The New Era of Scheduling: The Practical, the Possible, and the Pitfalls

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  • The New Era of Scheduling: The Practical, the Possible, and the Pitfalls
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Taryn Harbert


Taryn Harbert


Future Thinking , Perspective
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‘The New Era of Scheduling: The Practical, the Possible, and the Pitfalls’ can be found on page 38 of the 2020 edition of Perspective, a compilation of insights from members of the RLB team around the world.

Today, one of the most challenging tasks facing the construction is the ability to complete projects on time. Construction firms and owners are seeking creative solutions to manage schedule risk and perfect their ability to deliver certainty. Liquidated damages, spoiled reputations, and lost profits are just a few motivators for any player the industry to improve its performance on projects.

Improved schedule management practices can take multiple forms. The most basic is planning and scheduling resources in the most efficient manner. The industry is experiencing workforce shortages across nearly all trades and lack of qualified labor is a regular cause for delays on construction projects. This can be partially mitigated by ensuring subcontractors and crews are working without interruptions caused by congested areas, multiple mobilizations, sporadic work flow, and/or partially available work fronts. Giving crews continuous, logical, and uninterrupted work flows helps improve productivity and efficiency as well as improves subcontractors’ confidence in the schedule and aides in their planning efforts.

Another method to improve schedule certainty is to improve the accuracy and frequency in which schedules are updated. The schedule is at the very least a contemporaneous representation of the parties’ understanding of that overall plan, what has been completed and what will happen in the future. The schedule is then intended to be used to make informed business decisions and without accurate and timely information, contractors and owners cannot make smart decisions on how best to proceed. Having accurate, contemporaneous records increases the likelihood of resolving time-extension requests at the project level and identify practical methods for accelerating the schedule when faced with delays. Accurate schedules also minimize costly disputes that cause distractions on the project and rarely results in a winner when it turns into litigation or arbitration. Contractors, owners, and other construction firms can improve update accuracy by closely adhering to AACE International’s published recommended practices for planning and scheduling.

Based upon my experience and anecdotal evidence, the call for aggressive schedules is recently more likely to come from owners than contractors. However, most owners fail to realize that accelerated schedules come with higher price tags. Contractors aren’t typically willing to forecast optimistic completion dates because they are feeling the real impacts of labor and material shortages that often prevent aggressive schedules. The most common times I see aggressive schedules being implemented is when the owner demands it or a contractor is relying on an early completion date as a bidding strategy. As a whole, I believe that the overall industry focus is more on driving scheduling certainty than aggressive schedules, which can be pricy, risky, and often unachievable.

Project Scheduling and the Promise of Technology

Scheduling-related software has been increasingly improving for the last decade, making it easier to create schedules, perform risk analysis, and produce reports.

Some of the most exciting programs contractors have embraced create schedules and assist planning through all stages of a project. SYNCHRO and other programs tie BIM to the schedule, are becoming more widely accepted in planning and scheduling efforts. Some scheduling software platforms, such as Asta Powerproject, have made a concerted effort to make it easier to create 4D schedules.

Software can also prepare near-real-time reports on schedule performance, often through add-ons to existing construction management systems, such as those offered by Prolog, Aconex, and Ineight. Detailed comparison reporting is also feasible through standalone packages such as Acumen Fuse or Ron Winter’s Schedule Analyzer. These platforms allow schedulers to share with stakeholders a more in-depth view of the project schedule—one that goes beyond PDF printouts and doesn’t require expensive software licenses. In other words, superintendents and managers now have unfettered access to the inner workings of complex schedules that had previously been a black box.

Dashboarding—the digital display of multiple key performance indicators on a shared web page that is constantly updated—is becoming more and more popular, with some contractors and owners designing their own in-house systems that connect scheduling databases with Business Intelligence (BI) platforms, such as Tableau and Power BI. Dashboarding is a great way to communicate complex scheduling information to non-schedulers or even non-construction professionals, and can be used to capitalize on opportunities as well as mitigate project risks that might have been missed through traditional-style monthly reporting.

Looking ahead, I see augmented reality (AR) being used to identify conflicts or problems in the field before they become a delay. In the construction industry, AR is still in its infancy and has a high cost of entry, but I believe it will become much more prevalent as that financial barrier lowers, given the value it provides. TILOS, Asta Power Project, and Phoenix Project Manager are competitive, viable alternatives to Primavera P6 and Microsoft Project. And it seems like there are new suites coming out all the time that assist in conducting pull planning sessions.

Project Scheduling and the Perils of Technology

While technology is unquestionably a driving force in scheduling, it’s not without its caveats. In fact, technology—in and of itself—may not necessarily improve efficiency and productivity. I have growing concerns that many schedulers function more like software developers than they do actual planners. They are not able to determine the accuracy of the information produced from these new software packages. Accordingly, we have to make sure that advances in technology aren’t just a ‘cool new toy’ and are a tool that leads to smart decision making and identifying pragmatic solutions to common problems.

Also, arbitrarily or capriciously removing “fluff” or float time to produce more aggressive schedules is not necessarily the goal or even desirable. Float is often overlooked as a tool to build the most realistic, feasible schedule possible. One of the benefits of technology is to eliminate mundane scheduling work, such as repetitious tasks and identifying how complex sequences of work relate to each other. This helps save time and affords construction professionals more opportunities to find a better way to build the project or avert risk. And this can be achieved by the smart utilization of float—not its elimination.

This situation reminds me of something my mother used to say to me: “Don’t be in a hurry to screw up.” There are actually many instances where it does not make sense to aggressively complete select scopes of work within the schedule; the benefit it brings is not worth the costs and risks associated with the acceleration. Here’s an example: building or renting additional concrete formwork may result in completing some tasks earlier, but it incurs additional costs and the time saved may not result in other scopes wrapping up any sooner or shortening the critical path. Given the ongoing labor shortage, I think a better application of new scheduling technologies is to minimize idle or standby time for resources as well as generating uninterrupted work flows for crew.

Staying on the Right Track

Continual growth and improvement should always be the primary goal for the construction industry, regardless if we are talking about safety, quality, time, and/or money. There are three actions that I believe will improve the industry’s scheduling and planning performance:

  • Promote advancing technologies.Technological innovation can help address the shortages in competent schedulers by minimizing redundancies and sharpening data analytics. Specialized technology, such as artificial intelligence, can also help with running scenarios and quantifying risks that previously have been difficult and time-consuming. Developments in 4D scheduling also help eliminate conflicts prior to work starting in the field and aid in planning efforts. Finally, new scheduling software is creating much-needed competition that the industry has not seen in a while. This is dropping the costs of software while simultaneously improving performance and usability.
  • Democratize project planning and scheduling.Succinctly put, this means getting all project stakeholders (including the people who are actually building the work) involved with the upfront planning. While there has been some industry-wide progress on this front in the last few years, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. There are many exciting practices being generated by groups like the Lean Construction Institute, and I am optimistic that this trend of collaborative scheduling will continue.
  • Emphasize field experience as well as software proficiency. I have a growing concern that many of today’s schedulers lack relevant field experience. They are unable to critically evaluate the accuracy or validity of outputs that come from scheduling software. There is no simple answer to this problem; however, I know some contractors train foremen and superintendents to become full-time, long-term schedulers. I have seen this successfully done on several occasions and I hope to see this practice become more prevalent. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the folks out in the field and some of the best schedules I have seen have been generated by former craft persons. In fact, my first scheduling mentor was someone who started in the construction industry as a mason.

Implementing these three strategies will simultaneously help us reclaim the basics of sound planning and scheduling and ensure a vibrant, relevant future for the practice. I am constantly advocating that construction professionals understand and follow closely the recommended practices published by AACE International to avoid the late projects, blown budgets, claims, and confusion that are the inevitable result of slipped standards. If we collectively address issues that range from shaping the best software to educating and training new practitioners, the benefits will extend to the entire industry.