As electrical contractors, you face unique challenges managing each of your construction projects. When you estimate a lump-sum or negotiated project, for example, you anticipate there will be an appropriate period of time allowed for the performance of the electrical work. You also have some expectations about the working conditions you will encounter during your performance of this work. These are the assumptions you will use to develop your target or bid price and/or use to conduct price negotiations.

Once the project is awarded, the real scheduling challenge begins, because normally a significant portion of the electrical contractor’s work happens near the end of the project (after most of the other crews have nearly completed their work). How many times have you encountered this scenario? Several other contractors have fallen behind on the project, so the owner looks to you, as the electrical contractor, to save the project by fitting your work into the remaining construction window. Whether your response is to put more electricians on the job or work overtime to complete the work, both of these options will ultimately be more costly than you’d anticipated during the bidding phase.

Fortunately, there are several things you can do to control your own destiny, avoid that big push at the end of the project, and minimize the cost associated with accelerated work completion.

Begin with the End in Mind

To borrow a good habit from Stephen Covey (internationally known organizational consultant, speaker, and author), if you want adequate time to finish your project work, make sure it is properly scheduled at the beginning. Having a good project schedule is like having a good map when taking a trip — it allows activities to be coordinated with others, enabling you to quickly identify the moment you’ve gotten off track.

In order to build a good project schedule, start by identifying all of the tasks required to complete the project (creating a work breakdown schedule or WBS). Then estimate how much time it will take to complete these tasks. Once you have established your WBS, determine when you can perform these activities by sequencing your activities with those of the owner and other contractors on the construction site. These connections become the “predecessor” activities that identify when to begin performing work such as rough-in or final fixture and device installation.

As the electrical contractor, you are responsible for making these ties between the electrical construction activities and critical tasks performed by the owner and other contractors. By doing so, you develop a deeper understanding about other trades’ activities, which, in turn, affects your ability to get your part of the job done. Here are just a few examples: structural supports that need to be installed before the cable trays can be started; fire-proofing activities that affect the electrical rough-in, mechanical, and equipment setting by other trades; roofing and dry-in for various areas. These activities can all become starting points for your work tasks that can be monitored along the way to see whether work is flowing as planned.

Manpower Loading and Project Flow

A well-planned project has a sense of flow, which will allow you to build up your crew and progress through the project with a consistent workforce. Knowing your electricians gain efficiency as they become familiar with the project site, develop working relationships with other crafts, and perform repeated tasks, your best strategy for developing an effective schedule is to encourage the other contractors to sequence their work in a manner that will allow you to flow through the project efficiently together.

Once you have developed the schedule, determine your crew loading by estimating the amount of work required for each of the tasks and where they will occur in the schedule. By anticipating the number of craftspersons required at any given point in time, you can build your manpower loading off of the schedule. If you find that you don’t have consistent manpower loading, move some activities around in order to establish a consistent number of electricians on the site.

After generating a schedule that will optimize workflow, enter your activities into the master project schedule to develop a “baseline” or plan. If you are using the same scheduling software as the owner or general contractor, this will be an easy process.

Proactively Manage the Performance of Other Contractors

Now that the schedule is built, how can you keep it from being diminished? Your job is to monitor the project’s progress against the schedule to make sure other contractors are completing their work in accordance with the plan. If other contractors fall behind, one of three things should happen:

  1. The owner (or construction manager) should require non-performing contractors to accelerate their work in order to get the project back on track.
  2. The owner could extend the project completion by a like amount of the delay.
  3. You could be asked to re-plan the work around a revised schedule. Obviously, if this schedule ends up speeding your work, then the additional costs associated with the acceleration should be passed on to the owner. Because you do not have a contractual relationship with the other contractors, your normal recourse is to file a delay claim with the owner or construction manager, depending upon whom your contract is with.

If you notice that work is not being completed within the scheduled time-frame, immediately bring that to the owner’s attention, letting him know what impact the delay will have on your crew. If this seems out of line, remember that business law is predicated upon the concepts of partnership and good communications. For example, if someone came to you six months from now and indicated that your delay cost them $10,000, you’d ask, “Why didn’t you tell me back when I could have done something about it?” That is precisely the way a judge or arbitration board will look at a delay claim — issues, problems, and claims need to be identified and communicated in time for the damaging party to correct the mistake.

Beyond the legal aspects of the working relationship, you need to realize you are part of a team. The key to good teamwork is in communications — identifying when things are going as planned and adjusting accordingly to current circumstances when they are not. When you are communicating well, identifying work-arounds and helping solve problems, you are being a good team player. Because 80% of the work you do tomorrow will be with contractors you work for today, you are establishing good working relationships that will contribute to future success.

Stage Materials and Tools

Borrowing techniques from just-in-time manufacturing, anytime you have to handle, inventory, sort, or move materials or tools/equipment on a job site, you’re wasting time and money. Because you have put the effort into developing a detailed schedule, you know when all of the tools and materials will be needed on the job site and where they should be staged. Therefore, you have the opportunity to schedule materials and tools onto the project site when and how you want them delivered and organized. This approach allows you to arrange storage areas and deliveries in a way that minimizes the handling of materials and equipment.

Pre-Manufacturing or Pre-Assembly of Components

By anticipating when various components will be needed on the site, you can consider pre-manufacturing or pre-assembly of components. For example, pre-assembly of luminaires and the use of standard conduit, wiring components, or modular wiring systems can reduce total installation time. Additionally, it can remove or translate a portion of that activity’s labor to different time periods within the schedule, which can be very helpful in balancing or leveling the workforce on the project site. Finally, it can allow the work to be performed in other locations — locations that may be more conducive to increased efficiency or production.

Project Contingency

How many projects end up happening exactly as planned? That’s why experienced contractors expect the unexpected. Good project planning means building some contingency time into the project schedule. Plan for the general contractor to be delayed by weather. Plan on delivery problems with your switchgear. Plan on the cable, which just arrived on the site, to fail its initial insulation test (which you performed on the reel) and have to be returned. By implementing proper contingency plans, you can anticipate problems instead of being crippled by them. Have work-arounds ready, such as making sure you have indoor work ready for the crew in case of inclement weather and building relationships with your suppliers that will motivate them to respond in case of an emergency or unanticipated situation.

Partner with your Suppliers

As your schedule gets tighter, you need to recognize that suppliers are no longer your suppliers — they are your partners. It is only through developing and growing these relationships that you get what you need when you need it. Be honest, have open dialogs with your suppliers, and share your successes and rewards with them. You are now a team. Neither of you will grow without the other.

The bottom line is scheduling a project takes time and effort, especially if it is going to allow you to pinpoint when each activity will be performed, integrate well with the other contractors, and be valuable for staging tools and equipment to the site. The key is remembering the amount of effort you put into your schedule is directly related to the value it brings you in the end.

Pickering is vice president of Davis, Pickering & Co., an electrical contracting firm located in the Mid-Ohio Valley. He can be reached at: cpickering@davispickering.com.