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Float May Be Sinking the Project

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Once upon a time, project scheduling was a core methodology used to develop, monitor, report and, most important, direct project execution strategy. However, financial and contractual stakeholders soon spotted the schedule's wealth of data. Things haven't been the same since. Financial departments started to require the schedule's level of detail, work breakdown structure and reporting processes. These demands weakened the schedule as a temporal tool.

But it was the contractual sector that drove the final nail into the schedule's coffin. There must have been some "Reese's Peanut Butter Cup" moment when some consultant accidentally realized a "new use" for the Critical-Path schedule's key variable: Total Float.

Float alone could be used to determine what aspects of a project schedule were "critical," the thinking went. Any impacts to such "critical" activities could be used to justify time-extension requests, owners argued. In theory, this made sense. In practice, it has proved difficult to administer fairly or consistently.

Float manipulation is today's poster child for project management's loss of perspective. Clearly obsessed with the financial and contractual implications, the schedule is often used to "manage the float," rather than the work.

At its core, float is—or should be—a simple measure of available wiggle room. Properly used, float should inform a project manager's decisions. ICS-Global studies confirm that most project delays stem from coordination issues that could have been mitigated or eliminated through responsible use of a competent schedule.

The question of "float ownership" is moot until we find a way to credibly dissect the individual contributions to float gains or losses. I'm not talking about forensic delay analysis—that only deals with major "events" and disputes, and even then after-the-fact.

Woolf

Float is a group attribute. However, without incorporating causation into the equation, talk of float ownership is disingenuous. For example, a contractor, upon learning the approaching winter will be harsh, beseeches the subs to work longer days in order to "bank some time" as a contingency against the weather. But once the float appears in the schedule, the owner imposes a scope change while he points to the "shared float" contract clause.

How fair is that? The owner has no claim to this time; the owner did not pay for it. A contractor has a right—and a need—to pepper his schedule with wiggle room, both as a time contingency for unknowns as well as for "space between the dominos." It's like leaving six car lengths for safety and others cut in. It's unfair and unsafe.

In the absence of fair and practical rules, chaos has ensued. As a result, loopholes and double standards contaminate Project Time-Management processes and products.

For example, while a contract may strictly prohibit contractors from sequestering float, owners reserve the right to do just that for their activities. Consider the owners' demand of four-week durations for all reviews, regardless of submittal complexity. We expect contractors to assign durations commensurate with the work, but owners exempt themselves from this rule. Owners contend they must hedge against all submittals coming to them at once. Let a contractor try that argument and see what happens.

Tug of War

Increasingly, schedules are a rope in a tug-of-war between owner and contractor. A schedule's content is contorted so as to posture the competing parties for financial or contractual advantage.

The good news? Float is not the only game in town. There are other, completely credible options. But until owners are courageous enough to ask for them, those who benefit from the current dogfight will maintain their silence. As long as the schedule is the primary route to claim resolution and progress payments, contractors and owners will game the system. There's no one to blame but ourselves.

Eliminating float as a way of determining delay would be a huge first step toward returning Critical-Path Method schedules to what they were in the beginning: a model of Project Execution Strategy used to coordinate and direct the work. Until that happens, projects will continue to finish late and over budget because (a) a distorted plan is worse than no plan and (b) those who fail to plan, plan to fail.

Murray B. Woolf is president of ICS-Global, a project scheduling consultant. He can be reached at mwoolf@ics-global.com.

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