Deadlines: Learn to Like Them

By: Ulf Wolf

October 2010


Historically, a deadline was a line around a prison beyond which a prisoner could go only at the risk of being shot.

By extension, you might assume that a job-schedule deadline is that prison line—especially if liquidated damages are involved—beyond which you’d strays at your own financial peril.

If the project slips behind schedule and the general contractor starts behaving frantically, deadlines can grow into nightmares. If, however, you see that deadlines are simply an outline of optimum project sequences plotted against time—taking the physical site limitations into account—they can be not only helpful, but indispensable to your success.

Let’s take a closer look.

How Many Deadlines Are There?
Naturally, the overarching deadline is a project’s completion date, usually set by the owner—or at his behest, by the architect. Sometimes the completion date is set in stone, say for a school that has to open its doors at the beginning of the school year, or for a new casino that has spent millions in promotions that announce a specific opening date.

Other times the completion date is more like a wish and may be open to negotiation between the GC and the owner before being finalized. In this case, a smart GC will consult his subcontractors before putting together a schedule, and a not-so-smart GC does not.

Charles Antone of consultants R.J. Kenney Associates, Inc. in Massachusetts confirms the wisdom of checking with the subs: "In order to establish deadlines, we always go to the individual subcontractors for their input, asking them for duration—how long is their portion of the project going to take, and with how many men?

"Once each has put forward his schedule and we all agree, we sign contracts and make them stick to it. The important point is that the schedule is based on contractor input, or it would not be real.”

Deadlines other than the final completion date are milestones that have to be met by each trade in order for the overall project to come in on time.

"There are a number of deadlines,” says Dennis McDonnell, vice president of T.J. McCartney, Inc. in New Hampshire. "Most projects are broken down into different phases or work functions such as electrical inspection, start testing HVAC systems, and drywall taping complete. A typical schedule breaks down into individual milestones by trade.”

Of course, there’s Sean Curran’s take on different deadlines. Sean is the president of Paragon Decorators, Inc. in New York, and he’s not alone in this view. "The GCs are rarely truthful about the actual deadline,” he says. "They’ll tell you the drop-dead date is Oct. 1. Then, come to find out, it’s actually Dec. 1.

"So there are at least two deadlines—the one given to the subs, and the real one stated in the contract between the GC and the owner. In all the time I’ve been in business, I’ve only run across one contractor who was actually upfront about it.”

Job Sequence
Most wall and ceiling contractors see five or six deadlines in any one project, outlining the job sequence.

As Brenda Reicks, vice president/construction coordinator at Jarco Builders, Ltd. in Iowa, confirms, "We have deadlines for each phase or section of our project involvement. There are deadlines for framing, for hanging the drywall, for taping and finishing, and also for EIFS, since we work the envelope as well. Also, in our case, we sometimes do gypsum floors, which means another deadline. These are normally worked out by the owner and GC, hopefully in coordination with the sub.”

Stacy Earhart, chief estimator/vice president of Fulton Interior Systems, Inc. in Indiana, says, "I work with at least four or five deadlines: the framing, hanging the drywall, taping, the ceiling, ceiling tiles and the envelope.”

The correct sequence reigns supreme when it comes to milestones. Since most of those we interviewed work both the interior and the envelope, as a rule of thumb, you’ll have to set at least these milestones:

• Interior framing complete.
• Curtain wall framing complete.
• Interior drywall complete.
• Taping and finishing complete.
• Ceiling grid complete.
• Ceiling tiles complete.
• Exterior cladding complete.
• Water/Fireproofing tests passed.

The sequence of these may vary slightly depending on how you interface and work with other trades, but each phase of the project that you own will have its own deadline.

From an estimating standpoint, Glenn Sieber, owner/chief estimator of Easley & Rivers, Inc. in Pennsylvania, takes a different view: "From my perspective, the deadlines I isolate are the bidding deadline, the project starting deadline, and the third, of course, is the completion deadline.”

Who Sets the Deadlines?
The general contractor carries overall responsibility for the project, and is answerable to the owner and/or architect. Therefore, the GC is the one who sets and finalizes all deadlines—hopefully, as mentioned, with input from the subs.

McDonnell confirms, "The GC lays out the schedule, sometimes with input from the subs, and then updates it throughout the project. Sometimes the owner has a specific and hard deadline, especially with public works, which the GC has to abide by.”

Curran concurs, "The deadlines are set by the GC. And they’re very aggressive about them here in New York. In fact, they will replace you as a contractor if you don’t meet the deadlines.”

How Do You Meet Them?
Perhaps it need not be said, but the primary requirement to meeting a deadline is to agree with it—sometimes referred to as buy-in.

You’ve run across the electrical contractor who is convinced that the deadline is impossible to meet (and who, in effect, is setting out to prove himself right). He’ll hold you up for days, weeks, and jeopardize the whole project. There’s a guy who didn’t agree with the deadline.

Conversely, those who do agree that the deadlines can be met will bring a can-do attitude to the job. They will overcome obstacles and solve problems to bring their portion of the job in on time.

Once a deadline has your buy-in, we enter the nuts-and-bolts of working things out to meet it.

For McDonnell, this means a mix of software and experience. "Our estimating software breaks out each work code with materials and man-days, and we compare that to what the GC is giving us. This way we can forecast how many guys we need to frame, to hang the sheets, and so on.”

Matt Van Hekken, chief estimator at The Bouma Corporation in Michigan, agrees: "A lot of it is experience. We get the man-days called for from the software, but the deployment of resources often boils down to experience.”

For Earhart as well, it also comes down to experience: "I lay the schedule out based on the man-days projected by the estimating software. Then I use an Excel spreadsheet to do the actual forecasting. At least half the jobs I work require detailed scheduling, and with the spreadsheet I can factor in our historical experience with similar projects to come up with realistic deadlines and crew requirements.

Tim Wies, president of T.J. Wies Contracting, Inc. in Missouri, concurs: "It’s all experience for us. As far as labor goes, our estimating software gives us both material and man-days. If the GC has given us a duration of 20 weeks, and I need 1,000 man-days to get the job done, I know that we’ll have to average 10 men per day on the job. And since the manpower needs run a bell curve, we’ll probably start out with two or three guys, and end up with two or three guys, and have as many as 25 people on the job at peak.

"Of course, we also have to keep a close eye on the weather factor. A winter project may have to be planned with job enclosures and heating.”

So, Who Owns the Deadlines?
The consensus is that at the end of the day it is the general contractor—who negotiated the job, and all its conditions, with the owner—who owns the schedules and its many deadlines.

Glenn Sieber puts it this way, "The GC is the one who needs to coordinate the trades. He sets the schedule in agreement with the owner and architect, and he is the one who is ultimately responsible for meeting the deadlines.”

Earhart’s take is that it is "usually a joint ownership between the GC’s superintendents and foremen, and our superintendents and project managers.”

Or as Wies puts it, "The GC negotiates the overall deadline with the owner, and once that contract is signed, the deadlines belong to the general. Once that is established, and we now sign our contract with the GC, by proxy and contract we now take ownership as well, and it is then up to our project managers to coordinate with the GC’s superintendents and foremen to get the job done.

"This coordination becomes critical if we are working a hard schedule with liquidated damages; the PM then has to be very alert and document any delays, and what caused them.”

Nine Women
It seems to be a law of nature that schedules slip toward the end of a project; at the front end there seems to be all the time in the world. But things invariably "happen” to delay various trades, be it weather, slow work performance, or materials that were not ordered or delivered on time—things that rarely, if ever, push the final completion date out, they only shorten the duration for everyone involved in wrapping things up.

That is when the all-too-familiar general contractor philosophy of "twice the men will produce twice the product” rears its ugly head.

In Curran’s view, "this is something the GCs do not understand—that doubling the amount of guys on the job does not necessarily double the work. Too many men on the job is inefficient, people keep bumping into each other and into the other trades as well—who may also have extra men on the job to meet their deadlines.”

Or as Sieber puts it, "You cannot make nine women have a baby in one month. Doubling the manpower does not double the output.”

Wies’ analogy is, "If the Queen Mary crosses the Atlantic in 30 days, how come 30 Queen Marys can’t do it in a day? That seems to be the GC question come crunch time.”

But then he adds, "Actually, I think the GCs are aware of the fallacy in their reasoning. They know that too many bodies in one room may not all even fit, much less work productively. But they cannot afford to consider that. They simply have to meet their deadlines, whatever that takes.”

Productivity Study
When you’re up against the "Nine Women” philosophy and ask for extra money to make up for the productivity loss, the GC may give you a blank stare, and will most likely not concede that you’ll lose money by doubling the crew or tripling the shifts.

A recent study will serve you well in underscoring your point of lost efficiency and productivity. Sponsored by the Northwest Wall and Ceiling Bureau, this study, Impacts to Labor Productivity in Steel Framing and the Installation and Finishing of Gypsum Wallboard, tested 38 separate variables generated by a committee of industry experts against labor productivity in a sample of 226 projects.

According to the report summary, "All of the major productivity variables tested were negatively correlated with actual achieved productivity for framing and the installation and finishing of gypsum wallboard. This study clearly shows that the presence of certain factors will result in a reduction in labor productivity in the steel framing and the installation and finishing of gypsum wallboard.”

Factors include things like extreme weather, trade stacking, crowding, over¬time, added shifts, changes to the work, crew over-manning, ramp-up/ramp-down, ripple effects, and so on.

The paper is summarized at NWCB’s site, where you can also order a full hard copy. Go to www.nwcb.org/publications.php?view=productivity.

Impossible Deadlines
Sometimes you just shake your head. There is just no way. This cannot be done by the specified date. What do you do?

Van Hekken suggests, "We let them know up-front if we don’t think a schedule can be met. Be vocal about that.”

McDonnell agrees: "Speak up-front. If we’re bidding a job, and they put forth an unrealistic schedule, we will tell them that. And if it stays unrealistic, we just won’t bid it.”

Wies agrees: "If the deadlines are really aggressive, we’ll factor shift-premiums into the bid. If the job will not pay for that, we won’t bid it.”

Then he adds, "Sometimes, you can measure a contractor’s savvy by the jobs he doesn’t take on.”

Deadline Advice
Here is some advice based on the experience of the AWCI members we interviewed for this article.

From McDonnell: "You have to be very proactive about it up-front; we are on the job almost until the end, and crunch time comes in the end. If we wait until then to speak up, it’s too late to handle it.”

From Antone: "You have to keep a daily, or at least weekly, check on precisely how many units are left on the project and how much time that is going to take. You know the production rate you outlined in your estimate and in your bid, and you also know your production rate in the field—based on this you can determine how you’re doing, and what it is going to take to bring in the project on time.”

Reicks suggests you "look as far ahead as you can.”

Van Hekken says, "Let them know up front what you anticipate for duration, and if you need extra time or money. Our philosophy is that we can always meet the duration, but we cannot guarantee the schedule since that is often out of our hands due to other trades.”

Sieber says, "Keep an eye on the weather. Some material costs can jump 30 to 50 percent during hurricane season, for example.”

Michael Ferenz, owner/project manager of Glenview Construction, Inc. in New Jersey, adds, "The key is to understand the whole project, the correct sequence of events, and how they dovetail with other trades. Correct sequencing is critical.”

Says Bill Stuhr, senior estimator and project manager at Stephen P. Donnelly Company, Inc. in Minnesota, "We don’t have a long construction season here in Minnesota, and that has bearing on what we do. Commitments to meeting deadlines has all to do with weather. A major snow storm can stop everything.”

Earhart says, "Most of all, be up-front. If the deadlines are unreasonable, let them know right away. Don’t just accept the schedule. Be proactive. Help them with what is more reasonable, and bend over to help speed things up.”

Pat Arrington of Commercial Enterprises, Inc. in New Mexico reminds us, "The project has to be constructible within the given time frame. You need to know that it can be done, including the time for things to dry and settle.

"Also, you have to see the overall sequence, and have some alternatives in your back pocket if your primary sequence doesn’t work out for you. I once ran three different areas during an airport construction, so that I always had somewhere to work my crew if something got in the way in the other areas.

"Also, remember peer respect rather than peer pressure. That’s how you get the project done on time—a cooperative, can-do attitude.”

Finally, Weis says, "Make sure you can meet the end date. Really look at the man-days needed, and don’t bite off more than you can chew. Once you sign that contract, you are now part owner of that deadline.”

Given a well-planned job, correctly sequenced and realistically timed, your deadlines become not so much deadlines as lifelines—milestones to meet in a joint effort with other trades to bring the project in on time. Without them there would be no coordination, no predictable sequence.

So, learn to like them.

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho–based Ulf Wolf writes for the construction industry as Words & Images.