How to Choose the Best Scheduling Tools for Your Team and Projects
“Chaos is a friend of mine.”
We would bet that very few construction professionals agree with the above quote from Bob Dylan. Nonetheless, chaos is a way of life for many of us on a jobsite, particularly when it comes to construction project scheduling.
As hard as we try to stay organized, construction scheduling will always pose a challenge–one of the biggest on any project. There are thousands, if not millions, of details to track per project, from supplies to staff hours to promises made and roles played. The right scheduling method (or the wrong one) can make all the difference between meeting deadlines and budgets. On the one hand, a wrong choice could equate to mistakes, rework, risk and more.
Which leads us to an obvious question: What construction scheduling technique and tools should you be using?
Unfortunately, there’s no one right answer. Each approach and strategy comes with its pros and cons, into which today’s post will take a deep dive. Nor is one tool necessarily enough. Each project is unique, and its scheduling method can vary so your team might need to use a combination of tools.
With that in mind, let’s examine seven of the most popular construction scheduling tools and strategies. No matter which method ends up working best for you, we can guarantee that educating yourself about these tools will make a significant difference in your productivity, communication and ability to move beyond good enough and reach for great.
All it takes is finding the right fit for your team and projects. Let’s get started.
1. Critical Path Method (CPM)
What is it?
Perhaps the most widely used construction scheduling method in large construction projects, the Critical Path Method (CPM) holds that “your ability to complete any activity hinges on a few critical resources or constraints,” according to Workamajig.
In one of the best metaphors of all time, they illustrate this concept using a sandwich, explaining that “might have all the butter, ham, and cheese you need, but if you don’t have bread, you can’t make a sandwich. The bread, in this case, would be the constraint your sandwich-making project depends on.”
Due to the critical importance of constraints, project managers study CPM as part of their Project Management (PMP) certification. Also, for this reason, it’s the legal standard for measuring delays when it comes to project-related disputes.
According to The Balance, CPM “generates a graphical view of a project and calculates how much time and resources are required to complete each activity. It also determines critical activities requiring attention so that the project can be completed on time.”
Photo courtesy: Archtoolbox
- Is widely used and recognized and is the legal standard
- Is simple and effective at organizing large and complex projects
- Encourages project managers to optimize critical paths and reduce project duration
- Enables the team to improve efficiency with better allocation of resources
- Enhances the visibility of the impact of any schedule changes
- Is burdensome to manage for large and complex projects due to thousands of activities and their dependent relationships
- Fails to account for resource allocation and might require other methods to complement it
2. Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT)
What is it?
PERT is one of the most visually accessible construction scheduling tools. Essentially, it is a diagram that “provides a visual depiction of the major project activities and the sequence in which they must be completed.” Each of these steps represents the use of time or resources, or both. Think of it as a road map toward project completion; only once you pass all of the milestones will the building have reached its final stages.
As Harold Kerzner explains in Project Management, “PERT charts are often constructed from back to front because, for many projects, the end date is fixed and the contractor has front-end flexibility.”
Photo courtesy: Built Right
- Provides a comprehensive activity analysis for events independently and in combination
- Offers a “What-if-Analysis” that enables better planning for uncertainties and risk
- Facilitates improved coordination for team-wide decision-making
- Takes the deadline into account at the start
- Is labor-intensive and expensive in nature
- Carries the risk of prediction inaccuracy, which can muck up timelines and offer a false sense of confidence about project completion
- Is vulnerable to failure with any change in the precedence and sequential relationships of activities
3. Line of Balance (LOB)
What is it?
This construction scheduling tool rests on the thoughtful planning of projects through repeated iterations. As Designing Buildings explains, “Line of balance (LOB) is a management control process … where the project contains blocks of repetitive work activities, such as roads, pipelines, tunnels, railways and high-rise buildings. LOB collects, measures and presents information relating to time, cost and completion, and presents it against a specific plan.”
LOB helps to pinpoint where projects go off-track but identifying the specific moments at which deviations occur, and the resulting knock-on or secondary effects that accrue from them. It was developed by the Goodyear Company and has since been used by the Navy, and reflects project goals as a single line on a graph in the form of activities completed/time, to which teams are supposed to adhere to stay on track.
Photo courtesy: Planning Engineer
- Allows a clearer understanding of the amount of work taking place at a certain time and place
- Optimizes resources for a large number of repeated work activities
- Is relatively easy to change and update to match new scheduling needs
- Is better for management of subcontractors and resources
- Has a significant inability to generate a clear critical path of the project schedule as a whole, but rather focuses on single activities
- Does not incorporate the effect of crews in productivity rates
- Can only divide projects by location, not by systems like trades
4. Q Scheduling
What is it?
Also known as quantitative scheduling or queue scheduling, this construction scheduling approach “uses a bar chart format to indicate quantities of materials that will be used at different locations and at different times during the project,” explains Sobieski.
With this type of scheduling, companies can see clearly “the amount and type of material that will be needed at various time and physical locations.” It also wraps in a hierarchical component, so workers and managers can see which materials they need at which times, order them accordingly, follow tasks in sequence and avoid disrupting other’s work–all while tracking costs along the way.
Photo courtesy: planning & consulting
- Is the only technique that indicates a relationship between the sequence of the job and costs to be incurred
- Is suitable for a varying volume of repetitive activities at different segments or locations
- Provides significant ROI on projects that don’t involve serious repetition
- Is a relatively new method with which not many teams are familiar
- Takes a good deal of front end effort and resources to establish the schedule
5. Resource Oriented Scheduling
What is it?
Simply put, this construction scheduling method centers around the project’s resources, prioritizing the most efficacious use of those resources. As BrainKart explains, limited resources make it likelier that delays will occur as various teams jockey for those resources. Without a smart approach to who receives them and when a construction company may find itself dithering or wallowing in its inability to assign priority.
Resource Oriented Schedule takes into account all who will need the resources ahead of time, then assigns their use in an orderly fashion throughout the life of the project. That might mean space, machinery, labor or anything else that is in limited supply but highly desirable to project teams.
- Is very effective in projects with minimal or unique resources
- Limits congestion and bottlenecking while waiting for a particular resource
- Increases productivity
- Reduces delays
- Not appropriate for projects with many resources to allocate
- If one or more resources is needed by numerous activities, scheduling calculation becomes extremely difficult
6. Last Planner System® (LPS)
What is it?
The Last Planner System is less a construction scheduling tool and more a short-term collaborative planning process. Although it is not a tool in its own right, it can work well with schedule techniques like CPM.
In a nutshell, “LPS brings together those who will execute the work (the team) to plan when and how work will be done through a series of conversational processes.” In so doing, teams can assess the likely roadblocks beforehand and remove them, thereby encouraging the timely completion of each task.
Photo courtesy: Lean Construction Institute
- Is particularly beneficial when used with lean construction methods
- Offers a collaborative approach to planning and scheduling that improves teamwork and accountability
- Leverages personal relationships and peer pressure to achieve greater accountability
- Creates a solid foundation for the completion of the project
- If teams are not fully committed or aligned with the method, it will fail
- Contract methods could discourage responsible parties
7. Gantt Chart
What is it?
A Gantt Chart is another construction scheduling tool, rather than a technique. It is a type of bar chart that encourages stakeholders to structure the project with several levels of details and consider dependencies between tasks. This helps them estimate the duration of the project and identify the critical path to take during construction.
“A Gantt chart is a bar chart used to illustrate a project schedule, that includes some milestones and it is not as detailed as a full CPM,” explains The Balance, adding that “It normally includes start/end dates of activities and a summary of activities of a project.” However, it lacks the complexity of more comprehensive approaches and doesn’t include the resources or materials needed to complete it.
Gantt Charts are excellent for creating a hierarchy among projects, showing which ones require immediate attention and which must be completed before other, dependent projects can follow.
Photo courtesy: Gantt Excel
- Creates an accurate picture of project complexity
- Is helpful to organize thoughts
- Indicates clearly what should be done, within realistic time frames
- Is easy to build with software or on your own
- Tends to get complex, especially when a project has more than 30 activities
- Requires constant updates, which is time-consuming
- Might be inaccurate both in displaying information and reflecting actual resource requirements
How to Improve Construction Scheduling
As you no doubt see by now, construction scheduling is complicated–but that doesn’t mean you can’t get help. Today, there exist many technology platforms and tools that are designed to streamline construction scheduling without necessitating that you create new workflows from scratch. The benefits of using software include:
- Less risk and chance of mistakes
- Better overview of clashes
- Ability to track key metrics and milestones
- Improved efficiency
- Streamlined workflows and processes
- More adaptable for changes if they occur
- Increased transparency and accountability
This isn’t to say all construction software is created equal, though. There are many options, and no one right answer for your team and project needs. Before you plunk down your cash and commit to a long-term subscription, there are a few essential qualities to consider. Any good construction scheduling tool should be:
- Cloud-based: If your software isn’t in the cloud, it becomes much harder to keep teams updated with central access to real-time information, wherever they are.
- Secure: Any software you consider should have A-class security stands; otherwise you risk compromising your jobsite, project and company as a whole.
- Accessible on Mobile: Made-for-mobile solutions to keep your field team always in the loop, anywhere and from any device.
- Easy-to-Use: If your software is complicated, it won’t be used. Ensure it’s easy-to-use and has world-class support staff in case you need it down the road.
Fear the Schedule No Longer: Put a Smart System in Place Today
Here’s where some companies get stuck: getting started. While it’s great that there are so many options, there are so many options. It can be hard to sort out which ones will work for you, integrate them into your workflow and get everyone to adopt them – and that’s just one new method, let alone several.
The antidote to analysis paralysis? Choose a single method, the one most likely to make a difference in your project workflows right away, and implement it. It might take a while to do this right, so give yourself the time, but set a deadline and make it happen. Make sure to:
- Create a culture of buy-in around the new tool by laying out the benefits and soliciting feedback
- Identify your leaders and construction technology champions
- Set aside training time and resources
- Make an expert available to workers, managers and stakeholders who have questions
Doing the above won’t necessarily make the transition seamless, but it will undoubtedly smooth the way and help ensure that your workers feel valued. With their input and buy-in, you’re much likelier to succeed with your new construction scheduling methods.