Is your programme up to scratch?

Steve Edge. Managing Director of Menlo Associates Ltd. Originally from the United Kingdom, Steve has over 45 Years’ experience in Construction, with 17 years’ experience in New Zealand acting as Consultant Programmer, Project Manager & Project Director, and engaged primarily on difficult and/or contentious projects

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Look at your construction program schedule and ask yourself these three questions:

Does my programme provide a logical list of all the individual tasks (trade by trade) which must be performed to build the project?

Does my programme link the dependencies of all the tasks to be performed, both with the tasks that precede them and the tasks that follow?

Does my programme assign the different tasks to the trade resources who will be performing the work?

If the answer to any question is no, then you have a problem, if the answer to all three questions is no, then you have a big problem.

Why does it matter?

When you submit a construction project to a client, there are two questions that you will answer:

  • How much is it going to cost (your assessment of the price)?
  • How long is it going to take (your assessment of the time needed)?

The answers you provide form the cornerstones of the construction contract, and the implications are far reaching.  Underestimating either of the points can cost you very dearly.  Then, why is so much effort usually put into one and not the other? This article will demonstrate why you shouldn’t gamble your profit on blind guesses.

How much?

As a matter of course, all reasonable, prudent contractors will spend a lot of time working out exactly how much it is going to cost them to carry out the build. Their estimators carefully study the plans to identify all the work that needs to be done.  They then get quotes from sub-contractors for the specialised works to be carried out and negotiate with suppliers for the best rates on the materials and equipment they will need to use. It is only after they have collated these costs that they will add a margin for profit and overheads before quoting a firm price.

Obviously, there is a lot of science and effort riding on the price being right because that’s what they will get paid for. If they get the estimate wrong and under quote, they will have to bear the extra expenses and every rupee/dollar in extra cost is a rupee/dollar of less profit. The contractor carries all of that risk and consequently does his best to reduce or eliminate it.

How long?

When it comes to the programme, things often tend to get decidedly sketchy. Compared to estimating, construction programming is a much darker art with far fewer practitioners; and requires both an in-depth knowledge of construction techniques and methods and a high level of competency in the use of specialised software such as Microsoft Project or Primavera P6.

The programme is the master plan that sets out how the project will be built. It is a logical step-by-step breakdown of all the work to be carried out in order to build the project. As a result, it identifies the relationships between the various tasks and calculates the time and resources needed to complete the job.

This then helps fix the expected due date for completion of the contract.  If the programme estimates 50 weeks – in the absence of any untoward variations or delays – that’s how long your site running (P & G) costs will be paid for. Any extension beyond this will be your problem. In addition to this, if you are late in completing the project the client is entitled to claim compensation from you (liquidated damages) for his loss of use from the agreed date.

Get the finish date wrong and your liability could run into heavy losses that can go up to lakhs of rupees, if not more. The risks are very real so all the more reason to reduce your exposure to it.

Unfortunately, although many project managers and site managers have a basic experience with programming software, there are very few who have any in-depth experience on it.  And that’s where the problem lies.

Most users are self-taught and have learnt what they know informally by either watching others work on it or by trial and error. Most would not have specifically studied the subject.

The problem with this approach is that without guidance on the full use of the software or understanding the importance of structuring the program in a certain way; at best they will only be scratching the surface.

They are blissfully unaware of the depth of their ignorance as they are not specialists in the area. It is akin to asking the general practitioner to carry out a specialised operation like open-heart surgery.

Writing a comprehensive programme is a time consuming and exacting work. Those who don’t have experience in doing it takes longer, and is more likely to overlook key information.  Since time is usually in short supply, corners get cut and mistakes are made.  As a result, the work that goes into the programme falls a long way short of the effort put into estimating the price.

Three Basic Mistakes

All too frequently the contractors’ estimate of time needed to build the project relies on a number of broad guesses on how long the job will take.  There is very little analysis or thought given to the numerous tasks to be undertaken, the number of trades involved, or how they are going to interact with each other.

The sad fact is that many of the programmes that end up in adjudication have made no attempt whatsoever to assign resources. This makes the ability to finish the program on time a very risky proposition.

Take a look at the real-life example of this kind of flawed approach given below.

This is the fit-out phase of an actual contract programme for a 40-unit apartment block. It has several issues but, for illustration purposes, we will discuss only three. Let’s look a little closer to see what is missing:

Task dependencies: The first thing to note is that all the tasks are daisy-chained together, using a finish to start relationship with a negative overlap of generally 20 days. This means each task is fully dependent on the preceding task and is like an overlapping list. There is no meaningful critical path as all tasks are merely linked together one after the other, sequentially. As a result, all tasks are critical and adding one day to any task in the list adds one day to the finish date.

This alone has major risk implications. Work usually happens concurrently in multiple work streams with different dependencies and relationships. In this programme, however, this doesn’t happen. Consequently, you will find it difficult to prove that your claim for a 5-day extension of time due to a variation on Heating, Venting & Air Con (HVAC) is more valid than, for example, being five days late for completing the wall framing even though in this model both events equally affect the critical path, and could extend the completion date.

Work to be carried out:  Although there is some attempt to breakdown the work into logical steps, they haven’t really analysed the process of what needs to be executed to complete the work.

If it is a 40-apartment complex, it is logical that there will be other areas such as entrance lobby, stairwell and lift shaft, common hallways, plant room or basement car park.  Each of these will have different work streams and task relationships, which will need extra days of work. But all of this has been ignored. The list of work to be completed is far too simplistic in its approach, and it is obvious there are numerous missing links.

Services first fix has been mentioned but strangely there is no second fix. No insulation has been mentioned, either thermal or acoustic. Seal and first coat painting is fine, but there is no mention of finishing coats. There is also no note on kitchen or appliance installation or the fire sealing.

In order to complete a section of work, the process needs to be broken down into individual tasks under each trade. The position of each task in the sequence of work should be identified and set so that the relationships that define what comes next on the route to completion is clear.

A good example of this having been omitted in the above programme is the services first fix task. In this instance, the programme is saying that Plumbing, Electrical, Telecom, Security, Sprinklers & Fire Protection and HVAC are all going to get their first fix completed in 40 units as well as in the common areas like stairwells and service ducts in 40 days.

That makes it six trades – all with differing works, constraints and durations – all working in the same place at the same time, and all neatly encapsulated in one task.  Note that no trade resources are mentioned or assigned to the work which means that the contractor is assuming that no matter how many men are needed to meet the timeline, they will be available as and when required. Unfortunately, this isn’t realistically possible.

How accurate are the durations:  Looking at the work tasks in detail, let us make some broad assumptions and review what is required to achieve just one task like painting.

As noted, only sealer and first coat are programmed. Let’s assume that the specification calls for sealer plus two topcoats of acrylic on walls and ceilings, and an undercoat and two topcoats of enamel on the woodwork. For simplicity, let us also assign six days per apartment to complete all the painting. Then, it is reasonable to break it down to four days per apartment for sealer and first coats (for the walls, ceilings and woodwork) and two days for the finishing coats that were not taken into account.

Therefore, if there was one team of painters, 40 apartments would take 160 days to complete the sealer plus first coat. To achieve this in the 30 days that is mentioned in the programme, it would require six teams of painters, and all apartments would have to be ready to commence painting as soon as the painters were ready. This is a big task, even if the common areas are left out.

Likewise, the topcoats which have not been mentioned in the programme would require the same six teams of painters for a further 15 working days, just to complete the apartments (excluding the common areas). This is only the painting. The same applies to all the other tasks in the programme. Hence, there is no room for guess work here. If your programme isn’t up to scratch, it will always be like sitting in the backseat of a runaway car – sooner or later it’s going to hit a wall.