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Post COVID world may change value of schedules

In the post COVID world, most would agree very few things have been unaffected, more often than not the changes are significant. Some require retooling our paradigm of the very methods we at one time thought were essential to be considered working at the state-of-the-art level of managing construction projects.

The Critical Path Method (CPM) of scheduling has been used for decades and with the readily availability of computers in the 90's, CPM became a tool that was as fundamental to the skill set of a professional construction manager as a hammer is to a carpenter. Contracts were written making the development of a CPM the standard project management tool used to orchestrate hundreds of activities to enable the subcontractors and vendors to operate as efficiently as possible, with milestones and activity deadlines. Liquidated damages became more common, and most contracts used the CPM as a process for tracking what activities were responsible for the Critical Path being altered should an activity or total project be late being completed.

Owners, developers, large corporations with real estate departments etc. all loved the tool as a means to point the finger at the guilty party causing a delay, making administering damages easier because of CPM which could document the continuing fluid set of elements making up an extraordinarily complex large group of activities.

Updating the CPM schedule on a standard increment of time and distributing the document to the entire team when revised would provide a steady diet of updates for activities which theoretically would make subcontractors and vendors aware of the status of the project and subsequently where their responsibilities to mobilize and perform their respective tasks were projected to start.

Construction Companies began to employ full-time CPM schedulers to keep all their projects updated and distributed. The theory was widely acknowledged that this "method" and/or "tool" would spin the wheel of production at the highest optimal speed! While holding all the components accountable. Just when the industry had seemed to be implementing this tool more effectively...... COVID.

When the post COVID era finally began to appear on the horizon, no one thought about the possibility that the new culture (created by the entire country being shut down for an extended period of time) would produce an industry culture which could make the once standard way of doing business (CPM Scheduling) to become a potential dinosaur.

The reason for this phenomenon is the unique set of conditions produced by the COVID shut down. Employees working from home, the pipeline of raw materials frozen solid, construction companies which survived the pandemic financially now operating with a new paradigm about how long they could survive with the skeleton crew which got the ship through the storm, and products were simply not available at the pre pandemic levels, if they were available at all. An additional hidden issue was the dynamic of the American dream being reset, the idea of being supported by government stimulus checks changed the entire labor marketplace.

How does this relate to the CPM Scheduling method? I have found that in small to moderate size projects, from $500,000 to $10,000,000 in size, a CPM schedule is now, in many cases, a waste of time and effort. It's like trying to refine the cutting of mitered wood trim with an old rusty saw. It creates a lot of friction!

The challenges of construction today are consumed by the fundamental functions of getting drawings coordinated and completed, meeting the ever-increasing EPA regulations as well as new and more complicated local plans review processes and code enforcement. Lack of raw materials, lack of qualified subcontractors, who themselves can't find adequate skilled labor or materials. Inflation is like gas on a fire, creating fear of the risk involved in committing pricing on scopes of work to be performed several months in the future and the loss of confidence in the workforce makes those things even more scary.

The industry has become more risk averse, and it is an industry normally made up of risk takers. Those risk takers are now looking at opportunities with a post COVID paradigm. That means CPM Scheduling is often the last thing they are worried about. Some have realized that in today's world of material volatility in both availability and price along with the same volatility in the skill labor market means the new paradigm needs to be the opposite of what it was before the pandemic.

The legality and elevated level of accountability and risk which once was business as usual now are beyond most decision makers' tolerance of risk. The days of being comfortable with liquidated damages or long lead items being priced months in advance (because materials were abundant, and inflation was habitually steady and low) are gone. The result is today's world where the demand for construction exceeds the supply. Thus, inflation has again increased. Everyone in the construction chain is now finding their products in high demand, in such an environment risk is not required to obtain projects.

The dynamic of all these factors leads to a circumstance in which rigidity and over management of projects is obsolete. The key tool in that world was the CPM Schedule. It is one more clamp subcontractors and vendors don't have to endure or accept in post COVID America. In addition, I promote the paradigm that owners, developers and general contractors should realize that pivoting from rigidity to flexibility is the best tool to achieve optimal efficiency in today's post COVID world.

For example, being open to shuffle the sequence of activities because one sub's materials actually became available sooner than expected, needs to be an option without the subcontractors effected being paranoid because of liquidated damages or rigid contractual terms tied to a CPM Schedule etc. Obviously, sometimes such a change is not feasible physically but if it were feasible and could accelerate the schedule, the optimal results could be achieved because of flexibility versus rigidity.

This perspective obviously doesn't apply to defense contracts or building submarines or nuclear plants etc. where the activities are in the thousands not dozens or hundreds. The CPM Schedule performs at its best in larger and more complex projects where a computer can make the week-to-week changes required efficiently. That said, in the smaller commercial construction world using a CPM Schedule with a strong dose of cultivating cooperation and flexibility among the building team is worth considering as a critical tool to optimize the critical path!

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