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Building a labor plan for a construction project often feels more complex than it should. This is most often due to scope uncertainties, the use of a previous (or someone else’s) schedule as a guide, or concerns around not having enough time to sit down with the draft leaders to conduct a thorough build-plan exercise.
What’s more, we’re often drawing resources from several different places. In fact, some of our own labor pools are borrowed from other teams. This dynamic can make a project planning team feel a bit overwhelmed.
To address this challenge, I’ll recommend how best to unpack this critically important planning work into six behavioral categories and offer clarity for each step of the process. This exercise has helped us coach our teams through this pre-planning phase to understand our expectations around credible labor plans. When we partner with our craft leaders upfront to get this work done, it pays project control dividends throughout the course of the project management.
While the terms and language used here might differ from how you refer to these project controls, I hope these six foundational behaviors offer a new way to explain, coach, guide and mentor your teams for better project outcomes.
1. Understand your scope obligations.
When you are preparing your team to make sense of the project scope, these four steps will help ensure you lay a solid foundation to start any project:
• Read the proposal and make notes;
• Read the contract and make notes;
• Highlight the drawings and make notes;
• Read the specifications and make notes.
While these may sound like basic behaviors, it surprises me how often these steps are skipped in our rush to get projects started.
2. Study for scope clarity.
If you followed those four steps, you’ve likely identified some competing and contradictory directions. Before sounding the alarm, pause and take a deep breath. The reality is that specs, drawings, contracts and proposals always have contradictory information. If you take the time to study the documents and take notes, you’ll find numerous discrepancies that must be resolved.
Our natural tendency is not to confront these issues, especially when you’re just getting to know your new project team members. The last thing you want to do is start a project by asking all these clarifying questions. However, your detailing, fabrication and field install teams will appreciate the proactivity in bringing up these gaps, overlaps, etc.
To achieve this, gather those questions about competing and contradictory directions and schedule a coordination workshop. If you lead these coordination workshops with tact and style, it’s a great way to form positive relationships with the rest of the team while also reducing variability and replacing it with certainty.
3. Back-check the quality of scope clarity.
While all parties presumably submitted a proposal and have received a contract, additional scope gaps or overlaps may lurk in these documents. I recommend pulling all the major trades together to compare scopes for final assurance that everything is covered. Each time we do this on our large projects, we typically find a dozen or more scope gaps and redundancies to clean up.
One of the best ways we’ve found to solve this is by creating a scope clarification matrix that everyone on the team can review together. I suggest using the design, building information modeling (BIM), field/shop trades and start-up/commissioning phases as your matrix headers and then include key players from each in the matrix and coordination discussions.
Again, the team will appreciate that you address these potential issues in a proactive, upfront manner, which minimizes mid-project discoveries and disruptions.
4. Know the schedule milestones for clarity of the context of time.
The next step is to study the contract schedule and pull out any of the project’s key milestones you can depend on as gates. These gates will serve as your framework for the context of time.
Your labor plans and curves will depend on having an understanding of where the following milestones exist on the project calendar: design milestones such as schematic design, design development, permit phase and construction documents; selection and procurement of long-lead components; submittals, including review and approval milestones; BIM and detailing by area; mobilize to site; underground; elevated decks; fireproofing by floor; rough-in by floor; cover for shafts, walls, ceilings and countertops; dry-in and curtainwall enclosures; power on; water on; gas on; doors and sweeps; elevator and generator tests; and life safety system testing.
I recommend shrinking and growing this list of milestones to be appropriate for the scale or uniqueness of your project.
5. Team up to build the labor plan with your craft leaders.
Once you know the schedule, meet with your craft leaders (e.g., foreman, crew supervisor, etc.) and do a page turn of the project together. Take time to go through the construction documents, get out the drawings and talk about them, and line out the scope from the proposal, contract and specifications.
You’ll then be able to line out the schedule milestones you’ve pulled from the master schedule. Use this time together to map out the build plan, site logistics and material handling plans, and select the fabrication and manufacturing strategies that make sense for your project.
You are now ready to identify named resources and enter them into the labor plan format. Make sure these named resources start and finish their involvement at the appropriate time, and be certain to map out their lead foreman, key crew members and other on-site staff.
Also, identify unnamed resources by trade, such as area foremen, journeymen, apprentices and material handlers. Lastly, identify any trades you will be borrowing resources from, such as estimators, engineers, detailers, start-up techs and service techs.
This is the culmination of all your previous work. All too often, we tend to start by building the labor plan. However, those first four steps previously mentioned lend themselves to building a credible labor plan.
6. Compare to budget, level out and publish to your customer for coordination discussions.
Once you’ve done all this work and you have a labor plan, you may step back and notice that it has peaks and valleys. You’ll want to compare and contrast the plan with the budget.
More importantly, you’ll want to level out the plan to account for these labor spikes. For example, why would you want 20 plumbers on-site one week, then only 14 plumbers three weeks later, and then bring back 20 plumbers again three weeks later? Can you instead level out the plan to carry 16 plumbers throughout that entire phase?
Congratulations! You’ve taken the time to build a high-quality, defensible labor plan, making it much easier for the foreman to have a conversation with the general contractor about addressing the rollercoaster and leveling out the schedule (e.g., getting those plumbers into the space a little early).
I realize this may seem like a lot of work — especially upfront — but that’s the whole point. This is a lot of work. But time and time again, I’ve seen projects benefit exponentially from this great work that takes place during the project pre-planning phase.