Avoiding Inevitable Meltdown in Construction Project Completion Schedules

Completion Schedules: what they are, and aren’t

CPM completion schedules are one of the most challenging responsibilities that a scheduler can have. The closeout period requires a cogent, heads-up approach, that increases the level of exactitude without straining resources. An even bigger challenge lies in involving stakeholders in the drafting of completion schedules. This is especially so on large projects, where too big to fail is the prevailing wisdom.

Just because the contractor is flying by the seat of his pants doesn’t mean the scheduler needs to saddle up for a joy-ride in Economy.

Construction project completion schedules share similar elemental attributes that are predictable in nature, and challenges that are preventable, or at least can be mitigated. There are an endless string of epithets to describe the phenomenon: Wild West, free-for-all, sh*t show, and so on. I daresay these serve to allay the unpleasant banality of another inevitable close-out train-wreck.

A contractor can shoot from the hip, but not so the scheduler who is expected to represent the forward pass of the final build-out phase with logic. There is no call in his playbook for a Hail Mary, only “hurry-up offense.”

To begin with, let it be said that the integrity of the logic of a CPM timeline tends to deprecate over time, such that there is an inverse proportion of remaining time and level of exactitude in the forward pass. We understand that this happens for a number of reasons, many of which are preventable by a good scheduler, but not without being informed by the contractor of his plans. In this way are project close-outs the bane of the scheduler who tries to accurately represent the work in his schedules.

Even without the total float column shown, we can see trouble brewing with the sweep of data-line riding activities spilling straight down, like red teeth on a blue comb.

Close-out periods and completion schedules for projects – especially under duress – can be described as frenzied, uncoordinated, and generally oblivious to the critical path that once was.  In scheduler parlance, the work is considerably out of sequence. Depending on the complexity of the project, the degree of severity of out of sequence work will vary.

If you think the contractor was inattentive to the schedule from the start, imagine his willful attention deficit during punch-list.

It is generally understood by builders that every distinctive project close-out phase is rather unique in its approach and execution. They have a number of options at their disposal to avoid meltdown, in order of severity:

  • Siege mentality: bombing the job with augmented forces with the belief that all activities are on the longest-path merely because they are on the critical path (which we know to be too often conflated terms. It is impossible to prioritize activities in the midst of a siege.
  • Plugging the dam: augmenting forces to hot-spots to keep pace with other trades
  • Extend the timeline, which is not a contractor’s decision, nor will he bother to ask in the close-out phase.

By this time, the contractor is generally burnt out on the project and has little patience with the scheduler and his charts. The scheduler can expect a less than sufficient effort from a frustrated contractor who is always distracted with other important matters. He is left to his own devices to implement strategies intended to contain his Completion Schedules in their final phases. I have seen very few schedulers who do this effectively for the simple reason they lack field experience.

There are some basic strategies a scheduler can deploy in anticipation of a schedule crashing. But before he does so, he must have the foreknowledge that the 8 weeks leading to the punch-list defies the same logic that is used in the rest of the schedule: think of this part of the schedule as a ‘fragnet,’ that has its own internal logic that is inconsistent with the rest of the build out.

That sounds counter-intuitive, but CPM is not intuitive – it is scientific. Ignorance of this distinction is what separates project managers who understand the CPM, and those who don’t. If they don’t, they will either not facilitate your work, or they will create obstructions – such as insisting on working back form target-dates, and other Gerry-rigging.

Contractors often put on airs, or adopt an arrogant mien that is meant to mask their ignorance of the CPM. This is to be expected. Simply put, the smartest contractors are the ones who admit what they don’t know, and show an interest to learn.

Following are 5 of the strategies I like to employ in an effort to mitigate CPM completion schedules deprecating in the closing stages of a project build-out.

5 Strategies to Approach Project completion schedules

  1. I am diligent in attending to as many out of sequence activities with each monthly update. This saves time, and facilitates more CPM clarity down the line. I might change links from SS instead of FS, or dissolve links if predecessor did not start.
  2. If a contractor doesn’t actualize completed out of sequence work, I enter the data-date as the actual finish, pending clarification. A lot of these activities are typically found in the preconstruction groups, such as submittals and approvals, which contractors often give short-shrift in their reporting.
  3. Dissolve obsolete lag.
  4. Remove consecutive sequencing: everything is happening at once, so you may as well remove future FS links.
  5. Retire the % complete column, and work strictly from remaining duration as derived by the contractor. If you do nothing else, use this strategy to approximate your completion schedule.

Looking now at your CPM schedule you might wonder how it differs from the contractor’s seemingly uncoordinated approach. You might be wary of the ominous sweep of the data-line comb. The schedule has relatively few links left in it, and the change of logic-drivers has befuddled everyone. You owe them an explanation, and it is always the same:

The links have been dissolved in the schedule because they have been dissolved in the actual work. It would be futile to try to project the comings and goings of all the trades at the same time, or to establish logic in the same way the rest of the job progressed.  Effectively, all remaining work may have FF relationships with Substantial Completion, which simplifies logic considerably. Rather, we show what trades will be present, for how long, and the turnover date. What more could you ask?

Any contractor will agree CPM completion schedules are generally ignored in the punch-list phase where time is of the essence. Their focus is on the completion schedules, and the stakeholders’ is the turnover date. Your delinked completion schedules are now able to facilitate any strategy the contractor employs by adding or dissolving logic according to the look-ahead schedule. This is tough medicine the stakeholders need to take, understand it or (more likely) not, and accept it or not. These are mot points, as the contractor will be finished by the time the stakeholders understand the modified schedule.

Moral: know when to use your intuition, and when to let logic do the work for you.