A schedule is an essential tool for owners, contractors, their staffs, and third parties (such as regulatory agencies) to communicate on a construction project. But if it's hard to understand, or if it doesn't accurately reflect what steps are ahead, it thwarts teamwork. Before you know it, the schedule is causing conflict instead of averting it.

One way the schedule gets muddled is that both parties use it for “extra” purposes like assessing the productivity of resources, forecasting cash requirements, supporting progress payments, assessing liquidated damages, and providing claims documentation. Scheduling software exacerbates this phenomenon by providing the opportunity to identify labor hours and costs for each and every activity. While the concept sounds good, estimating and allocating accurately for detail items that are many months out is virtually impossible.

So the schedule becomes a project unto itself, one that requires constant attention and pulls much-needed resources from what's important. The owner and contractor end up foregoing the original schedule and developing their own schedules. Not exactly a recipe for effective collaboration.

Develop Reasonable Expectations

One way to avoid this counterproductivity is to provide details—but not too many, or too far ahead.

Most public agencies require the contractor to provide a detailed schedule for the overall duration of the project in the first 15 or 21 days after being awarded the project. Some also require cost and man-hour loading of that schedule and detailed activities for a certain duration or cost. Often, the contractor's first payment depends on the owner approving the schedule.

But providing this type of detail at such an early stage is difficult, if not impossible. Contractors rush to develop schedule detail far beyond their realistic ability to predict such information. Many don't even have detailed schedules from their subcontractors or confirmed supplier dates for equipment deliveries. And that's when the project begins getting out of control.

For example, the owner on a large, 36-month wastewater project required the contractor to limit each schedule activity process to two weeks or $10,000, whichever was less. In the end, the schedule included more than 8000 activities that no one could manage or keep updated.

Planning vs. Scheduling

One reason owners push for a detailed schedule too soon is that they misunderstand the difference between planning and scheduling. While you can never plan too far ahead, scheduling can only occur when adequate, accurate, and detailed information is at hand.

A plan outlines:

  • Objectives
  • Milestones
  • General resource requirements
  • Approaches for certain activities.

A schedule, on the other hand:

  • Outlines the timeline and sequence of those activities
  • Proves out the plan or indicates that adjustments need to be made in duration, sequence of activities, or resources required.

When an owner requires a detailed schedule before the contractor can finish the planning process, there's little chance activities will occur according to schedule. Owners should put the contractor's planning first, which specifically includes the contractor's commitment to providing adequate resources and meeting interim progress milestones.

Certainly, a schedule of some sort is needed early on, but it must be easy to understand and able to expand as further information is available. Such a schedule thus becomes an effective control tool for the owner and the contractor.

Is The Critical Path Really Critical?

Who hasn't been on a project where parties haggle over the definition of the critical path, if and when changes should occur, and who "owns" the float in the critical path management schedule?

Every schedule activity will become critical if planned progress is not made. True, it's vital for the contractor and owner to recognize which activities are more important in meeting goals, in order to prioritize efforts, but progress is better made through collaboration.

The belief that delays aren't important unless they involve "critical path" activities is nonsense. When time is taken out of the project duration without expected progress, it always negatively affects the schedule and associated costs.

Creating Success

Success begins with a contractor who knows the importance of thorough planning, and an owner that grasps the importance of a streamlined schedule. An ideal approach is long-range planning complemented by medium- and short term scheduling.

In the invitation to bid, the owner should ask the contractor to provide a detailed schedule for only the first 90 days of the project after the notice to proceed (NTP). For this initial period, there should be sufficient information so this schedule is accurate and usable.

After the NTP, this 90-day schedule should become a three-month rolling lookahead schedule. As the project moves toward completion, details should be added each month so the owner and contractor are on the same page. This is the mediumrange scheduling.

Based on the three-month look-ahead, the contractor should provide a three-week rolling work schedule that includes more specific work activities, such as concrete placements, equipment deliveries, and utility tie-ins. This is the short-term scheduling. Owners also should monitor the information provided with the bid with respect to the contractor's commitment on providing the resources of labor and construction equipment; if planned milestone dates are not being made, the needed resources are probably lacking.

Collaboration and cooperation are key to successful project execution, and the schedule is a way to foster that approach. But mostly, both the owner and contractor want the project to be a success. An understandable, usable, and accurate schedule will help make this objective more easily achieved.

Plan the work, and work the plan

Defining expectations up front keeps owners and contractors from butting heads during construction.

To foster the best possible working relationship, owners should ask contractors to submit with their bid a plan for meeting schedule requirements. This plan should answer these questions:

  • How will the contractor approach each major activity?
  • What are the key work interfaces with the owner and third parties?
  • What are the long-lead procurement items and planned delivery dates?
  • Does the plan indicate an understanding and commitment to key interim milestone dates, to control the project and the overall completion date?
  • What risks are involved, and what is the contractor's commitment to accept those risks?
  • What is the field construction organization plan, including management and supervision durations?
  • What labor and equipment resources are needed? (A separate chart should indicate the number of skilled laborers and major types of construction equipment required at each stage.)
  • What major decisions need to be made, and who needs to make them?
  • Does the plan provide an overall strategy—not a detailed schedule—that shows a sequence of major activities, incorporating major dependencies and interfaces that meet specified milestone events, dates, and the overall project completion dates? As a guideline, this plan should not have more than 500 to 600 major activities for a $50 million project, or half that for a $25 million project.
  • How will the contractor and owner measure progress on a monthly basis?

— Williams is senior vice president and director of design-build, global consulting and engineering for Long Beach, Calif.-based Earth Tech Inc.