3 keys to effective construction planning

A construction project starts off with a well intentioned top-down schedule. Along the way things happen, permits get delayed, designs change or material is not available. Ground reality quickly deviates from the master schedule. This doesn’t necessarily mean the overall project is behind. It also doesn’t mean that the original schedule was defective. It simply demonstrates that planning cannot be a one-and-done process. Production planning must continue at regular intervals throughout the entire project.

Project managers, superintendents and engineers often struggle with maintaining an effective planning process. Trade partners resist attending regular pull planning and weekly planning sessions. There is a wide range of expert opinions on the “right” way to run these sessions. There is a large amount of information on sticky notes and excel sheets which is painful to maintain and organize. The team is often “too busy” to keep the work plan up to date.

How do you go about creating a pragmatic process that is sustainable and helps every project stakeholder stay on the same page?

It boils down to three principles.

1. One point person

When is 3rd floor wall rough-in planned to complete? Who will be working in the basement today?

One point person must be responsible to answer such questions. Production planning is an important role that needs to be prioritized while allocating resources to a project. You may have multiple people working or helping with plan management. Nevertheless a single point person must be responsible to aggregate this information and always have a clear answer with hard numbers and dates for 2 types of questions.

  • How is project progress tracking towards key milestones?
  • What is the detailed work plan for the next 1 to 6 weeks?

If this accountability is shared among multiple people, it is as good as having nobody responsible. If the point person is oversubscribed, it is again as good as having nobody responsible.

While selecting effective candidates for this role, look out for the following attributes. Keen attention to detail, ability to build rapport with trade contractors and engineering partners. The right level within organization hierarchy so that proper cooperation of stakeholders can be ensured.

2. The Plan

Establish a rhythm and standard format for the weekly work plan.

Stick with it.

A common practice in the industry is to have a detailed work plan for one week followed by a six-week lookahead. Ensure that a weekly work plan is created every single week and communicated to the team. Use a simple and compact representation. It could be a wall with sticky notes or a compact table created using a spreadsheet or specialized software package. Use tablets or printouts to ensure that the plan is accessible on the site as well as the trailer and office.

The idea is to build muscle memory for the team to rely on a simple and realistic plan which is accessible all the time. If the plan is updated sporadically, if the format keeps changing, if the dates in the plan are not realistic the team will quickly lose interest in your planning process. They will eventually stop participating in planning meetings and render them useless. Often teams get hung up on creating the plan the “right” and “pure” way from day zero at the expense of developing a consistent rhythm. If at first you cannot get everyone in the same room, discuss commitments one-on-one with the trades and still get a reasonable work plan out to the team every single week. You can work on improving collaboration over time.

A consistent imperfect process is much better than an inconsistent perfect process.

3. Track your metrics

If you follow the first two steps, your projects will develop a history of performance metrics. What percent of commitments (PPC) are being met by the team? What are the biggest reasons for missing commitments? How are these reasons affecting milestones?

Track these metrics consistently. Use them in every meeting.

The metrics are key drivers for meaningful conversations with team members. Focussing on numbers and charts allows managers and planners to ask the right questions and bring to surface innovative solutions. Never walk into a meeting with your trade foreman without having a chart of these metrics. Frame every discussion in terms of the numbers in the chart. When project schedule is stressed, subjective discussions have a tendency to devolve into finger pointing matches. Staying focussed on metrics will keep your team accountable and your meetings objective.

I am cofounder of Vernox Labs. The above is based upon my observations supporting construction teams with our planning software solution.