Special Report: Reinventing Construction Project Schedules - Sachse Construction
Topics: Architecture & Design, Construction, Featured Press

Special Report: Reinventing Construction Project Schedules

When Ken McBroom lays out a schedule with his on-site tradespeople, he wants any changes or delays in the plan to hurt as much as possible.

Using Post-it notes, Sharpie pens, and a whiteboard, he has each trade assigned to a project write down, in their own hand, exactly what they need to do on the job and how long they need to do it. Then he has them assemble all the different colored Post-it notes in neat columns on the whiteboard and shows the entire team what the game plan is for the next two to four weeks on-site.

Once that schedule is set, any changes are met with howls of pain and derision. “If one person doesn’t hit their dates, everybody else has to physically move their Post-it notes. You’d think they were getting a root canal,” says McBroom, director of planning and scheduling in the Southern California office of St. Louis-based McCarthy Building Companies. “Peer pressure isn’t good in high school, but it is in construction. Because now the rest of the team wants to know why they have to move their tags, and they look at the trade that’s late, not me. Even though it just takes five minutes, I want it to hurt. I don’t want there to be an easy button.”

McBroom’s decidedly low-tech approach to scheduling, which uses the Arlington, Va.-based Lean Construction Institute’s (LCI) trademarked Last Planner System, gives a deceptively simple view into the state of construction project scheduling today and where it’s headed in the future. Technology, software, and hardware are converging to change how schedules are planned out, implemented, and then measured in real-time to report on-site progress today. But the way teams and different stakeholders physically come together to collaborate during the scheduling phase of projects has evolved, too.

A Lean construction charrette at McCarthy Building Companies utilizes Post-it notes and the Lean Construction Institute’s Last Planner System. McCarthy Building Companies

“Having that group talk about different ways to accomplish a task and then make commitments to each other has been the most effective schedule improvement technique I have seen,” says Tom Becker, regional vice president of Minneapolis-based design-build developer The Opus Group. “The technology and process definitely play a role, but it’s the collective approach that’s been effective at reducing cycle times and improving schedules.”

 The Holy Grail of scheduling is now literally about getting everyone—from the trades who work on-site to the superintendent hunched in the trailer to the general contractor overseeing the job and even the owner who’s ultimately paying for it all—in the same place, and on the same page, at the beginning of a project. Once you do, it’s then about getting those people to leverage the best tools and technology to streamline the process even more, while coming up with the best solution for the task at hand to get it all done better, faster, and more efficiently.

That could mean using McBroom’s Post-it notes and the LCI’s Last Planner approach to knock out what needs to be done on-site today; employing the time-tested Critical Path Method (CPM) of project management to map the big picture timeline of a build upfront; 3-D scanning, radio-frequency identification beacons, and drones to measure actual progress on-site against benchmarks to keep schedules updated and on track once work begins; and, increasingly, integrating off-site construction and prefab components to shave off cycle time. Ideally, the future of scheduling means a blending of all of the above.

Reassess your existing scheduling approach.
To really get a grasp on the future of scheduling in construction today, it’s good to consider where we’ve been. For years, the dominant approach to construction scheduling has been the Critical Path Method, which uses Gantt charts and relational diagrams to map tasks that impact the overall completion date of a project. Its predecessor was employed during the Manhattan Project, and CPM had its modern coming-out party when it was used to build New York’s Twin Towers, which broke ground in 1966.

CPM has been the domain of large enterprise management and scheduling software, such as Oracle’s P6 and Microsoft Project. Just as a power user of Excel can make a spreadsheet sing, those solutions can be powerful when deployed by the right people but can be baffling for others not specifically trained on them.

“A lot of times, those tools are only helpful for the scheduling nerds who know how to use them,” says John Armstrong, senior scheduler in the Phoenix office of Hong Kong-based global construction firm Rider Levett Bucknall, whose notable projects include the Sydney Opera House. “They weren’t built for the masses.” Adds McBroom, “If superintendents can’t get it in the first five minutes, it’s a fail.”

Consider if top-down scheduling creates the results you’re looking for.
CPM is great for seeing the big picture and outlining important phases of a project: site work; foundation; structural steel. It’s also effective at tracking progress over the long term versus taking shorter duration snapshots to gauge headway over days or weeks.

But it can get bogged down when bigger jobs are broken down into their individual parts—specific grading and dirt work needed to prep a site, constructing the forms required to pour a foundation, or shoring up girders and beams with the right fasteners in the structural phase. In other words, there comes a point where getting too detailed in a master schedule can lead to TMI: too much information about how exactly electrical conduit will be run, for example. That’s useful information for an electrician to have, but it can make the schedule indecipherable to a superintendent or general contractor.

CPM also tends to be a top-down approach, where direction comes from the general contractor or superintendent on a project dictating what needs to be done without getting input from the skilled tradespeople on-site who are doing the actual work. Indeed, with CPM representing the prevailing method of scheduling within the industry, 70% of projects still come in late and over budget, according to LCI.

Incorporate all parties in the planning and scheduling of a job.
Those challenges have helped lead to the rise of Lean construction and LCI’s Last Planner methodology, the hallmarks of which are the Post-it notes on a white board that McBroom and others proselytize. Originally developed inside Toyota to take a more holistic approach to manufacturing, Lean methodologies have been adopted by other industries, including construction.

While construction’s approach is decidedly low-tech, the method gets results by getting all stakeholders in a room early on and making a commitment to one another about exactly which tasks each person or trade is responsible for. Indeed, Lean projects are three times more likely to come in ahead of schedule and two times more likely to be under budget, according to Dodge Data & Analytics.

The rise of Lean has led to more collaboration among all parties in the planning and scheduling of a job, usually marked by a charrette-like gathering of trades, suppliers, subcontractors, superintendents, and even design and back office personnel early on in a project. Leveraging Building Information Modeling (BIM) software, the parties can go through a project step by step, build its “digital twin” within the model itself, root out any clashes of different mechanical systems beforehand, and then have a detailed plan of attack on the first day on the job.

“That allows us to hit the ground running and not have to try to create a plan once we get on-site, which is how it was done 20 years ago,” says Mark Weisner, senior vice president of pre-construction at Greenbelt, Md.-based Bozzuto Construction, a builder and developer of large-scale multifamily projects.

Todd Sachse, CEO at Detroit-based Sachse Construction, notes that it also lets crews eliminate issues before they become problems. “BIM and 3-D modeling helps detect clashes ahead of time,” Sachse says. “It shows you where duct work or fire suppression piping is supposed to go and, if there’s a conflict, lets you develop a solution before anyone is even on the job site.”

Blending approaches can offer the best of both worlds.
But while Lean construction methods are effective at bringing in projects on time, the process can also miss the forest for the trees. It’s great for two-, three-, or four-week “look aheads,” but because it’s so focused on the details, it isn’t as strong at plotting out schedules over a number of months or years. For that reason, more and more companies are trying to marry these two dominant approaches to scheduling in construction today.

“By blending the ‘rival’ scheduling methodologies in a single platform, construction firms can have a holistic view of the project,” Jenkins writes in a blog on the topic, “i.e., both the long-view analytics they need to accurately determine project milestones and completion dates, as well as prescriptive roadmaps for how to reach project completion as efficiently and economically as possible.” Oracle touts its Prime Projects software, integrated with P6, as capable of doing just that.

Fuse scheduling approaches with the best features from different software providers.
Meanwhile, other solutions, such as Acumen Fuse, Asta Powerproject, Phoenix Project Manager, Procore, Smartsheet, Steelray, and Synchro have emerged to either integrate or compete with P6 and Microsoft Project, while overlaying more task-level visibility that’s accessible to a wider range of users, both in the office and on-site. The result has been companies using different platforms in conjunction with one another to leverage best-of-breed features while tapping into the strengths of both CPM and Lean scheduling.

For instance, using Primavera P6 for the big-picture CPM schedule, Synchro Software for on-site Lean tasks, and Autodesk’s Revit software for BIM modeling, Bozzuto was able to trim three months off the schedule of its 955,000-square-foot Chevy Chase Lake mixed-use retail, apartment, and condominium project outside Washington, D.C.

“Our owner wanted to get the building sooner, so our goal was to rethink the way we were looking at the project,” Weisner says. “Using that combination of software, we were able to get in there and re-sequence and re-plan the project to have more float. We took it from 39 months down to 36.”

The project is currently under construction, slated for completion in 2021, and running ahead of schedule.

Leverage technology for objective measurement of progress on-site.
While Bozzuto’s three-month savings at Chevy Chase Lake shows how today’s schedules can be tweaked before a project ever starts to save time, the other big hurdle in scheduling has always been measuring a project’s real-world progress once work begins.

“Before any major project, plenty of really smart people spend a lot of time and effort mapping a project’s completion three, five, or even seven years out,” says Drew DeWalt, chief operating officer of San Francisco-based workforce management software provider Rhumbix. “Then, as soon as the first shovel goes in the ground, that schedule almost instantly becomes wrong.”

Indeed, industry jokes abound about the disconnect between the outlook of scheduling on paper and what’s happening in the real world. Question: How do you know when your schedule is out of date? Answer: As soon as you hit print.

For that reason, getting better synchronicity between a project’s plans and its ultimate outcome is also getting a lot more attention today. “The future of project scheduling is all about closing the feedback loop between what’s actually happening on the ground after work begins and the original plans,” DeWalt says.

Pros say the problem has always come down to getting accurate, objective measurement back in the office of what’s happening on-site. “Schedulers need to track progress, so they’ll call the project engineer for the roofing system and ask, ‘How are you doing?’” says Chris Bell, vice president of marketing at construction management software company e-Builder, which was acquired by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based construction technology firm Trimble in 2018. “Well, that engineer sticks his thumb in his mouth, holds it up in the air, and says, ‘I’m about 18% done.’ Suddenly a well-thought-out schedule becomes a very subjective tool. What you need, instead, is objective progress measurement.”

To overcome that hurdle, firms are increasingly using drones, 3-D laser scanners, and RFID fobs to catalogue and document exactly what work gets done on-site. For example, by taking before and after shots of a site, firms can now know how much dirt work is complete. “Heavy equipment that’s outfitted with Trimble hardware will accurately measure against a 3-D model precisely how many cubic yards of soil have been moved that day,” Bell explains.

A graphic from Trimble highlights the elements of what it calls “The 3 C’s of the Future of Construction:” connected, content-enabled, and constructible. Trimble

Scanners and beacons installed on-site and matched with RFID fobs on workers’ hardhats can also track the exact number of hours worked. Used in conjunction with the “mixed reality” Trimble Connect for Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 virtual reality goggles, companies can keep tabs on the amount of material that’s been installed to give an accurate measurement of time plus materials put into a project.

“Those optics will laser measure the amount of conduit and HVAC ventilation that’s been installed on the sixth floor of a building,” says Bell. “Then you can feed that data into a project management system to get accurate, objective progress.”

Having that kind of precise measurement of work that’s been completed and comparing it back to the original schedule also helps companies bid future projects more accurately while identifying problem areas for improvement.

“Firms are starting to turn past schedules into templates and running post-mortems after the project,” says Stephanie Viers, customer success manager at Bellevue, Wash.-based software provider Smartsheet. “That gives them visibility into the impact different tasks have on each other, which leads to more accurate scoping and schedule building in the future.”

Prefabricated manufacturing techniques compress schedules and reduce schedule uncertainty.
Reducing cycle time and shortening the overall duration of a project is, of course, the ultimate goal of the future of scheduling. One increasingly common way to achieve that comes not in the scheduling itself but in the manufacturing of the components that go into a build beforehand.

For instance, McBroom was recently pleasantly surprised when he asked his structural steel subs for an estimate of how much time he should allocate for them in his schedule. When they told him a week, he thought they were being overly optimistic—his experience told him to expect closer to four to six weeks. But then he discovered the steel was being delivered by Pleasanton, Calif.-based ConXtech, which manufactures and installs prefab steel members.

“Structural steel for a two-story building is not done in a week,” McBroom says. “And yet, ConXtech came out and did it in that timeframe because of the way they design and prefab all the members to slide together.”

Indeed, using off-site construction has some of the most promising potential to impact the future of scheduling to the upside, by allowing different aspects of a project’s various tasks to be completed before construction even begins.

That’s the case at Ripon, Calif.-based off-site house framing firm Entekra, which is disrupting the homebuilding industry with its prefabricated manufacturing techniques for framing, roof trusses, floors, and panelized wall systems. The firm was able to condense one national homebuilder’s cycle time from 105 days to 57.

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