Commercial Construction & Renovation Article: The Lost Art of Scheduling

Why every contractor aspires to the premise (and where it breaks down)

By Bob Lemke, vice president of operations for Adolfson & Peterson Construction

As our world has evolved, we’ve learned new skills and abandoned others. In centuries past, our ancestors likely knew how to trap their own food, make their own soap, and sew their own clothes.

While those skills still exist today in some form or another, fewer people know how to do them. And even fewer know how to do them well. One day, maybe not far into the future, those skills will be completely lost, either because they’re no longer necessary or because the tradespeople will have left this world without passing along their knowledge.

When it comes to commercial construction, schedules that are both accurate and detailed are critical to successfully completing a project. Adolfson & Peterson Construction (AP) realizes that scheduling is a skill that’s been lost in our industry, and we’re taking steps to ensure the art of scheduling doesn’t disappear forever.

Magic words: on-schedule and on-budget

For construction projects, bragging rights go to those who can claim they’ve completed a project on schedule and on budget. It’s a goal every general contractor aspires to, but one that’s easier said than done.

Schedules provide a path to successful project completion. Without a schedule, those involved in the project have no roadmap to guide them to their destination. A schedule is a tool that can be used to keep a project on track and on budget, as well as get a project back on track when and if problems arise (and they always do).

Schedules also provide transparency into the process and the work required to accomplish specific tasks and to complete the entire project. Without a schedule, everyone involved in the project is operating in a vacuum – aware only of the role they play – and lacking a greater understanding of the bigger picture.

Finally, schedules act as a communication tool, keeping all stakeholders in the loop, on the same page, and working toward the same goals. They also ensure accountability when they clearly detail who is responsible for what tasks. And, perhaps most important, they establish trust between client and contractor.

All schedules are not created equal

Scheduling is difficult. Those who excel at scheduling know it requires more than just plugging numbers into an Excel spreadsheet, Microsoft Project, or Smartsheet.

The best schedules outline critical path tasks, a sequence of events and/or tasks that are linked together and represent the project timeline from start to finish. A well-developed schedule also details other tasks that must be accomplished by certain dates (milestones) and specifies the sequence of events (sequencing).

All too often, the quality of the schedule isn’t apparent until milestones are missed, regular tasks prevent the completion of critical path tasks, and sequences are disrupted.

An ineffective schedule lacks detail, sets unreasonable milestones, miscalculates production rates, and ignores critical path tasks and other tasks. The consequences of an inaccurate schedule can be significant. In essence, relationships are at risk when a general contractor can’t deliver a project by a predetermined deadline and within budget.

However, what’s even more important – and what we should be focusing on – is what we stand to gain from an effective schedule. When a project stays and finishes on schedule, everybody on the project team benefits, both financially and operationally.

An industry-wide problem

Historically, schedules were developed by general contractors with their boots on the ground. Why? Because they knew the production rates and had the historical data necessary to run schedule-driven projects.

However, as the industry changed and general contractors focused more on managing subcontractors, scheduling took a back seat. Today, ineffective scheduling is an industry-wide problem. General contractors often focus too much on cost reports rather than data borne from years of field experience.

Industry players have tried to correct course with in-house schedulers who produce all the project schedules without ever visiting the work site. Yet, this hasn’t solved the problem. It just results in projects being delayed by bad information, which in turn makes it nearly impossible to get back on track.

The industry needs schedulers who have both a 30,000-foot view and their feet firmly planted on the rebar, because that’s the only way to truly visualize a project’s critical path.

A scheduler like this sees a construction project like a line of dominos, standing them up from point A to point B to ensure that when the first domino falls, the rest will follow. If they don’t, the scheduler can stand back, pinpoint what went wrong, and pivot accordingly.

Reclaiming the art of scheduling

On a construction site, a surprise is never a good thing. And more often than not, it results in a financial loss for all parties. That’s why owners hire general contractors for predictability as much as they do to build a structurally sound building.

To make delayed projects the exception rather than the rule, general contractors need to rethink scheduling. AP has, and it has gone a long way in setting us apart and pleasing our clients.

We have a dedicated scheduling expert who – instead of producing all project schedules – trains our on-site project managers and superintendents to build schedules with the right logic, sequence, and critical path methods.

This expert also works alongside our on-site teams to provide ongoing quality control and schedule analysis. It’s an approach that ensures the schedule remains on track throughout the course of a project.

To reclaim the art of scheduling, we need to understand that it’s a proven and strategic tool that helps general contractors create solid plans for their clients. However, as we all know, the unexpected should always be expected. This is where the true art of scheduling really shines. By working a plan with good information, culled directly from construction site, we can more easily overcome the unexpected.

The result? Subcontractors will choose to work with you over other general contractors because they know the schedule will hold. Satisfied clients will spread the word, new business will come your way, and the art of scheduling will be preserved for the next generation.

Bob Lemke is vice president of Operations for Adolfson and Peterson Construction (AP), a family-owned company that is consistently ranked among the top construction managers and general contractors in the nation, while maintaining one of the safest records in the industry. He is responsible for strategic planning, risk management and operational decisions, as well as ensuring the satisfaction of all project stakeholders and confirming success at every phase of AP’s projects.

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