The construction schedule is an extremely detailed management and communications tool, one that must work for all team members. This critical tool serves two important functions: It makes binding agreements with subcontractors; and it gives an owner a realistic roadmap of the process and sequence by which a project will be completed. Construction is a management task, and the schedule plots the path to successful project completion.

An authoritative yet evolving document, the construction timetable illustrates the project delivery sequence, itemizing the activities and duration of a wide variety of tasks to be performed by a large number of design and construction professionals.

Therefore, when the construction manager prepares the original schedule, as well as periodic updates, the whole team must provide input and give consent. The construction manager has many people and tasks to direct, so when activity-sequencing or start-dates change, coordination with the affected trades is crucial to meeting an agreed-upon end date.

With a fast-moving project, managing the schedule is a daily challenge. Four key elements can significantly influence the results: preparation, communication, technology and qualified people.

Preparation Some builders start work only after the design and construction documents are completed and permits are obtained. It is better, though, to become involved early in the process, sometimes long before the traditional design and preconstruction processes have started.

Management of the project starts on Day One. Tasks are identified, assigned and sequenced from the day the real estate people bring the deal in the door. Early team meetings with entitlement consultants and architects are key factors in establishing a realistic project start date.

When the proper blend of planning, design and management expertise is brought into the project at its inception, clients can realistically project how long will it take to obtain planning approval from the specific municipality, complete the entitlement, produce design documents, obtain a building permit and construct the building. And, working closely with the architect, the builder can ensure the design team will provide the level of detail necessary in their drawings for accurate and realistic budgeting.

As an alternative to the traditional design-bid-build approach, consider the benefits of preparing the schedule early on and submitting it to the owner long before the actual design and construction documents are completed. Efficiencies and economies are gained through the selection of alternative systems and/or materials. Moreover, the owner will get an advance, realistic picture of his exposure and risk.

The schedule, a working document, should include all primary components such as timeframes and sequencing, costs, and submittal dates. A comprehensive schedule takes the standard elements and expands the scope to include activities of the entire client-consultant-construction team.

Communication The construction schedule must work for all players: owner, contractor, subcontractors and suppliers. Everybody on the team, from the superintendent on down, needs to be a good communicator. The prevailing mind set should be "Let's roll up our sleeves together, understand the goals of the owner and the scope of the assignment, and develop a plan of action."

Strong field management is a principal asset in successful scheduling. A fast-paced project cannot be managed from the office; it is a field operation. Team leaders need to work in virtual offices, using laptop computers to help communicate immediate changes.

Field updates should be downloaded weekly. Through a network link with clients, updates to the construction schedule can be passed along from the field to the office to the owner. This process eliminates the two things every owner wants to avoid: risk and surprise.

Subcontractors, too, must be kept informed about schedule changes. When the schedule is revised on-site instead of in the office, the revision is realistic rather than conceptual. Weekly meetings with subcontractors establishes and maintains job synergy.

By soliciting input from subcontractors, the construction manager facilitates a team atmosphere for each project. This type of approach encourages subcontractors to work together and becomes an integral part of the project delivery solutions, thereby bringing added value to any project.

Update meetings can provide a rolling, three-week look ahead. They can magnify progresson the job, enabling the transition from big-picture scheduling - the overall project - to specific detail within a single portion of the project.

These meetings also help identify the need for extra manpower and provide the means for early identification of time loss and gain. If time is lost, the team can work together to recapture the loss. If there is a gain, team members can discuss how to use it beneficially.

Technology In today's fast-paced environment, availability of current and reliable information is key. Fortunately, technology can bring communication of construction progress as close to real time as possible.

One software program, called Prolog Manager, is a helpful tool for communicating job status. This Windows-based program provides updates on all project details, including contract management and modifications, costs and budgets, engineering issues, and superintendent concerns.

In addition, SureTrak and Primavera are two Critical Path Method scheduling software programs, which aid in project management and are used to augment Prolog.

Technology is not only efficient, but it can swiftly resolve issues that could take weeks of traditional problem-solving. Use of digital cameras can provide a picture of a problem that can be e-mailed to the owner and design team, thus communicating the situation accurately.

Another benefit of Prolog is its ability to include digital photos, which could ultimately serve as an important historical tool. If Prolog is on a company's network server, it can be easily accessed from the field to visually review procedures that have previously solved a similar problem.

Although job complexity can vary significantly, project prototypes can be created from existing databases. Standard industry software can serve as the basis for development of customized scheduling and estimating templates that are used in the bid process. After start-up, this bidding prototype evolves into a series of working documents that are updated weekly through project completion.

For example, if a construction company is awarded a major project like building a 30-plex movie theater, it could provide local subcontractors a template that communicates the complexity and scope of the job. Good management is letting subcontractors know the goals up front.

People Volume builders that do national roll-outs often face challenges because manpower resources vary greatly by region. Some trades are limited or even nonexistent.

But a good reputation for managing the job authoritatively and working productively with the subcontracting community can generate a contingency of trades willing to follow a contractor from job to job. A contractor's ability to maintain local and regional relationships with various subcontractors in a busy market is critical to delivering a quality job in a timely fashion.

The effective builder helps in managing the whole team. More and more, a large part of the contractor's responsibility is acting as a team builder, putting together an expanded group of professionals that offer a comprehensive array of services for project delivery.

Through the use of specialized management skills and specific communications tools, construction programs can be initiated and managed successfully. Key to this process is the schedule, which benefits the client from project inception to completion.