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Timeline for Success: Five Tips for Effective Project Scheduling

By Brandon Pejskar, PMP

Project planning and scheduling are indispensable for the successful execution of any capital project. When envisioning a project, it is crucial that the entire project scope and execution plan are turned into an achievable schedule. Establishing an agreed-upon baseline schedule sets clear expectations for all members of the project team. A robust project schedule also allows for effective monitoring of project work, accurate forecasting, and efficient change management. The five tips below will help owners and contractors schedule their projects for success.

Focus on the critical path

Every project schedule has a critical path, which is “the longest continuous chain of activities … which establishes the minimum overall project duration.”[1] In other words, the critical path is the sequence of activities that controls the project’s completion date. If an activity on the critical path is delayed by one day, the project completion date will also move out by one day. Only changes to critical path activities can delay or accelerate the project completion milestone. When creating an initial baseline schedule for a project or producing a periodic schedule update, it is crucial to focus on the critical path. All stakeholders involved in critical activities must understand their effect on the project’s timely completion and dedicate adequate resources to their work. When project teams are attempting to accelerate a schedule or recover due to delay, they must focus on the critical path. It is worth noting that the critical path can change throughout the course of the project. Near-critical activities can become critical if they are delayed, so a competent scheduler will also monitor near-critical paths and their trends over time.

Ensure the schedule is a management tool and not merely a deliverable

The schedule specification in a construction contract should stipulate the format and timeframe for a contractor’s issuance of regular schedule updates. The contractor’s goal in producing these schedule updates should not merely be to fulfill the contract requirement for issuing a deliverable to the owner; rather, the schedule should be an accurate reflection of the current plan to complete the project that can be used as an effective management tool. To ensure that this mindset is achieved, schedulers should solicit input and obtain buy-in from stakeholders so they are invested in the schedule. To ensure that stakeholders at all levels of the project are using the same data to manage their work, schedulers should work with field personnel to determine what schedule layouts they find useful (e.g., two-week lookaheads, daily schedules). It’s always a good idea for the scheduler to visit the site regularly. Then they can create tailored layouts for these stakeholders so they do not create their own schedules that disagree with the integrated master schedule.

Seiler onsite scheduler
Cotter’s engagement began with the development of the project’s engineering schedule, then expanded to encompass the planning and scheduling of the entire project scope.

Plan for change

Changes are inevitable on construction projects. Instead of being inflexible and trying to completely avoid changes, successful project teams establish a robust change management policy to address changes effectively and proactively as they arise. Before a project begins, an organization must establish how the schedule impact of changes will be analyzed, tracked, approved in change orders, and incorporated into the project schedule. It is imperative that project management and project controls personnel thoroughly document and analyze changes immediately.

Document and analyze delays contemporaneously

Since changes are inevitable, project management and project controls personnel should develop a procedure for logging delays/changes; saving and organizing relevant documentation; and analyzing the associated schedule impacts. In an ideal world, parties would quickly agree on an equitable resolution of delays through the change order process; however, disputes over delays can escalate to mediation, arbitration, or trial. Whether a firm is engaged in an amicable change order negotiation or contentious litigation, contemporaneous documentation is crucial. Memories can change, but project documents do not. Project teams should compile clear support and documentation contemporaneously rather than after the fact.

Engage a qualified scheduling professional

Scheduling software has become more accessible to the layperson in recent years. This development is a double-edged sword. Since the software is easier to use, people with insufficient scheduling knowledge can get a false sense of confidence in their ability to create and maintain schedules. Some project teams may try to cut costs by having a team member without formal scheduling training act as the project scheduler. To minimize risk to the project schedule, a qualified scheduling professional should be engaged. It is important that schedulers not only understand how to manipulate schedule software but grasp the underlying concepts and calculations performed by the program. Good schedulers do not merely type dates into a “black box.” They understand what effect changes will have on the schedule, observe and document trends, and use their knowledge and expertise to influence the outcome of the project. Inexperienced schedulers often rely on excessive constraints, and “unnecessary or inappropriate constraints included in the network … may create or define an artificial critical path and eliminate the true critical path.”[2] When this happens, the value of the schedule logic is lost, and project risk is greatly increased.

Owners and contractors can set themselves up for successful project execution by engaging knowledgeable professionals who can turn a project vision into a robust schedule. A well-built and maintained project schedule is an essential tool for managing and analyzing the performance of all members of a project team as they work towards a common goal.

[1] AACE International Recommended Practice 10S-90 Cost Engineering Terminology Rev. February 18, 2022

[2] AACE International Planning & Scheduling Professional Certification Study Guide, First Edition Revised