Global Insight

Refocusing on scheduling and project controls fundamentals in a COVID world

Accurately estimating a project's completion date is not easy, as anyone in the construction industry will testify, due to the many uncertainties at play – not least the current environment with COVID-19 and the increased complexity with regards to coordination of the many stakeholders.

With that said, there is an onus on all industry stakeholders to continually strive towards increasingly accurate schedules, as ultimately, planning is key. In this insight article, John O'Sullivan explores the refocus on Project Controls and Scheduling fundamentals.

Scheduling is fundamental to the success or failure of a project – when done correctly and comprehensively, it supports risk quantification, informs Cost Management and constitutes the determining factor for resourcing and procurement, as mentioned in our 2020 article, ‘The impact of COVID on the supply chain’. Arguably, these factors should be managed under the umbrella of Project Controls, which provides accurate information, supports the management of key project components to ensure the right scope gets the right attention at the right time, and allows for transparent reporting on project progress. Ultimately, it allows for the presentation of clear information and trends to the client, to facilitate informed and timely decision-making, and enable successful delivery.

The key elements of schedule development

The development of a successful schedule always starts with getting the basics right at the beginning of a project. Understanding the fundamental function of scheduling activities can be done with a pen and paper, with the scheduling software as a complimentary tool to add efficiency. The key elements of schedule development following best practices are:

  • Identify the scope of work
  • Developing the work breakdown structure (WBS)
  • Clearly define the work packages
  • Clearly define the activities
  • Establish and create the realistic logic ensuring that all activities have at least one predecessor and one successor
  • Define the resources and bill of quantities
  • Define the durations
  • Identify and analyse the critical path

The COVID impact

One of the core contributing factors to schedule inaccuracies is the underestimating of inefficiencies, work-face congestion and general resource issues when developing the schedule. These, in particular, are also the principal elements impacted by the COVID restrictions and on-site safety measures adopted to ensure social distancing is maintained on sites. The pandemic has served as a catalyst for innovation within construction, and the changes to site activities that have been initiated and adopted by the industry have been done in a very proactive manner, and the data indicates that they continue to be effective in managing the spread of COVID-19.

These changes to on-site practices have caused a refocus, and re-emphasized the importance and critical input of the scheduler to minimize and offset the impact of COVID. Since less trades and/or lower numbers of resources can operate at the one time in restricted areas, it has become vital that the planning of tasks and follow-on trades is undertaken in an organized and tightly-monitored schedule. Dependencies need to be clearly identified in far more detail than may previously have been undertaken and resources need to be allocated to the activities in order that tasks can be undertaken in a safe and efficient manner.

As referenced above, challenges breed innovative solutions and sometimes unexpected opportunities, for example:

  • Reduced rework arising from uncongested work-faces
  • Increased emphasis on detailed, early planning of tasks and the use of stage-gates
  • Targeted use of digital technologies
  • Prefabrication/modularization 
  • More realistic approach to estimating site manpower and activity durations

The assessment of a COVID claim

The monitoring role of the scheduler during the project is as critical under normal circumstances, but even more so following the pandemic, with the key focus now on the as-built program to more realistically substantiate a COVID claim. The assessment of a COVID claim can be more thoroughly undertaken using one of the following methods:

Impacted as-planned method

It should be noted that this method will result in a hypothetical impact, as it is the insertion of delay events into either the baseline or as-planned schedule to determine the hypothetical impact of such events, and does not incorporate as-built information.

As-planned versus as-built method

This method can be applied to simple projects, where the as-built and baseline critical paths are compared to identify impact deviation.

Collapsed as-built method

This method removes the delays from the as-built schedule, leaving the date at which the project should have been complete. There is, however, the difficulty that logic is applied after the fact and is therefore prone to challenge.

Time-impacted analysis

Again, this method results in a hypothetical impact and is generally used to plan for a risk.

Window analysis

This method uses both planned and actual schedules, and is arguably the most robust of methods for a complex construction project. However, it is time consuming and does rely on complete records.

When assessing or formulating the COVID claim, the more accurate and reliable the data, the more successful and clear the result. However, no matter which method is adopted, there should ideally be:

  • A baseline schedule from which project progress is measured – it is not possible to be delayed if you did not know when you were due to finish
  • Regular schedule updates that track the progress through the project
  • The critical path should be assessed at each schedule revision to understand the impact of any delay events on schedule slippage

The most important element of any claim is the substantiation provided to demonstrate how an event – or in the case of COVID-19, potentially a series of events – has negatively impacted the critical path. Ongoing impacts related to productivity loss are often difficult to demonstrate without proper record keeping through the life of the project. Other events which result in a site shutdown, for example, can often be more clean-cut to assess and agree on, and therefore can be resolved before the project finishes.

In summary, it is argued that there are opportunities arising from the pandemic and there are certainly lessons which can be learnt, which will benefit projects in the future if implemented – in particular, the investment of time and resources in detailed scheduling and tracking, from project inception to final handover and/or operation. 

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