The goal of any contractor is to build a project on time and within budget. To be an effective and productive contractor, one must have a complete understanding of the construction process, which includes not only building the project, but, more importantly, effective scheduling and management of the project. The contractor is ultimately responsible for managing its activities as well as the activities of the construction parties under its supervision.
Successfully managing a construction project is a four-step process. It requires that the parties establish a project plan, develop a project schedule, monitor the project schedule, and manage change events. Each step requires dedication and commitment from each team member, and each step in the process is essential to a successful project outcome.
Step 1: Establishing a Project Plan
The first step in successfully managing a construction project is establishing a game plan for executing the work. Planning should be thought of as completing a puzzle. All of the pieces must be identified, as they are all necessary to complete the puzzle. Furthermore, this process involves establishing the time and cost for each piece, ultimately leading to the total time and cost of the project.
The owner, architect or engineer, and contractor (if involved) will develop the plans and specifications for the project, as well as the overall sequence of construction activities. Each construction activity is then identified and assigned to a construction party, who identifies what is included in its scope of work and what related activities are not included. This identification process is critical for the contractor to know what activities have not been assigned and could “slip through the cracks.”
During the project planning phase, the project price is established using several methodologies, such as competitively bidding, utilizing a not-to-exceed value, or paying for the cost of the work plus a fixed fee. Once the project price is established, the contract documents are reviewed, approved, and executed. During project pricing, product suppliers and manufacturers are also assigned.
Also during this phase, the construction parties must educate themselves regarding the procedures, problems, and pitfalls of obtaining labor in the project location. They must assess availability of equipment, and of suppliers and manufacturers of construction components. Finally, all construction projects must meet the requirements of a regulatory governmental body, and the contractor is generally charged with obtaining all necessary permits.
Though every piece of the puzzle may not be known at the time of planning, an effort must be made to establish the full scope of work including the construction tasks. Once all of the “puzzle pieces” have been identified, assigned durations, sequenced, assigned to parties, and priced by parties, the project schedule can be developed.
Step 2: Developing a Project Schedule
Following planning,the second step in successfully managing a construction project is developing the schedule. Proper scheduling of the work tasks is the most critical aspect of the construction management process. The project schedule not only divides the work by activities, but it allows other parties to know what activities need to be performed and when. All construction parties need to be involved in planning the schedule and “buy into” the project sequence before construction begins.
A schedule can be as simple as a bar chart or as sophisticated as a computer model, but it must be developed and utilized. In a bar chart, each bar represents an activity and the length of the bar represents the activity duration. The bars can be stacked and placed so that as one activity is completed, the next activity in the sequence begins. The following is a sample bar chart schedule:
Typically, construction schedules are computerized. There are multiple software programs that produce reliable schedules, with most utilizing the critical path methodology (CPM) technique. Of all techniques available, CPM has proven to be the most useful and effective means of developing and displaying project progress.
Utilizing the CPM technique, each work activity is assigned a duration, start date, and end date, and is sequenced to follow and precede another activity. This sequence of events becomes a construction path. Generally, there are multiple paths created and many can occur simultaneously with and independently of one another. But there is only one continuous path that occurs from the beginning of the project to the end; that path is considered the “critical path.” Delays in non-critical work activity paths will generally not delay the overall project; however, delays to the critical path will. Planning and scheduling project activities with CPM software creates a logic diagram or network that can be displayed graphically.
In a successful construction project, the schedule becomes the project roadmap that all parties can review to determine when their respective work is sequenced. This allows parties to plan accordingly and ensure that they have the required materials, labor, and equipment available to perform their respective work. The schedule also informs construction parties what work precedes, follows, and occurs simultaneously with their work. This will allow each party to plan its work at the project site so that it will not interfere with other parties’ work. Further, the schedule allows the owner, architect, engineer, and contractor to plan decisions or approvals on certain project items or deliverables.
Step 3: Monitoring the Project Schedule
The third step in successfully managing a construction project is monitoring progress. Before construction begins, the schedule is a plan, also known (later on in the project) as the “baseline” schedule. However, once construction begins, the schedule becomes a dynamic tool that can, and often will, change depending on progress. The contractor is responsible for ensuring the schedule is actively updated, which includes recording activity dates and durations once they have occurred. This is known as an “updated” schedule.
Once the frequency of schedule updates is determined, the contractor will instruct the construction parties relative to updating their own work tasks. Normally, a schedule is updated monthly in order to keep pace with monthly payment applications. This should be a minimum frequency for all project schedule updates, no matter what the project.
Based on the new information, all schedule activities that should have started during the updated period are identified. All activities that were underway during the updated period are tracked and assigned progress. Finally, all activities that should have been completed during the updated period are identified. By performing these updates, any activity that is not on schedule will be recognized and can then be evaluated.
There could be a number of reasons why an activity is not on schedule, including a design change or work that was added or subtracted. Whatever the reason, the schedule must be updated and re-issued to the involved parties. Additionally, it is important to analyze all of the scheduled and executed activities to determine whether the updates will affect the project completion date. If a delayed activity was not on the critical path, it may not affect the timely completion of the project. However, if a delayed activity was on the critical path, the entire project will be delayed. If this occurs, the contractor’s obligation is to investigate the involved work activities and mitigate any delay.
Step 4: Managing Change Events
The fourth step in successfully managing a construction project is managing change events, as changes will inevitably occur. Managing the schedule to account for changes is different than monitoring progress and reflecting that progress in an updated schedule.
Whereas an “updated” schedule reflects progress of the ongoing work and the data date changes as appropriate, a “revised” schedule includes modifications to future baseline schedule work components or activities. These modifications could include work activities broken down into more refined tasks to more precisely describe the sequence of events. An example of such a refinement could be breaking the foundation work into several activities such as surveying for footing locations, drilling the footings, assembling reinforcement steel cages, casting concrete for the footings, and setting foundation anchor bolts. A change to a specific activity such as this describes future work in more detail and is considered a revision to the schedule.
Once the construction has begun, it may be necessary to re-sequence certain activities to more accurately reflect project construction. In doing this, the activities that were originally scheduled to commence before and after the re-sequenced activity must be re-sequenced and re-scheduled as well.
Other changes to planned activities could include modifying durations. After a project begins, it may be determined that a certain activity planned to take two weeks to complete should actually take three. For this change not to affect the final project completion date, the schedule has to be adjusted to absorb the additional week duration. Or, if no other activity timeline can be compressed, the change must remain and additional manpower or manhours must be scheduled to compensate.
Other changes that occur on a construction project involve uncommon and common events. Uncommon events can include unusual weather, labor disturbances, and/or outside events that neither the owner nor contractor can control. Of these uncommon events, unusual weather is the most often occurring with the greatest impact on the schedule. Contractors include expected weather delays into their initial scheduling, but unusual weather, such as a hurricane, can affect overall project progress. Common change events include design changes, owner-added change orders, incomplete designs that have since become complete, or different conditions that occur on a project that were not anticipated.
Any changes that affect the future project schedule must be documented. Furthermore, these changes must be evaluated to determine the most appropriate revision to the planned schedule. All parties involved in the project must “buy into” the change or, if not, the revised construction activity must be modified to accommodate the involved parties.
If a contractor or its subcontractors delay their own work based on their own actions or inactions, the schedule should reflect the extended duration, and the cause of that extension should be documented. The contractor must assess the cause of the delay and pursue a solution. If there is insufficient labor, materials, or equipment to properly execute the work, the contractor must determine if additional resources can be utilized. If a contractor’s subcontractor is delayed, the contractor must assist in resolving the reasons for the delay. Furthermore, if the subcontractor is under contract with the contractor, the contractor is ultimately responsible, and it is its duty to rectify the delay and provide the necessary resources to put the project back on track.
Any revisions or routine updates to the construction schedule must be republished, distributed, and communicated to all parties involved in the construction process. It should be noted that the planned completion date should not be affected by publishing a revised schedule. If the planned completion date has been changed, the contractor must evaluate the project sequencing and determine how to avoid a different completion date than originally planned, unless a schedule extension is granted.
In conclusion, scheduling and managing a construction project is composed of four steps, including planning, scheduling work activities, monitoring construction progress, and finally, managing changes to the project plan. Without a proper and complete construction schedule including adequate updates and revisions, construction parties cannot be informed of and ultimately held accountable for the timing and duration of their planned activities. Further, it will keep parties informed of the status of others’ activities that may precede or follow their work. Finally, it is the contractor’s duty and the owner’s right to be continuously informed of construction progress. Adhering to these best practices will ensure a successful relationship between the owner, contractor, and subcontractors and thus, a successful completed project.