s almost as if general contractors are happy only when they see 30 workers in the same room.”
“Personally,” says Taylor, “I do not think you can ever have too much detail, and you must tie the schedule to the subcontracts.”
“I am of the opinion,” says Fries, “that there is never too much detail in a schedule. A schedule with too little detail is not a schedule, it is someone’s best guess.”
Observes Kirk, “If areas need to be worked at the start to facilitate the MEP trades, this should be noted on the schedule but rarely is. A couple of weeks ago, I noticed the schedule on a job I was pricing had the windows going in last, after the drywall was already done. Actually, I think most GCs throw together schedules to impress the owner.”
“Too little detail is not a good thing,” says Smith. “We are a trade that touches everything—structure, MEP and finishes—so the more detail, the better, as far as I am concerned.”
Quips Wagner, “Some GCs issue a schedule just because the AIA contract says they have to.”
“Never too much detail,” says Zaretzky, “so long as the critical path tasks are factored in and it is based on real start dates and task durations and on input from trades that will then adhere to the schedule.”
“The more detail, the better,” says Ruffin. “However, too much can hinder scheduling progress. Too little renders the schedule useless.”
Observes Aird: “Too much detail can be detrimental by creating false expectations, especially if there is no float included for unforeseens or bad weather. Too little detail can overlook items that will cost time when a trade reaches a certain juncture and cannot continue until another trade has finished.”
“Hopefully,” says Bernstein, “a balance can be struck between the two, as long as there is buy-in from all sides.”
Adds Daley, “Too little detail is the biggest problem.”
“As for detail,” says Slowikowski, “productivity is in the details, so is quality. A small change in productivity can have an enormous impact on company profits.”
Does the use of Building Information Modeling help or hurt?
“BIM has really had a positive effect on schedules,” says Smith. “With the reduction in on-site RFIs, the project can adhere to the schedule easier since there are not as many delays in waiting for replies to questions. I don’t know if anyone has done an actual study on the time savings that BIM provides, but I have to think it’s worth noting.
“That said, I have been on BIM projects that crashed and went off script pretty quickly. BIM isn’t a guarantee that you will have a good project. At the end of the day, you still need a good schedule, implemented and managed properly, to achieve the desired success.”
Adds Ruffin, “BIM can be a good tool. However, we have had experiences where the job progress has caught and passed the BIM progress, rendering the BIM useless.”
How do you best track project progress?
“We break the project down into small milestones,” says Castillo. “We use bar charts in the field, since visual feedback communicates information quickly to the crew.”
Turgeon tracks progress “by visiting job sites on a weekly basis and going over any problems with the general superintendent and my project superintendent.” Kirk also visits the sites on a regular basis.
Shares Taylor, “We create our schedules using Microsoft Project and track them through Procore, our online construction management portal. This is supplemented with two- and sometimes three-week look-aheads. Also, it is crucial to have weekly meetings with the subs to coordinate.”
Says Fries, “We track progress on a weekly basis in conjunction with the superintendents’ two-week look-ahead. If the two are not synchronized, then the project may be behind schedule and a new schedule must be developed to reflect acceleration of work, if possible. That is why schedules require float time.”
Shares Wagner, “My foremen track progress by personal calls to each GC’s super for up-to-the-minute reports. Also, we like having daily pictures from the field, either shot by us or the GC—OxBlue [time-lapse cameras] doesn’t lie.”
Bernstein tracks job progress with “good communication between project manager and superintendent tempered with the irate calls from construction managers.”
Says Daley, “We use On Center’s Digital Production Control on a daily basis for time card and production tracking. Following the job graphically takes out the guesswork.”
How much scheduling room should you give to surprises?
Says Castillo, “Experience give us the right duration for surprises. Also, working with seasoned contractors always gives you a better control of these surprises.”
Adds Turgeon, “I think if you allow an additional 10 percent for surprises, you could make it work.”
“I have yet to make room for surprises,” says Taylor. “However, a recovery plan should be implemented immediately after any deviation in a schedule or timeline.”
According to Fries, there is “never enough. You don’t know what you don’t know, and that’s why building float into the schedule is a necessity. Judging the adequate amount of float, however, is black magic.”
Says Kirk, “When I am asked for my input on scheduling, I do request allowance for surprises. The answer is usually a lot of laughs.”
“Ideally,” says Smith, “we all would like a lot of room for surprises. That, however, isn’t possible. Still, you have to account for things like weather delays. Also, the steel tariffs have created a bit of a scheduling surprise that needs to be factored in now and for the foreseeable future.”
Observes Wagner, “Perhaps it should not come as a surprise, but other trades fail inspections on a weekly basis, which forces us to reschedule crews.”
Suggests Ruffin, “There might be a buffer of 5 to 10 percent, but there is no need to overreact to something that may never occur. Project changes can be handled outside the schedule by way of additional crews and overtime so as not to affect the base schedule.”
Shares Aird, “Surprises tend to be job-specific. For smaller jobs, some hours or a day of delay can be made up by adding crew or working a Saturday to catch up. Larger jobs, especially those with liquidated-damage clauses, should carry free float time for items that might be held up by production delays at the manufacturer or overseas shipping problems, i.e., customs, weather, etc. These factors cannot be taught in the classroom. It is experience that gives the individual (scheduler, project manager) the knowledge of what delays may occur and how best to address them.”
“You deal with obstacles as they occur,” suggests Slowikowski. “No schedule is perfect, it’s a guideline. Foremen should execute P-D-C-A-A (Plan the work, Do the work, Check the Work, Assess the work, Adjust the schedule). It’s a continuous, ongoing process.”
How does scheduling affect the project budget?
“The clock for admin and overhead cost ticks all the time,” says Castillo. “Delays are always costly.”
Notes Turgeon, “Some (inefficient) GCs price jobs higher because trades cannot be their usual productive selves on their projects.”
Says Taylor, “From a general contractor standpoint, extra time directly translates to extra money. Similarly, overtime costs may need to be added to make up time from any number of delays.”
Adds Fries, “Project costs are directly proportional to project duration.”
Observes Kirk, “Shorter durations always raise the bid price.”
“A good schedule, properly managed, will almost always have a positive effect on our budgets,” says Smith. “Conversely, a poorly managed schedule leads to unanticipated delays and cost overruns. I think it’s fair to say you can draw a straight-line connection between scheduling and budgets. What really seems to be missing with schedule management is not seeing the early warning signs that things are going bad. Small delays lead to bigger delays until the project goes over the event horizon and from there, can never be recovered. On the other side of the coin, I have seen well-managed jobs brought in ahead of schedule, and that almost always leads to a profitable project for everyone involved.
“In my experience, a well-run schedule takes a lot of work up front and a strong, smart leader in control. Mind you, there is a significant difference between a stubborn leader and a strong, smart leader. The well-run schedule is implemented early, with the significant trades partners all brought in for input, and then strictly adhered to. It is then maintained with a lot of attention to the details.”
“Big jobs,” says Wagner, “once they fall behind, are always costly.”
Adds Ruffin, “Any job that is either scheduled out of sequence or not followed/managed will affect manpower levels, which will affect your budget. The more people you have to bring on to manage a lagging schedule, the higher the cost in inefficiencies.”
Quips Aird, “If unanticipated additional labor or overtime is needed due to poor scheduling and/or sequencing of the trades, the profit can diminish or disappear. and the need for mediation and/or psychoanalysis increase.”
Adds Slowikowski, “Scheduling has the following positive impact on a given project’s budget: It helps identify resources a foreman needs to do the work; it identifies restraints, interference, amount of crew for a specific assignment, delivery arrangements; it identifies material and equipment availability (lead times); and it shows access to work areas.”
Art or Science?
Attention to detail and good, objective tracking tools constitute the science part. Experience (especially with surprises) lays the foundation of the art.
The great scheduler is a very precise artist.
California-based Ulf Wolf is the senior writer at Words & Images.