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As plumbing and piping contractors, we often find our scope bundled inside a general contractor’s master schedule. It’s imperative that we take ownership of communicating with the author of the master schedule to help drive variability out of — and certainty into — the plan. As major subcontractors, we have a voice in the process. We should use that voice to ensure we drive predictability into the schedule and help ensure success for our customers and teammates.
Following are some tried and true ways to communicate proactively and make a positive difference on a project from the outset. When we go through these steps on our projects, it generates trust in the team and typically leads to better project outcomes for all trades. I hope you and your project teams can find some value in this approach, too. It all starts with collaborative conversations.
Fundamentals of collaborative schedules
I encourage my teams to take a back-to-basics view on the fundamentals of developing a thoughtful, coordinated and accurate schedule for every project. Here are seven steps contractors should consider when developing or influencing project schedules.
1. Align on the context of the project. The first steps are to study the contract documents and have a conversation with the project foremen or trade superintendents about the project's context. Is this a downtown project with no buffer between your project and the street? Is it a tall building? Is it located on a steep hill or flat parcel? Is it in a remote location or just down the road from your shop?
This meeting should address site logistics, geography and geometry, the systems to be installed, material handling, vertical transportation, last-mile logistics, crane access, means and methods, and the important schedule milestones. These inputs from your team will influence the available strategies and the schedule.
2. List offsite-fab best practices within that context. Identify any prefab, manufacturing, kitting or modularized strategies that may or may not work within the context of the project. This also would be an ideal time to identify any co-dependencies, anticipated procurement challenges, long-lead materials or anything else you may need to prioritize getting reviewed and approved for your strategies to work.
3. Write down your approach, plan and goals. Other interested parties need to understand your plan; they have their own strategies in mind for how to complete the job. Take time to describe exactly how you envision the project flowing, including horizontally and vertically. At my company, we call this narrative “The Build Plan.” It becomes your script for proactively communicating with the rest of the team.
4. Communicate out and listen for feedback. At this stage, share the strategies you hope to deploy with the broader team. Communicate broadly to the general contractor (the master schedule author) and other major subcontractors such as electrical, structural, curtain wall and framing.
Coordinate with them to ensure you don’t overlook a task or relationship and test your strategies with them to determine if they’re viable in the broader context of the project. It’s normal for other stakeholders to object to some of your strategies, so you need to align with them to understand and work through these concerns together.
5. Remember, you win some and you lose some. The reality is that everyone working on a construction project is co-dependent on one another. Like it or not, you might not get everything you want in an ideal schedule. But at least you know where — and how well — your plan fits into the master schedule, and you can adjust based on your new understanding.
As a result, you will have added much more certainty to the project and worked out many of the potential surprises or variability.
6. Revise the plan (as needed). After you’ve shared your approach, plan and goals with the schedule owner, you can now make any necessary revisions to it. It’s important to keep in mind that numerous internal customers rely on the feedback loop to solidify the plan. For example, your foremen and detailers depend on it, and it influences your shop as well as how you procure equipment from vendors.
You should now be able to finalize all relationships to the master schedule milestones and predecessors. These relationships will now drive the schedule dates. Don’t forget to double-check each task's anticipated duration and build out the resource-loaded labor plan to match. Circle back with stakeholders, memorialize the final plan and find a place to keep it visible to the team onsite and back at the main office, too.
7. While it is early, begin looking back at the plan from the tail end. As a preview to my column in a couple of months, I want to leave you with a reminder that once you have rough-in and trim portions of the plan and schedule dialed in, it is imperative to quickly do the same for the last quarter of the project.
All too often, we wait too long to begin proactively wrestling with the articulated build out of the tail end of the project, which includes heavy influencers such as pressure testing, flush and fill, life safety testing, start-up, balance and commissioning portions of the critical path. It is just as important to look at the project in a back-pass manner as it is a forward-pass, but we’ll get into more detail about that next time.
Taking this overall approach to thinking about your project affords the engineering, safety, detailing, shop and field teams a much higher confidence level in the plan. On a large, complex project, this process can take a good bit of time and effort — weeks or perhaps even months — to complete. On a smaller, quick-turn project, this could all take a day or less. The benefit, however, is that it can easily be scaled accordingly to fit the context of any project.
Don’t get paralyzed by the scheduling tools; learn and use them. Remember that scheduling begins with understanding the context of the work, communicating with stakeholders and then collaborating to make a plan that mostly works for everyone.
Or, as I like to say, “Plan the work and work the plan.” Certain days ahead!