Cross the Finish Line Upright and Smiling

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By Candice Rogers, Paladin, Inc.

In my 20’s, I considered myself a runner, even though I was more tortoise than rabbit. As twenty-somethings do, I made it part of my social life, forming a running group with some friends and even traveling to a few races. I never cared THAT much for the actual racing, but I enjoyed the trips and the change of scenery. Once, we traveled all the way to Charleston, WV, for a relay race that ended in the WVU stadium. Having passed by Mountaineer Field four times a year for 20+ years driving to and from my grandparents’ house, I was excited to be the anchor leg who would finish the race and hear our team name announced in that legendary stadium. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget.

Crossing the finish line for anything worthwhile is worth celebrating. That’s why we put on robes and tassels, smoke cigars, pop champagne, or have ribbon ceremonies. In our industry, we mark the finish line with Final Completion, the culmination of millions of dollars and manhours. Putting a bow on “The Project” is a lot like parting the tape with your chest at the end of a race.

Just like in my Charleston Distance Run relay, “The Project” takes careful coordination and smooth hand-offs between multiple players if it’s going to cross the finish line. While the debate rages on about whether Substantial Completion includes complete commissioning (it doesn’t – commissioning should extend past completion to incorporate user/tenant feedback for true effectiveness), our discipline still ends up running the anchor leg of the relay in most cases. Having carried that baton many times, I’d argue there are things we can all do better on that final leg.

While I think our industry does a very good job planning most of the project, we sometimes falter a bit when it comes to handling those unpredictable elements that inevitably come into play with the potential to cascade. Whether you’re talking labor issues, weather, equipment deliveries/malfunctions, contractor coordination, or even found conditions, they all can cause a lag. Throw in end-of-project deliverables (training, close-out documents, record drawings, functional testing, punch lists, attic stock, etc.) and deadlines can creep.

Some might say that the answer to all schedule creep issues is a “Contractor Scheduling thing,” but I’d offer that it’s a “coaching thing.” A good coach would tell your project team to focus on what matters:

  1. REASONABLE EXPECTATIONS: Owners may want it fast, cheap and good, but there is some truth in the notion you can’t max out all three at once. Owners need to rank those priorities for their team so we are gunning for the same finish line then hold us to it.
  2. CLEAR GOALS: Everyone involved in this race needs to know what it means to cross the finish line. If it’s not clearly identified and mapped out, confusion will reign and failure will follow.
  3. REALISTIC SCHEDULES: A timeline that doesn’t allow for corrections – both in Design and in Construction—is not realistic. Mary Poppins may have been practically perfect in every way, but Design and Construction teams are made up of real people working in the real world, so corrective action periods must be built into the schedule. (By the way, for most projects, the period between Substantial and Final Completion is just not enough time).
  4. SENSIBLE PACING: Most runners can’t sprint long distances and the average construction team struggles to catch up once they start missing milestones. So set a pace by establishing early and frequent milestones give you the best shot at adjusting sequence and labor force then finishing on time.
  5. SPECIFIC MILESTONES: The complexity of MEP systems can multiply exponentially because these equipment-related elements are dynamic, programmed, networked, and typically procured separately. We can avoid most MEP overages by creating sensible, specific MEP milestones and holding teams to them. A great tool for unearthing these milestones is reverse phase scheduling, which can give visibility on key triggering events like ductwork testing, permanent power, equipment start-ups, and building flush out. Putting these into our schedules, planning towards them, and understanding their interdependence will lead to success.
  6. EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION: These days, pretty much everyone is “over-meeting’d” so the answer isn’t MORE meetings, it’s better meetings focused on the right issues. Are we passively discussing the things to come or are we planning together for the things we need? Are we coming prepared to discuss needs and obstacles? Are we up to date on our To Do Lists? The way we use that meeting time can change the outcome of “The Project.”
  7. FINISH STRONG: We’ve all seen runners kick it in on the home stretch then lunge to break the tape with their chests, and our teams should be no different. So, don’t let up on the administrative needs and the close-out until they’re finished. We all know the pain of unending punch lists, call-backs and close out documents, all of which is amplified by the duration (along with costs). The sooner you cross the t’s and dot the i’s the sooner you’ll break the tape and be drinking your Michelob Ultra with your fellow sweaty runners.

These recommendations are simple enough, but, like the running discipline, tough to maintain from start to finish. However, the thrill of victory (i.e. a building that works as designed and desired and the payoff that follows) is worth the work by the whole relay team. So, get ready to sweat together, manage the details and keep a strong pace all the way to success.

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