All electrical projects start with a schedule or, at the very least, some basic milestone dates. Meeting these dates is the simple, strategic goal of any project. Keeping the project on that schedule and hitting each and every milestone along the way is the hard part. Keeping your job on track is not that difficult; however, you must make certain weekly and daily processes second nature in order to consistently achieve success.

Sounds simple, right? If this process is so straightforward, then why do so many electrical projects run into problems? This is a great question, and the answer might surprise you. One problem is most training courses on scheduling typically focus on strategy. Because it's difficult for a college to charge large fees for a class to teach you how to manage details, it's far flashier for them to make a course, give a speech, or write a book about big-picture, strategic issues. Although strategy is obviously important, the devil really is in the details when it comes to electrical project management. If you pay closer attention to details, you can almost guarantee improved performance on future projects. Because even the grandest project can depend on the smallest of components for success, it's important to visualize a systematic approach, outlined on the following pages.

Communication, feedback, and detail management

The critical path method (CPM) schedule or general project milestones are where the entire process begins. Taking a look at the activities shown on the CPM schedule over a three-week period on a typical project, you should break these activities down into details, making note of specific responsibilities, manpower needs, etc.

For starters, meet with the entire project team on a weekly basis to review the three-week schedule, make any adjustments, and get everyone to agree to deliverables. Every day, walk the job with a notepad, jotting down every little detail you can think of that might be necessary to meet or beat the three-week schedule. Consolidate your notes into one detailed list with responsibilities and a notes column. From this list, create material and equipment lists and installation detail drawings that are missing, etc. Distribute this information to everyone on the project, and get their feedback daily.

Based on this feedback, summarize completed tasks as well as those items that did not get finished. Ask yourself key questions, such as: Why didn't they get completed? What effect will this have on the project? How will you get things back on track? Once all of this is done, it's time to start over.

Unfortunately, this is where the process usually breaks down for most people. Anyone can get off to a good start, but then reality sets in. Project challenges inevitably take over, causing you to miss one day — or maybe two. Then there's no time to update the three-week schedule, resulting in the project getting off track. Although the process seems tedious, the best advice is to never miss a day of documentation (click here to see Fig. 1) — ever! Now that you have a grasp of the overall theory behind this approach, let's walk through the specific key steps that will help get your project back on track.

The CPM project schedule

There are dozens of books you can buy and classes you can take related to building a schedule. For more details on how an electrical contractor can work with the project schedule, see “Top 10 Steps to Schedule Management” on page C22 of EC&M's March 2008 issue.

Although the details of creating a project schedule using the CPM is beyond the scope of this article, what is important to note is how to read through the schedule and pick out activities that are critical for your work. Activities shown with red bars fall on the critical path for the project. These activities must be started and finished on time. Otherwise, you'll miss the project completion date.

It's also important to look at the schedule and pull out start dates for all activities that require long lead-time materials or equipment. With the start dates in hand, work your way backward, adding in submittal time, lead (fabrication) time, shipping time, and staging time. Make sure you manage the heck out of this list.

The three-week schedule

After construction begins, there are literally thousands of little changes you need to manage on a weekly basis. These changes are not reflected on the overall project schedule unless it becomes apparent that there is a significant difference between what the schedule says and what is actually happening in the field.

The three-week schedule is a valuable planning tool the foreman or superintendent uses onsite to plan out the details of the next few weeks worth of work in more detail than the project schedule, including manpower levels, work area details, and even task-specific information. Make the three-week schedule a key component of the discussions during your weekly production meetings that everyone understands.

The weekly production meeting

The weekly production meeting is the most important communication tool the foreman, superintendent, and project manager can use to keep the electrical project on track and to manage changes. Along with your daily job journals, notes from these meetings provide a large part of the historical record on the project.

Everyone knows not all meetings are created equal. They can either be a huge waste of time or enormously productive. A productive agenda followed up by good notes with action items makes for a successful meeting (click here to see Fig. 2). Most projects have weekly meetings hosted by either the customer or general contractor. It's your responsibility to bring up the issues at hand and make sure they are given the proper attention. Remember, the meeting agenda and notes will become part of the project record, so make sure they are accurate and specific.

The project action item list

The project action items (PAI) list provides much more detailed information about what you still need to do versus what you've actually done on a project (click here to see Fig. 3). Think about every time someone calls you on the radio or stands at your office door and asks you a question. Where is the material for this task? How do I get in touch with someone? How exactly did you want me to install it? If you try to answer as many of these questions preemptively when you are writing up your PAI list, you'll be amazed at the results. This might include keeping track of phone numbers, material locations, and installation details on your initial list. Then, make notes of the questions you get asked and improve your list the next day. Soon, you'll have more time to actually run the project rather than getting bogged down by busy work. The bullet points below describe how you might use a PAI form most effectively:

  • Job walks: Walk the job approximately every 200 man-hours, noting every detail you can think of by room/area. Your primary tools should be a legal pad, clipboard, and pen.

  • Make the list: If your handwriting is neat enough, you can simply assign some names to the list, make photocopies, and then distribute them to your team for execution. If your writing resembles chicken scratch, you'll need to transfer the information into an Excel spreadsheet. While you're doing so, think about who on the crew is best suited to which tasks, what obstacles may be holding the work up, and when the work should be completed. Although it seems like common sense, this exercise will get you thinking about all of the pertinent details.

  • Distribute the list: Once finished, pass copies of the list to your crew. Don't doubt the power of this step. Even average performers have been known to pick up their production when they have a detailed to-do list in front of them to go by.

  • Get feedback: Along with this list, pass out highlighters and blue pens. Tell the crew members you want the list back in a day or two with completed activities highlighted and non-completed activities noted in blue ink. Accountability prompts responsibility.

  • Documentation: File all of these lists in a binder sequentially. If there is ever a question about a certain task, who completed the work, or what roadblock prevented the worker from completing a task (sheetrock not being on the wall, etc.), then you'll have a clean record.

  • Start over: Now, with your binder in-hand, re-walk the job and start the process all over again.

Once you get this process down, you'll spend about an hour per day on these tasks. But don't worry, at the end of the day, your actions will reap benefits that far outweigh your efforts.

Daily job journal

Probably the most talked about piece of documentation you are responsible for as a construction manager, the daily job journal typically takes the form of a bound book, although recent changes in technology have prompted some contractors to switch to electronic versions (click here to see Fig. 4).

At the end of a job, this document should be the primary tool used to generate a timeline of the project milestones and results from your company's point-of-view.

Now that you are familiar with all of the small steps that can help you ensure a more successful project, it's important to also stand back and look at the big picture.

Systematic success

One thing many managers overlook in the quest for more effective project management is the fact that improving company performance levels is not about improving the work of top performers. Instead, it's about creating processes and systems that can help narrow the gap between top employees and the worst performers.

Most people do not think of the work they do in terms of a process with a series of individual, discrete steps. Star performers always have their own set of systems that work well, even if they cannot articulate them as a process. So when presented with a different system, their reaction is typically negative, because it does not have all the features or flexibility they are used to.

Unfortunately, many standardized project management system implementations have failed because of this very thought process. Don't let your company be one of these casualties. Contrary to what you may think, a company is generally better off if its top performers suffer a slight loss of productivity by adapting to a standardized system, because in the end this move will significantly improve the performance of everyone else on the team.

Brown is the founder/president of D. Brown Management, a consulting firm located in Lodi, Calif. He can be reached at david@dbrownmanagement.com.