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Viewpoint: The Case for Neutral, Third-Party Schedulers

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I was recently asked to participate in a debate on scheduling specifications at Stanford University. A representative from the contractor sponsoring the conference would take the position that most scheduling specifications were onerous or unnecessary. My role, if I agreed to partake, would be to defend them before an audience filled with contractors.

This would not be an impromptu discussion—I was the owner's scheduling consultant on a project with the person I would be debating. "You won't be personally attacked," I was assured.

After much deliberation, I reluctantly agreed. At the conference, I knew I was in hostile territory from what I was hearing: CPM scheduling has evolved—or devolved—from a straight-forward representation of the contractor's plan into a claims tool better understood by lawyers than builders; it is absurd to ask a GC what the plumber will be doing on a Tuesday three years from now; foremen spend too much time updating schedules and not enough managing work in the field.

As the complaints mounted and the need for rudimentary "master" schedules was proffered, I felt like I was at a meeting of the Flat-Earth Society.

Having worked for owners as well as contractors, I know the frustrations are mutual.

To reduce overhead costs, contractors often give scheduling short shrift—assigning inexperienced or junior-level personnel to schedule complex, multimillion-dollar projects. Contractors routinely ignore scheduling specifications and their own CPM schedules. Flawed baselines are submitted, and to correct for past sins, schedule updates are manipulated, sequestering float and masking contractor delays.

 

ROSSETTI
With each update, a new critical path and an unexpected completion date emerge, giving the owner little confidence regarding final completion.

On the way to the lectern, I wondered what kind of reception I would receive.Sure, scheduling has grown unnecessarily complicated in recent years. The industry-standard scheduling software seems to be designed for database administrators rather than builders; also, in attempting to do everything, the software performs its core function poorly. Certainly there is room for improvement, but have all the advances in the 100 years since Henry Gantt's eponymous chart been for naught?

After debating the need for detailed, not simplified, schedules, activity duration restrictions, resource/cost loading, lead/lag relationships and schedule update revisions, I concluded with a simple solution: projects should hire a third-party, jointly retained scheduler.

Similar to the reaction of my clients when I had suggested this approach in the past, the audience's eyes glazed over. Whether it was fear of the unknown or the boredom elicited by most scheduling discussions, I cannot say. Regardless, my idea would not be that difficult to implement. Both parties would choose an experienced scheduling professional.

The contractor would create the baseline schedule, retaining control over its means and methods. After acceptance by all parties, the baseline schedule would be updated by the neutral scheduler.

Avoiding Claims and Lawsuits

The benefits are obvious. Contractors would no longer have to absorb the full cost of a project scheduler. Owners could be assured the scheduling specifications were followed and updated without manipulations. Contractor personnel could focus on building rather than scheduling. Any proposed schedule revisions would be evaluated by a neutral party, who could weigh the risks and rewards from an objective standpoint. Delays and extension requests would not fester until the end of the job. Perhaps claims and lawsuits could be avoided.

As someone who has lived through monthly arguments over schedule updates and endless battles over time extension requests during construction and afterward in court, placing the schedule under the control of a neutral third-party seems like the next logical step in the lean construction movement. There will be resistance from contractors unwilling to cede control and owners reluctant to share liability for a task once in the contractor's realm. Could it be any worse than the status quo?

While my debate opponent and I are still working through our differences on our project, I am hopeful we will have an accepted baseline schedule before neutral scheduling becomes the standard. 

Kurt Rossetti, P.E., CCE, is founder of PKR Consulting Inc., a construction management and litigation consulting firm in San Francisco. He can be reached at krossetti@pkrconsulting.com.

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