Breaking the cycle of unreliable schedules

By Matt Collins
Builder Partnerships Senior Consultant

If you ask 10 builders about their greatest struggle right now, nine will tell you it’s the production schedule. They see cycle times extending weeks longer than what was on the initial schedule at the time of release. This time drift doesn’t happen because framers now swing hammers slower than before. It is because the homes are sitting empty. 

“The trades just don’t show up,” is the theme from the field team. If this symptom is perceived as the root cause, things will continue to deteriorate as this environment of “OK, well, get to me when you can,” is perpetuated. Eventually, the trades and suppliers will determine the actual schedule — not you, the builder. 

We’ve seen builders handle this in two ways. They either push the settlement (multiple times, in some cases), which frustrates the buyer, or they extend their settlement commitment to the buyer far enough out to protect the buyer from the push. The downside of the latter tactic is if the house happens to finish sooner, the buyers are not ready to settle when the house is done. 

It is time to address the problem and own the solution. While there are multiple factors, often the single greatest explanation is that your schedule simply isn’t trustworthy enough for the trades. The irony is that this is a self-perpetuating situation. Trades don’t trust your schedule and so they get to your jobs when they can, which creates an untrustworthy schedule for the trades downstream, and the cycle goes on. 

You can’t break the cycle without knowing the root cause. If you struggle with believing this, let the trades tell you. Ask your top 10 trades and suppliers how often your jobs are 100 percent ready for them according to the schedule. Ask them if they often receive schedule revisions from the superintendents via phone calls and texts, if revisions come in a timely manner, and if they can move their resources around without any problems. Ask them if they must make an additional trips back to wrap things up due to readiness issues. 

The saying that the best builders are the best schedulers and the best schedulers are the best builders is completely true.  

The bad news is there is no silver bullet. The good news is this problem can be fixed.

Acknowledge the issue

The first step is to admit that you are having a problem. Talk to your trades. Tell them you know your failures in schedule management cause them pain and that you intend to get to where your schedules are reliable. Work side by side and get their buy-in to the process. Get their commitment that if you hold up your end of the agreement (job ready per schedule and schedule reflective of actual necessary cycle days) that they will do the same (show up and complete by out date). 
The second step is to rework your sequence, job logic, and task durations to be certain your schedule is realistic. 

Here are several items to review when creating a schedule that works:

Duration length. Be certain your durations are the right length to accommodate each of your trades, and get their agreement on task durations prior to revising the schedule template. Concern yourself more with schedule adherence than with crew size, but at the same time, ensure your schedule is built for typical crews in your market. 

Break down long tasks. Break down any task longer than one week to allow the superintendent to better manage the trades. This allows the schedule to have some overlap instead of being as linear as it likely is now. For example, some builders will have three weeks on their schedule as “framing.” The framing task could be broken into subsets, such as “first deck and first-floor walls” and “second-floor deck and walls,” etc. 

Use buffers. Place several buffer periods of a few days in your schedule at the end of key phases. These buffers will act as shock absorbers with the remaining part of the schedule if delays occur during the phase. For example, if five days are built in as a buffer at the end of the foundation (just prior to framing material drop), and the footer guy is delayed two days and the block/pour wall guy is delayed two days, you take the four days from the buffer instead of changing the framing delivery date. In fact, there are no schedule changes downstream because of the delay, and your schedule by all the subsequent trades is still seen as reliable.

Get tasks off the critical path. For every task that you remove from the critical path, you save that much time and build flexibility into your schedule for the task to be completed. For example, if the basement floor getting poured is always holding you up because the HVAC can’t go in, hang the equipment off the ceiling. 

There are many ways to get your schedules back to reliable, and focusing your energy here will pay off greatly. When the market is hot and also during a downturn, the trades will see you as the Builder of Choice and will get to your jobsites first because you help them make money. Be the builder that focuses on their efficiency and you will be the builder they serve best.