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How to Build Better Project Plan Timelines

A project timeline simplifies construction, but creating one is a complex process that requires an incredible amount of time and attention to detail.

Here are 10 tips for creating better project plan timelines.

1. Take All Factors into Consideration 

The best way to plan for a project is to think ahead about all the factors that could impact the timeline. After the project and design are approved, Dan Uribe, owner of JC Daniel Construction in Livermore, Calif., recommends outlining major general timeline factors, such as material selection and availability, types of trades required, availability of labor, an installation schedule, and inspection.

Because each factor involves its own various subcategories and there are many other factors depending on the project, any one factor can affect the other, Uribe says. However, once you've established every factor, you can estimate a start and end date for the project.

2. Do a Risk Assessment

It's important to forecast the risks involved with any precarious aspects of the project, says Connie Rayna, president and CEO of The Project Experts, a project management expertise firm based in Redondo Beach, Calif. This can include global market conditions and weather conditions.

For example, Rayna was working on a warehouse distribution center build out for a client in Minneapolis during the winter. The client needed barcode labels installed on metal racking. Although Rayna had previously used the same manufacturer and materials on other jobs without any problems, the barcode labels would not stick to the racks due to the cold. To solve the problem, Rayna asked the manufacturer of the barcode labels for alternate materials to get the labels to stick, which delayed the schedule and increased the cost.

To avoid schedule delays and additional expenses, Rayna says it is always important to ask: "What's different about this project that I need to know?"

3. Plan on a Learning Curve, Have a Back-up Plan

If you're using a new vendor or subcontractor, include a learning curve in your timelines. Rayna also recommends having dependable backup vendors ready in cases of emergency. Rayna notifies the backup vendors that they're an alternate vendor, then provides them with the project schedule should they need it in the future.

4. Expect the Unexpected

Unexpected disruptions like worker strikes or nasty weather can have a great impact on a project's timeline. Based on her previous experiences, Rayna now goes out onsite and researches different types of weather patterns to prepare for any potential problems. Be proactive and add extra time into to the schedule.

5. Prepare for Plan Modifications 

Project changes in design, material, scope of work and even code upgrades should not be considered delays, but extensions of the original project, Uribe says. He recommends adding an extra amount of time for the potential changes if the customer requests it.

6. Add in 15 Percent for the "Unmodeling" Stage

If remodeling, unexpected challenges may arise in the demolition portion, such as having to remove a wall. RD Hendrickson, a partner, general contractor and construction manager for The Modern Group in Scottsdale, Ariz., usually advises his client to have a contingency timeline and budget with a 15 percent addition to prepare for the possibility of additional work during the demolition phase

7. Expect Indecisive Customers

The fact that customers will change their minds mid-project is a guarantee, says Rayna. For convenience's sake, Rayna usually builds in an extra three days so that customers may mull over different samples.

8. Give Customers Notice

In the event of a delay or scope change, it's important to inform the customer before reassessing your estimate. "The customer should never be surprised," Hendrickson says. His company always gives the customer notice of any potential delays at the beginning of the project. Hendrickson tells customers he is giving them an accurate timeline for 95 percent of the job that they've planned out in pre-planning, but he always mentions a "5 percent chance that something will show up in the 'unmodeling' stage that could set the project back a bit," he says. While still reassuring the customer, Hendrickson presents the worst-case scenario that could apply to the timeline and budget. "(That way) they are thrilled when we complete the job quicker and not over budget," he says.

9. Provide Daily Status Reports

Once a project has started, Hendrickson recommends doing a daily field report to note which project aspects are complete, which are on schedule and which are running behind. "[The report] manages expectations and keeps everyone grounded and focused," Hendrickson says. Based on the customer's preference, Hendrickson updates the client via e-mail or by phone. He also provides photos, notes about jobsite happenings, and materials that have shown up or are due to arrive.

Daily reports are also important for liability issues, Hendrickson says. For example, if a client were to claim that you didn't meet the contract requirements, the correspondence can serve as a record that the job was completed within the set parameters. Hendrickson says his records have helped in three different depositions to settle a dispute out of court.

10. Track Important Data

To boost organization and improve communication with the client, contractors, subcontractors and vendors, keep spreadsheets or use software programs with off-site storage. Useful for larger projects, these programs allow you to track your schedule and target dates as well as set up reminders and share project photos with the client.

For smaller projects, consider using a simple, easy-to-use program like Google Calendar, where you can set up reminders and alerts. Hendrickson recommends Microsoft Project, which he uses to input all of his job-related tasks into a Gantt chart, a type of bar chart that tracks a project schedule via daily tasks.

The Takeaway

Although planning out a project timeline is time-consuming, Uribe says it's time well-spent. Investing time into the preparation process can pay huge dividends later on, when project tasks are quickly and effectively accomplished.


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