In most modular or prefab construction shops, accommodating frequent project schedule changes and constantly updating production schedules is an uphill battle. While project changes to the schedule may not be in your control, there are a few things to consider to keep your production running smoothly.
Schedulers often spend a significant amount of time setting up an ideal schedule, set to very granular detail, with elaborate logic baked in. However, both they and the project team know the schedule will change within the first few weeks of a construction project.
This doesn’t mean it’s not worth scheduling. Instead, the goal of scheduling should be to get the right people involved who can solve problems and act with the flexibility needed to handle reality. Running a scheduling process with this new goal in mind takes a few steps—here’s what you need to know.
Step 1: Start with the right people
You need a scheduler that understands your fabrication process. Period. This can come from experience working the shop floor or from regularly walking through and talking to people, but it cannot be skipped.
If the scheduler doesn’t have this innate knowledge, you’re setting yourself up for a process that may look great on paper but falls apart the moment reality hits—you don’t want this outcome.
Once you have this person, you need to ensure they have access to:
Appropriate tools: This includes both industry typical tools like Microsoft Project, Excel, or Primavera P6, and other tools required by the project team (GCs/Architects).
Project information: The scheduler needs to know if timelines are set to change or if project schedule changes are confirmed. To get them this, ensure they are looped into team meetings, emails, and calls.
Time to update: You need to know how many schedulers are needed to hit your update timeline—and estimate your estimates then measure against how long typical production schedules take. You can also take a granular approach here, going as specific as you need to for tracking unique processes within your shop.
Make sure to set your formatting to allow for changes and flexibility—changes are going to happen and your schedule needs to shift with them.
Step 2: Gather all project inputs
Project inputs come in three categories, all of which impact scheduling.
1. Parameters: Identify required onsite dates, confirm build order sequencing, and break down all data by specific builds so you can keep track of moving dates across projects.
All project field teams will think their project is the most important, so it’s essential that project timelines match each general contractor’s understanding so everything can move on time.
3. Materials: You’ll need to know what you need, when you need it, and the necessary lead times ensure proper shop flow.
This is a big risk in scheduling, particularly if you’re impacted by supply chain issues. In this case, it’s a good idea to think about consumables versus project specific needs in order to streamline procurement’s impact on scheduling.
4. People: You’ll need to know your team’s schedules—including vacation and sick day estimations—along with critical roles in specialty functions that could slow down production.
On top of the people’s available time and specialties, you’ll need to think about which tasks might have limited resources or space for people to work. This could include tasks requiring a precision machine or specific work location, such as welding, or tasks that are space constrained and you can’t simply add more team members in a pinch to get an order out the door.
Step 3: Identify your shop capacity
If you don’t already measure shop capacity, here are five questions you can ask yourself to gather the minimum required information.
1. How many order types are required? Identify what moving parts you need to accommodate and schedule.
2. How many stages are required by order type? Ensure you know the mini-milestones required for your different order types.
3. What are your cycle / takt times? Knowing how long a process takes (cycle) and how long the process must take to meet field team or customer demands (takt). To meet field team demands, consider leveraging a pull production process—where the downstream task managers tell upstream project leaders what they need—to speed things up and avoid waste.
4. Can you accommodate multiple projects or product types? You should know if your shop can handle multiple projects and, if yes, how many.
5. How many people are needed, broken out by task? Splitting out by task will make your life easier when working around vacation and sick day schedules.
Step 4: Identify your common bottlenecks
Spotting your bottlenecks is a data problem, and it’s tough to spot what you don’t measure. Implement an accurate data hierarchy system to help spot the problems. Then, consider the theory of constraints approach—which says you will have a bigger positive impact if you identify the biggest cause of delay and change it rather than trying to improve the whole project process—to fix these challenges quickly.
For a quick guide to spotting bottlenecks, ask these three questions:
● Look for accumulations. An area with a lot of work in process may mean the next stage can’t keep up and could be a bottleneck.
● Do any stages in your production process have limited space or capacity?
● Where in the process are there long wait times (e.g. paint dry, material curing, or multiple-point inspections)?
The answers to these questions are likely common bottlenecks you can work to improve even if you don’t have sophisticated data.
Step 5: Build your schedule
With all the data you’ve collected in the previous steps, you should be able to build your schedule.
Make sure to include:
● Number and name of each build.
● Required onsite dates.
● Required fabrication dates.
● Sequence of each project within the production schedule.
● Shipping lead times + buffer time for emergencies.
● Build start dates (working back from fabrication + lead time dates).
You’ll also want to factor in a “ramp period” where the first couple times someone does a task, it takes them longer. But they quickly get up to speed and become more efficient with repetition.
Once you’ve dropped everything into a scheduling tool like MS Project, don’t forget to model out some scenarios and see their impact on your production timelines:
● What happens if a portion of your team gets COVID or monkeypox?
● What if a critical material has a longer-than-expected lead time?
● What if you run different projects/builds in different orders?
Some other considerations when scheduling
Depending on your shop’s needs, you may want to think about other considerations when scheduling:
What's the level of detail needed? Do you need to schedule order start and “fab-by” dates, or all the way down to the station level, with tasks for each team? There are several factors that affect this, including: schedule meeting cadence, experience level of your teams, and a myriad of other factors.
Communicating impacts of schedule changes to both internal and external team members: Internal teams, such as procurement, accounting, and design, may be disproportionately impacted by a late-stage schedule change and require time for resequencing or “fast-track” purchases.
External teams, such as GCs, owners, architects, and engineers, often recommend changes to alleviate other project challenges, often without understanding the full impact to the overall project. The sooner you can communicate these impacts—primarily schedule and costs—the better all parties are able to move through the potential change.
Leverage past projects: Talk about what worked and what didn't after each project wraps up. Store and share these insights so the rest of your team can use past learnings to make better future decisions.
Continuing education: Consider supporting your scheduling team through lunch-and-learns or subsidizing courses and training related to fabrication, technology, and estimating. Your scheduling will get faster and more accurate the more training and support your schedulers have access to.
Scheduling is a complex process even if each step is relatively simple. With that in mind, it will be critical to continually check in on yourself to improve the process over time. Thankfully, the right tools can also help automate parts—or all—of the scheduling process to speed it up and avoid human error.