Last month in this space, I reviewed a series of market projections for 2014 from Harvard University as well as the industry’s leading associations.
Right on Schedule
Communication is the key to an effective scheduling process.
Roger Friedell, CR, knows the value of making sure the right people are in the right place at the right time on a remodeling project. Not only does it ensure that projects are completed quickly, cutting overhead costs needed for each, but it also assures customers of the remodeler’s reliability and gives them an overall feeling of confidence and professionalism. But while computer software programs can facilitate scheduling, communication and strong relationships remain at the heart of a successful scheduling system.
"Our goal is to complete a project as fast as possible without having to compromise quality," says Friedell, president of Friedell Co. in Minneapolis. It can be a fine line to walk, he says, because if the remodeler schedules too tightly and a delay occurs, it throws off the subcontractor’s schedule, leading him to overbook to ensure that he has work to do each day. And if you try to schedule too many subs on the site at once, even if the schedule shows they all can be working that day, they bump into each other. "That makes them less efficient, and they get unhappy with their working conditions," says Dave Carson, CR, production manager. "And those intangibles show up in the job they do."
To avoid those problems, Friedell and Carson work closely together and track their projects using FastTrack Schedule, a software program that allows them to customize scheduling templates to their needs. The software essentially computerizes Friedell’s former paper charts, facilitating updates with a few keystrokes. But the key to scheduling comes less in planning the work and more in working the plan. That means knowing your subcontractors and the project being built.
"The scheduling system is only as good as the people you work with and relationships you have with them," Friedell says. "If your crews aren’t responsive to being where they agreed to be, it doesn’t work." Friedell has found that grooming subs to those needs has happened two ways: He has found professional tradespeople who know the value of reliability, and he has worked with others to develop a close relationship and impress on them the need to follow the schedule exactly.
At its heart, scheduling is a matter of instinct and experience as much as it is careful plotting, says Carson. "There’s a method and an order to scheduling work that’s very logical, and you learn how to judge your timing," he says. "Much of it is intuitive and comes from knowing your subs. Some work faster than others, and in some cases they’re willing to put more people on a project to finish it in the same time and keep themselves and you both on track."
Each project begins with what Friedell calls his "dog-and-pony show" at the site, with all subs walking through the project together. They identify key issues, discuss how each will be handled, submit an estimate and talk with Friedell and Carson about time frames for completing the work. "This is a very easygoing process for us, with everyone working to find the best way to meet challenges," Carson says. "That’s developed by using professional subs who have come to know each other well."
This process comprises the basis that is then used to schedule demolition and foundation work, framing, plumbing and HVAC, electrical, insulation, drywall and finishes. Each job works through a lead carpenter who also tracks the project and keeps customers updated.
Three to five days before each element reaches its completion point, Carson contacts the sub to confirm his availability, reassure him the job will be ready on time and communicate any changes that could affect his work. "Subs that arrive at a job that isn’t ready for them can wind up wasting a lot of their time and become reluctant to work with you," Carson says. Worse, they may overbook themselves, knowing some of the work won’t be ready on time -- and then find themselves in a bind when everything comes through on schedule.
The key, then, is finding the pivotal element from which all other scheduling elements must flow. Typically, that’s a product order -- custom cabinets, granite, ceramic tile, specialty fixtures or windows, or some piece that needs a specific number of weeks to arrive but must be in place before other work can commence. "Faucets can take two weeks to two months to arrive, so it’s critical to check that shipping schedule before beginning the project," Friedell says.
In fact, Carson adds, some key product choices often are based on availability. "Most clients have a specific time frame in mind for the project," he says. "If certain product choices are going to slow the project past that point, they’ll make another choice. There are a lot of similar-looking products that can be shipped much faster than the specialty ones."
Because nearly every project has unexpected challenges, Carson builds cushions into his schedules at key points. He also remains ready to speed up work if things move well. "If I can save a day here or there, it helps, because the end of the job always stretches out due to unexpected add-ons and details."
The company’s scheduling system tracks the cost of change orders and the time to perform them. Documenting time additions is critical, Carson says. In one recent case, change orders added three weeks to the schedule, but because subs worked efficiently and brought in extra crews, the job ran only one week over the original schedule. "I told the customer the job finished two weeks early, and he didn’t see it that way, since we were a week past our original date," Carson says. "It’s good to have documentation to show them that you’re being professional and reliable by adapting to the changes that arise."
Jobs that run longer than planned with no changes cost the company money, Carson says. "I estimate a job based on it taking a certain number of weeks and bill that amount of overhead into the project," he says. "When it takes longer, that’s overhead cost that we have to absorb, meaning while I’m overseeing that job during that period, we’re losing money."
Schedules are reviewed every week, and new ones are produced whenever a change arises that alters the original plans. These are given to the subs and client, and they are attached to the original contract documents if possible. In virtually every case, the schedule winds up on the customer’s refrigerator. "They like to see what’s happening -- and something is happening, someone is at that project doing something, every day," Carson says. "Keeping the client informed of what he can expect that day helps reassure him."
The scheduling works so well that Friedell bills on a monthly basis rather than on a straight percentage-completion format. This means that at the end of each month, the client receives a bill (based on the Pay Request form used by the American Institute of Architects) that offers a spreadsheet noting what percentage of each activity has been completed and billing him for that amount. "He can see exactly what’s been accomplished and isn’t paying for anything not done. Clients like it because they know when the bill will be due, and we can control our own cash flow better, too."
Maintaining that trust is critical because the project close-out conducted at the end of the project can be a long process. Carson conducts an initial walk-through to go over the punchlist at the time of substantial completion, and the final-completion audit can take from three days to two weeks. It involves noting what is completed and where details need to be attended. "It assures them that we don’t intend to abandon them before every element is taken care of," Carson says. "There are many thousands of components that have to come together in a project. Our scheduling and close-out formats keep the client on our side right up to the very end."
Key Delays When on the Job