Schedule Update Best Practices

Using a Critical Path Method (CPM) schedule involves more than creating a high-quality baseline schedule.

Using a Critical Path Method (CPM) schedule involves more than creating a high-quality baseline schedule. It involves controls. Schedule update best practices are just one of these controls, but they are essential for developing an effective strategy for future success. They enable project teams to know what they could and should be doing when the project might end, how to recover against lost time, and how to deliver successfully without ruining relationships.

Establishing periodic updates is integral for understanding your construction project because, let’s face it, construction projects are dynamic. Updating your original plan and construction to reflect reality allows you to see the status of what’s happened to date and transform that information into actionable insights that improve processes, productivity, and overall well-being on site.

 

Why is Schedule Updating Important? 

 

Knowing that there is an abundance of risk that comes with managing a job, odds are your schedule has changed, as has its quality. Once the original baseline is built, you use it to manage toward an end date.

However, once construction commences, the best thing to do is update the schedule to assist with the following:

  • Understanding your project
  • Knowing the status of information
  • Refining the plan to meet the needs of your project environment
  • Setting priorities for the project
  • Identifying upcoming tasks
  • Conveying accurate information to crews

Everything on this list comes down to following best practices when updating. The schedule updating process isn’t just putting arbitrary information into the update and submitting it. It needs to have a workflow for review, oversight, and accuracy so that the decisions made during the update are feasible, realistic, and don’t crash the schedule.

 

All parties must be informed of the project status. 

 

First and foremost, you need to know where the project stands from the data’s perspective. You can’t just walk the site and look at the status of activities. What you need to do is make sure all the items that need to be completed over time are getting done. And, if they are not, you need to understand that because you will need the job status at different times throughout the project, even if not immediately. Understanding the job status at other points allows everyone on the team to decide how the project will happen.

 

Things change, and you must incorporate those changes into the schedule. 

 

Another reason is that, in reality, baseline schedules are educated guesses. Your scheduler might be best in class. However, anyone familiar with construction knows that throughout the construction process, there remains one constant: change. Things don’t happen as planned: equipment doesn’t arrive on time, permits aren’t approved, or change orders happen.

You learn more about your project monthly and must incorporate that knowledge into your schedule. If you don’t, problems arise when durations are not changed to include the lived experience on the job site, as many would instead use their own experience to inform them otherwise. Because of this, it is essential to look at every update as an opportunity to re-adjust the plan based on what you know.

 

The Critical Path is dynamic, and resources need reprioritization.

 

Having made a career out of studying delay, I know that people often take the baseline critical path to be the basis for the most important tasks for the job. However, if you status the job according to reality and adjust the schedule based on that information, you will likely find that the critical and near-critical paths shift.

The critical path methodology circles around understanding prioritization via the total float metric. When the total float metric equals zero, you are on the critical path. However, as days go by, changes happen, and float can become consumed, thus changing the critical path. This information is crucial for knowing what resources should be a priority to manage toward the end date.

 

It is a valuable tool for gauging performance and reviewing payment applications. 

 

The nature of the critical path makes it useful for performance, cost, and payment applications. It can be a fantastic tool to ensure you have a digital representation of lagging performance and that payments are made promptly based on the work performed to date.

 

Visualizing the Importance of Schedule Updating

 

Baseline Schedule

 

 

This is a summary of an entire project on one page. Look below and see how the critical path shifts from update to update.

 

Schedule Update #3

 

Schedule Update #6

 

Schedule Update #8

 

Schedule Update #10

 

Schedule Update #14

 

 

Take a look at the different update periods.

Note: Update periods are typically a monthly contractual obligation. However, I recommend doing them as often as possible (weekly) because waiting over a month is usually when problems arise. 

Between one update and the next, you can see changes happening: shortened durations, activities shifting to the right, and, most importantly, changes in the critical path. The critical path remains in the structure from the baseline schedule until update #8.

Then, at update #10, it gets into conveyances, elevators, punch lists, and project close-out. You must also note when the near-critical path shifts as well because it shows where project teams need to plan out their resources for the critical areas of the project.

Ultimately, this project shows criticality throughout the building and up through the punch list. As the schedule updates over time, the areas that need attention shift. For instance, let’s say you did not update periodically and used only the original update. Your focus would remain on the construction structure until December. By not updating, you would fail to consider anything else. As such, your schedule, or “roadmap,” would be leading you down the wrong path.   The reality is that you build a schedule, update it, and follow best practices, or your schedule becomes misleading.

 

The Schedule Update Process

 

Schedule updates are a point in time when schedules can fall apart and become misleading. Sometimes, changes that should be made are not.

On the other hand, some changes are made to maintain an end date and make the schedule unfeasible, changing the quality.

You have to ensure that a good process is followed and that checks and balances are in place to ensure the schedule moving forward is feasible, trustworthy, and valuable. Because schedule quality typically worsens through schedule updates, it is an essential and significant part of project health that can cause overruns, delays, and disputes if not appropriately managed. I want to help you stay out of that mess, so follow the steps below to ensure that your schedule updating process informs you where to focus your attention.

 

Step 1: Walk the Site & Status the Job

 

Ask your superintendent, PM, or engineers to print out a copy of the most recent schedule update and record the following for all recent activities:

  • Start Date
  • Finish Date
  • Percent Complete

The start and finish dates are crucial because they can become misleading when anyone questions on-site delays. While it can be challenging to know the exact start and finish dates, I still strongly encourage you to print out a copy of the schedule update; whoever walks the site should have a column for these dates and write down notes as activities happened.

Percent completes are also vital as they can affect the critical path. You need discrete durations to gauge close to accurate percent completes so your schedule will be as helpful as possible. This step requires being as accurate and as thorough as you can. If any area lacks detail, you can use your dailies and photos to fill in the gaps.

 

Step 2: Update the Project Schedule with Information Obtained on the Site Walk

 

Now that you have more information, it’s time to put it into the scheduling program. Follow these steps:

  • Log all start dates, finish dates, and percent completes.
  • Double-check that all data entered is accurate.
  • Update the schedule status date to the current date.

Scheduling is monotonous and takes a great deal of time. Plus, you must double-check your work every step of the way or risk your project. A few extra minutes or half-hour of double-checking your work goes a long way toward successful project completion.

Most importantly, many people need to remember to update the status date. You need a data date so the program knows when the data was collected to recalculate float values and the critical path. Doing so brings the line to the current date and calculates all constraints, remaining durations, etc., that form your new plan.

 

 

PRO TIP: Save a copy of the schedule update before making any changes (save as a status-only update). This will help analyze delay via a “half-step” process.

Whatever happens to the end date when you status the schedule without making any changes accounts for the delay in the month from the end date in the previous update to now. It is a straightforward calculation that gives you end-date slippage and changes to the critical path. Never get rid of the “Status Only Update” because it will help you down the road if you need to study delays and causation.

 

Step 3: Identify and Incorporate Any Necessary Changes

 

Changes can vary from change orders, duration changes, re-sequencing logic, the removal of crew logic, and a number of other aspects. You must incorporate all the steps below into your schedule for effective management:

  • Identify areas where schedule changes may be necessary or useful.
  • Discuss changes with relevant parties to determine the best approach or schedule changes.
  • Modify the schedule to reflect changes based on decisions made in working sessions.
  • Make sure schedule quality is maintained after changes are made.
  • Publish the schedule and notify all relevant parties of the changes made.

Changes happen, but they usually occur on the fly and are not discussed with relevant parties, which causes a management nightmare as it usually results in schedule compression.

 

Pro Tip: Conduct Working Sessions with Your Team

 

There needs to be accountability and strategic thinking to find the areas you think need tweaking and discuss them with relevant parties. If you are going to commit to certain changes, the people working and managing the job need to understand and be on board with those decisions before you finalize them. This can happen in working sessions with your team.

After those discussions, it is essential to put those changes into the schedule and maintain your quality. If you remove logic or shorten durations, chances are your quality will change. You cannot assume the changes won’t negatively affect the quality, and you need to make sure it is up to standard so you can trust the critical path.

The quality of the schedule is about how well it is built and if it meets everything outlined in your quality rubric to ensure the schedule follows best practices. The last piece is to publish the schedule or submit it to management. To do this, you must be very honest about the changes made and why so they don’t go unnoticed. If you do not disclose these things throughout the process, they end up becoming a costly problem down the road.

PRO TIP: Save a second copy with the changes as the schedule that will be submitted for approval. Do not delete your “Status Only Update.”

Now you have two schedules: your status update and submission for approval. Put the date in the title of your schedule file for future reference.

 

To Change or Not to Change?

 

When making schedule changes, be aware of the following:

  1. Schedule changes are inevitable and should be kept to a minimum.
  2. Schedule changes should reflect reality, not hope.
  3. Changes altering the critical path are questionable.
  4. Changes to mitigate critical path delays incurred are risky.
  5. Regularly study the effect of changes on quality, compression, and the end date.

Things change for various reasons; construction is a constantly changing and evolving environment. However, schedule changes are rarely made to reflect reality. Instead, they are made with hopes of overcoming delays or adding detail due to change orders.

Essentially, the more schedule changes, the more risk. Therefore, monitor this process very closely, or your schedule will become compressed beyond recognition.

 

Why is Schedule Compression a Problem?

 

Schedule quality suffers from compression, which perpetuates problems. It usually happens for two reasons:

  1. Activities with float get pushed off because they don’t affect the end date.
  2. Activities were not happening as planned, so their durations got shortened while they get pushed off.

When this happens, several issues arise:

  • Your schedule becomes misleading to your site team, subcontractors, and owners.
  • Compression often results in an erroneous critical path.
  • It increases inefficiencies of trades.
  • It increases the probability of disputes.

When you compress your schedule, you are trying to do too much work in too little time. And when you compress the schedule due to changes, you begin stacking trades–making crews show up to an area that is not ready to be worked on or giving them impossible durations to hit.

What ends up happening is an unachievable project. This is where finger-pointing and arguments arise as the owner believes the project is on track, the contractor hopes things will happen on time, and the subcontractor is blamed for inefficient progress. The owner is looking at an end date that is staying the same even though the schedule is so compressed that it is unachievable with the trades. Everyone in this situation relies on a critical path that is inaccurate and unfeasible, which often results in disputes.

If you are forthright about why changes are happening and what decisions are being made to overcome them, you are not putting the schedule at risk and will begin to see better outcomes. More importantly, you’ll have better relationships with your subcontractors and your owners.

 

Schedule Update Best Practices: The Review Process

 

As I mentioned before, you must ensure your schedule quality is maintained. If it still needs to be repaired, be sure it is before moving forward. Note that there should be a check and balance in this process. A peer scheduler, a project manager, or an executive should review the schedule before it is published because of all the risks involved.

Schedule updating is about having enough time, knowing the proper steps, and ensuring your business is accountable because someone will likely review it once it is submitted.

Then, consider incorporating other checks into your schedule quality/compliance process other than the DCMA 14-point check. The DCMA is about structural integrity, but some other risk issues can affect your project, such as:

  • Backdated activities,
  • Changed actual dates,
  • Decreased percent completes,
  • Started with 0% complete,
  • Future actual dates,
  • Missing actual finish dates.

Next, seek out and study the schedule changes–from the former to the current schedule–made to critical and near-critical tasks, focusing on:

  • Duration Changes,
  • Logic Changes,
  • Added/Deleted Activities,
  • Calendar Changes.

After you hone in on these items, you must also:

  • Determine if and why the critical path has shifted to a different area/trade than outlined in the previous update.
  • Assess the level of compression incorporated into the current schedule.
  • Make sure the schedule passes the “gut” check.

These suggestions ensure that the schedule remains feasible. If you leverage the CPM scheduling process in its entirety to manage risk, you need to follow these steps to ensure that the schedule is not falling apart and that you have an actual plan.

 

Why Are Unrealistic and Poor Schedule Updates Harmful?

 

  1. The presence of an erroneous critical path in the schedule may lead to resource mismanagement during the project.
  2. Overly compressed schedules result in inefficiencies among trades and poor quality work and/or claims.
  3. The project will be further delayed, and nobody will realize it or understand why.
  4. Contractors and Owners will argue about the projected end date and who is responsible for the problems.
  5. The project will end up late and over budget.

I was once involved in a project that got pretty convoluted. The contractor used the schedule to build a claim, and the owner used the schedule to beat up on the contractor. They didn‘t want to accept any changes, and there was no trust in the process. What ended up happening was that the schedule was not getting approved until three months after the fact (the March update was approved in June).

What did this do to the job?

It made it so that nobody had a schedule they could trust. There was rampant fear across the site; everyone worked as hard as possible and never had a finalized schedule. All of this manifested in the updating process, so you should follow a solid and understood process when updating.

 

Using Project Schedule Data for Analytics

 

A clash of project scheduling processes shouldn’t require an expert. But when schedules fall apart, it can sound like another dispute, a ruined relationship, or a stressful work environment. You must work to ensure your schedule maintains its quality so you can use it to its fullest potential.

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