Reactive vs. Proactive Scheduling

Reactive vs. Proactive Scheduling
Written by John Jackson
Aug, 27 2015 @ 3:46 PM

Reactive vs. Proactive Scheduling

To many managers in the construction industry value is overshadowed by cost. By not seeing the value that planning and scheduling can bring to a project, 98% of the project budget may be placed at risk in order to save a few dollars of the overhead budget.

I categorize attitudes toward scheduling among those that consider scheduling a necessary project function as either ‘reactive’ or ‘proactive’. In addition, there is still a considerable part of the industry that does not schedule at all; we might say they have an ‘inactive’ attitude to scheduling.

The difference between the proactive and reactive approach is defined by the goal of the scheduling efforts. Reactive scheduling starts with a haphazard approach to the planning process and continues when the ongoing scheduling efforts are spent trying to keep up with happenings in the field, and making adjustments when field operations deviate from the scheduled plan. In this case the schedule may be built with good intentions, but the reality is that the project drives the schedule.

Proactive scheduling requires a coordinated effort of the project management staff to actually plan the work for the project and then utilize the scheduled plan in performing and overseeing the work in the field. Updates are performed to measure how the plan is going and to make necessary adjustments. The process of planning and scheduling is never complete until the project is done. In other words, the plan and schedule drives the project.

The Absurdity of Reactive Scheduling

I will never forget my first job as a professional scheduler. My contractor client informed me that my services were required to appease an ‘overzealous’ owner and were not necessary for success of the project. My services were merely a ‘necessary evil’. I proceeded to study the project documents and prepared the contractor’s schedule for submittal. The schedule clearly delineated how the project was to be built and was readily approved by the owner. My client received a long-awaited first payment on the project and I enjoyed hero status for a day.

However, the contractor’s project management team proceeded almost immediately to deviate from the schedule that I had spent so much effort to prepare. To my knowledge, no one on the contractor’s project management team ever put together a comprehensive plan for completing the project in a timely and efficient manner. The contract targeted completion date was a ‘hope for’ goal with no basis for the assumed accomplishment. Since they had never really looked at my schedule, nor did they care to start, my task became increasingly an exercise in keeping up with what they were doing, and adjusting the schedule to show how their plan was deviating from mine. I also found myself trying to guess at what they might do in the future and make the appropriate adjustments in ‘my’ schedule. As the project slipped I would arbitrarily change relationships or durations to continue showing the project completion within the contract limits, which kept the cash flow coming from the owner. In no way did the schedule have any influence on the work performed. As the scheduler, I spent the majority of my effort trying to make the schedule match what was happening in the field,the project drove the schedule.

On the other side of the world, the owner reviewing my schedule never really looked at it as a tool for planning the project either. The only person who even looked at it on behalf of the owner was their expert scheduler, whose main objective was to make sure the schedule met the technical requirements of the contract specifications. The extent of the review was purely technical in nature. Did the numbers balance? Were the milestone dates aligned with the contract? Was the format of the schedule correct? The review and approval processes never included a review of whether or not the schedule was a valid plan or even whose plan it was. The only issue that seemed to matter was whether or not the document showed that the projected dates were being met. No one ever mentioned to me that the contractor was not following their (my) plan. I don’t believe anyone ever paid enough attention to it to really notice. The people who really knew how the project would have to be constructed did not care to look at the technical data generated by a computer that they saw as a threat to the world as they knew it. The schedule was simply a required exercise someone passed down from a lofty legal bureaucracy on a planet far, far, away. On the other hand, the two scheduling experts (including myself) were too busy trying to impress each other with our own schedule geek techno jargon, and philosophical homilies regarding schedules and like things pertaining to it, to think about coordinating our efforts with the less technical project management staff who oversaw the actual construction. Even from the owner’s side, the project drove the schedule.

The Benefits of Proactive Scheduling

On many projects over the years my schedules were completely separate from the construction process. Contractors submitted them but didn’t use them. Owners were often contractually separated from the process and had minimal enforcement capability in how a schedule was managed. Times haven’t changed much. But there is hope. I have seen it work. Planning and scheduling can be used in a proactive way to make a project move faster, more efficiently, and with much less management headache. There are four main aspects of proactive construction scheduling, if implemented, these will positively transform the project at all levels.

Coordination and Collaboration.

Though intertwined in practice, it is helpful to consider these separately. Coordination is bringing the various project participants into the planning process, securing their input and getting everyone to sign on to the project plan. The participants naturally include those actually building the project, including project managers, superintendents, subcontractors and yes, even the owner and their representatives. I often hear the first months of the project referred to as the ‘honeymoon’ phase. If agreements are going to be made and cooperative measures are to be coordinated for the project, this is the period most beneficial to meet those objectives. By coordinating through the planning and scheduling process, each aspect and phase of the project can be addressed and reviewed by the parties.

Collaboration is the ongoing use of the schedule throughout the project as a communication tool to identify, address, and resolve project issues. To accomplish this, the contractor’s project management must be committed to communication and a level of openness with the various project participants, including the owner. Owners are usually more open to the idea but have a difficult time enforcing collaboration.

Consistent Tracking and Analysis. Consistent tracking and analysis of progress requires a level of scheduling discipline that is often lacking, but where it exists the rewards are substantial. For example, it is much easier to prepare a lookahead schedule with a handwritten chart or spreadsheet application than it is to update a working CPM schedule. Excuses such as ‘The established schedule does not have the detail I need, or I only update the schedule for the submittal process, or ‘My schedule doesn’t match what I am doing’ are common. There is a simple response to such excuses: Adjust your schedule to reflect your plan so that you can use it to monitor your progress on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Using this proactive approach in a project meeting may meet resistance because of the accountability involved. The project accountability is a result of looking at what someone said they would do last week compared to what they are saying this week. Over time, however, such accountability serves to bring more consistent project planning and projections to the project. This level of project management tracking will also keep stakeholders aware of the project’s current critical path, which spreadsheet charts cannot do. One of the most important features of this proactive scheduling approach is the early identification of issues. Of course, early identification of issues promotes early resolution of issues, which is valuable in every project scenario.

Effective Reporting

Effective project reporting keeps senior management, the key decision makers and problem solvers, in the loop. Many project issues get out of control before senior management, or those with the most experience in resolving issues, ever get involved. This results from delays in identifying and communicating issues. A carefully monitored project plan and schedule will identify most issues as, or even before, they surface. An effective reporting procedure will keep executives in the loop to proactively resolves the issues before they become serious or get out of control.

Risk Management and Early Resolution of Conflicts.

Risk management and early resolution of conflicts may be catchy industry buzz-phrases, but they are very important. This aspect of proactive construction scheduling depends on the implementation of the previous three proactive scheduling techniques. Without collaborative coordination, consistent tracking and analysis, and effective reporting, issues will often not be identified early enough for a quick resolution, and even when they are, the lack of a healthy cooperative atmosphere may impede that resolution. Part of updating the schedule regularly and proactively includes incorporating impacts immediately into the schedule to demonstrate their effects on the progress, and ultimately the completion of the project. This sometimes meets resistance. I have been requested not to put an impact into the schedule until the change or delay is approved. My response to this is simply, “Do you want the current project schedule, that we all are trying to work from, to be accurate or inaccurate?” If you want it to be accurate then what is going on in the field should be reflected in the schedule. I have yet to have someone tell me, “I would rather the construction schedule be inaccurate.” By incorporating issues into the schedule immediately it is much easier to see the impact and come to an early resolution.

Proactive Scheduling Pays

Ultimately, there is a cost factor to the proactive approach. It takes commitment from the involved parties and often it takes more management budget, especially if an experienced scheduler is brought in to assist in the process. However, the benefits from a successful implementation of the proactive approach usually far outweigh the costs associated with it. Managing the critical path effectively nearly always saves time on the project. Given the daily overhead costs of a project multiplied by the number of days saved by good planning and execution, this also saves money. Furthermore, regular planning and coordination brings a positive partnering atmosphere to the project. Reviewing a schedule is a great forum for structured discussion of every aspect of the project, since a good, proactive schedule will include every aspect. Finally, proactive scheduling is very effective in early resolution of disputes, maximizing recovery of cost impacts as well reducing the cost of prosecuting claims.