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How to Choose the Right Construction Scheduling Software for You

by Diana Ramos on Sep 14, 2017

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Construction scheduling software can play a key role in keeping work on track. Using construction scheduling technology can greatly improve efficiency, information sharing, transparency, quality, and financial controls. However, finding the right tool for your needs can be difficult. A small custom home builder has a completely different budget and set of requirements than a contractor managing mega-projects.

This article will help you understand how construction scheduling software works, what it can do for your business, and how you can navigate the vast array of choices, including free scheduler software, that are now available. We’ll discuss some of the key considerations when picking a scheduling solution and walk you through how to find the solution that best suits your company. Finally, we include resources such as a decision matrix, templates, and free downloads. 

An Overview of Construction Scheduling Software

Construction scheduling software refers to a variety of programs offered by vendors (from the software giants to small niche players) that professionals use to organize, assign, and forecast work on construction projects.

These programs have been around since the 1960s, when researchers sought to use algorithms and applications to facilitate and improve the scheduling process. They appear in many forms, from simple, free tools to sophisticated and highly detailed multi-user systems, and also vary widely in the functionalities they offer. For example, larger construction management solutions often include a construction scheduling software component. 

By enabling more precise planning and optimizing the pace of work, construction scheduling software shortens completion times and results in cost savings. This increased efficiency helps construction managers coordinate resources and subcontractors, and spot problems early. On the ground level, this software helps foremen coordinate work on a daily basis.

For building owners, construction scheduler software brings a much-desired transparency into how a project is progressing and increases contractor accountability. These programs speed up the flow of information between building owners and contractors. More generally, the use of this software typically results in greater customer satisfaction and improved quality.

Of course, getting the most out of construction scheduling software means picking the software that best meets your needs. You’ll need to consider aspects such as the price of the software, the level of scheduling complexity you require, and the desired functionality.


Making the Case for Construction Schedule Software

Few construction jobs ever suffer the kind of delay and cost overruns that Boston’s “Big Dig” downtown expressway project did. When the mega-project was completed in 2006, it was eight years behind schedule and almost $19 billion over budget (or 685 percent), including debt service and inflation. Yet, even on a smaller scale, builders and property owners — whether involved with residential, commercial, or public works projects — suffer when construction doesn’t go as planned. 

How do you know if you need construction scheduling software? If you are working on anything beyond the simplest building project, you would likely benefit from using scheduler software.

Painful episodes -  a Tennessee family whose dream home is running years behind schedule or the rebuilding of the World Trade Center train station (the $4 billion cost of which was double the estimate) - make a strong argument in favor of construction scheduling software.

A 2016 analysis by McKinsey & Co found that cost and schedule overruns are the norm in major construction, with large projects typically taking 20 percent longer than scheduled to finish and running up to 80 percent over budget. According to another study, 65 percent of all projects over $1 billion and 35 percent of all projects under $500 million are significantly late or over budget. 

These miscalculations often mushroom into disputes, lawsuits, or arbitration. According to engineering consultancy Arcadis’ 2017 Global Construction Disputes Report, the average cost of construction disputes worldwide was $42.8 million, and the disputes lasted an average of 14 months. 

While there are multiple causes contributing to these inaccuracies, including change orders, scope creep, and weather, the McKinsey report says that the construction sector’s sluggish adoption of digital technology is a big culprit. “For example, project planning between the office and the field remains uncoordinated and is often done on paper,” the analysis notes. 

In 2012, the Construction Industry Institute found that only 5.4 percent of 975 light and heavy industrial databases met “best in class” predictability on schedule and cost.

“While it is no surprise that over-budget and behind-schedule jobs pose problems for owners, the CII report also concludes that projects under budget and ahead of schedule create a missed opportunity for owners because money set aside for such projects cannot be invested in other ways,” Engineering News-Record reported

A 2008 study by the Chartered Institute of Building, the world’s largest membership body for the construction industry, found that just 14 percent of respondents had used a fully linked critical path network — the centerpiece of construction scheduling software — to manage the sequence and timing of the work. 

How Schedule Software Relates to the Construction Process

To understand the roles construction scheduling software plays, you need to be familiar with the basic construction process. The typical construction project will pass through six stages: design, pre-construction, procurement, construction, commissioning, and occupancy.

In the design stage, you create, select, and amend one or more possible building designs to meet the requirements of the project. Pre-construction (an umbrella term for all activities that take place before construction actually gets underway) involves a number of related and consecutive activities, including design evaluation, value analyses, constructability assessments, and bidding for the project. Procurement is the process of acquiring the resources and services needed for construction.

Construction, of course, is the actual building of the project, and is typically the most complex and lengthy phase of any construction project because of the sheer number of moving pieces, both human and mechanical. Once you’ve constructed a building, it’s ready for commissioning, which is the process of verifying that all of a building’s systems are in proper working order, including the electrical, fire safety, and plumbing systems, along with many others. When owners and inspectors have commissioned and deemed the building fit for occupancy, people can start moving in to live and work.

Residential vs. Commercial: Increasing Scheduling Demands

Building projects are generally categorized as either residential or commercial, although there is sometimes overlap. On average, commercial construction projects are much larger than residential projects, and they’re subject to many more code requirements, such as wheelchair access and specific fire safety measures. Commercial projects include office buildings, government facilities, retail complexes, factories, and industrial sites. 

Residential projects include individual homes, developments of multi-family residences like apartments or townhomes, and neighborhoods of single-family homes or mixed-housing types. Builders usually construct commercial projects using concrete and steel. Residential projects are more likely to have wood frames.

The infrastructure is more sophisticated and complex for commercial projects. It may require elevators, escalators, parking, back-up power, internal cooling and heating systems, and numerous restrooms. As such, there are also higher degrees of redundancy built into a commercial project’s internal systems.

Therefore, commercial construction projects require more specialized and more expensive equipment as well as more specialized construction professionals. Commercial contractors farm out the work to subcontractors to a much greater degree than small-scale residential contractors do. By contrast, residential contractors may simply assemble a small team to complete a job. This means that commercial projects have many more moving parts.

On more complicated projects, there are a number of contracted parties. A general contractor is responsible for top-down coordination of construction and is the party directly accountable to the building owner, since that contractor successfully bid for the project. The general contractor of a project runs most of the show, making sure that workers complete the construction according to the design and requirements agreed upon with the owner. 

However, a general contractor may not actually perform any of the work themselves, especially for large, complex projects. Instead, the firm contracts out different aspects or parts of the project to a number of specialized subcontractors and then coordinates these subcontractors’ efforts. For example, a contractor for a house-building project may hire one subcontractor to excavate for the foundation, another to lay the foundation and erect the walls, another to put on the roof, and still others to lay electrical connections, install plumbing, heating, and cooling systems, connect the gas supplies, and paint walls. 

This knowledge is important because as construction jobs increase in size and complexity, efficient scheduling becomes more challenging, and critical if you’re hoping to finish on time and within budget. Having large, complex projects with many subcontractors means you have to know who’s responsible for doing what and when. You also want to optimize the use of equipment and other resources; for example, by clustering tasks that require a special piece of machinery you may have to rent for a limited period of time. 

Many of the tasks in construction are dependent on each other (you can’t paint the walls until you’ve laid the wires). This interdependency means that a delay in one task could delay all subsequent tasks. This is most likely to happen when there’s a delay in critical tasks, which we’ll discuss in detail later.

Knowing the characteristics of your project(s) helps you quickly identify the construction scheduling software that will be most useful to you as a construction manager or scheduler. Avoid software that is excessively complex or software that can’t do everything you need it to do. For building owners, the right construction software can offer an easily understandable snapshot of what is going on and whether the project is on track.

The Benefits of Better Scheduling from Construction Software

As discussed earlier, the primary benefit of construction scheduling software is more dependable forecasting. From that, the following other benefits follow:

  • More precise plan of execution
  • Proper sequencing of work
  • Reduced risk of unexpected problems
  • Higher efficiency
  • More productive use of labor with less time spent waiting
  • Streamlined processes
  • Better coordination with subcontractors and vendors
  • More robust budgeting
  • Agile schedule updating if conditions change
  • Quicker completion
  • Cost savings
  • Transparency for all participants
  • Ability to track key metrics and milestones
  • Greater ability to monitor adherence to contract specifications
  • Greater accountability
  • Higher quality
  • Increased customer satisfaction

Benefits of Construction Scheduling Software

The Construction Industry Institute analyzed building projects and found that the level of effort expended during pre-project planning had a 41 percent positive correlation with the successful completion of capital construction projects. 

For example, labor typically represents about 40 percent of a construction project’s cost, but studies have shown that “two thirds of labor time is spent waiting or looking for material, being idle, traveling, and other non-productive issues,” Rusty Haggard, a former Construction Industry Institute staff member, writes in a summary of other research. He says that by more effectively allocating labor, sophisticated planning strategies that include scheduling can reduce labor costs by 25 percent. 

So, while construction scheduling software focuses on a project’s timeline, it also creates a variety of project benefits by imposing greater discipline and promoting information sharing.
For example, to properly schedule a job using software, you need to have a detailed and complete plan for all the work and the order in which that work needs to occur. Engaging in this level of planning increases the precision of your timeline and budget while reducing the chances that you will encounter a surprise or forget about a critical aspect of the work.
Using software also requires you to do detailed planning of subcontractor handoffs and equipment allocation, again in order to improve coordination. A scheduling-driven approach allows for work to progress quickly, which can save money.

The process encourages dialogue among project participants, including contractors, subcontractors, and property owners, and yields greater alignment of expectations and information sharing. Once you develop the schedule, it’s easy to see when work is on track and to update everyone quickly if anything changes. Property owners and builders can track key metrics, which leads to greater accountability, easier monitoring of adherence to contract specifications, enhanced quality, and improved customer satisfaction.
In short, using construction scheduling software can be part of a strong, virtuous cycle of project benefits.  

Key Concepts in Construction Scheduling: Critical Path and Gantt

In this section, we’ll take a look at the key concepts embedded in construction scheduling software. If you’re a construction project manager or scheduler, you’re already familiar with the critical path method (CPM) and Gantt charts. If not, here’s a quick refresher:

A project’s critical path is the longest sequence of dependent tasks in the project, and is used to determine the project’s duration. The time needed to complete all the tasks on a project’s critical path (called critical tasks) is the shortest possible length of time needed to complete the project. Tasks on a project’s critical path have zero total float. That is, you cannot delay them without delaying the total duration of the project. If you delay a critical task, you push the project completion date back by an amount of time equal to the length of the delay.

The critical path method (CPM) is a project management technique for determining a project’s critical path and its constituent critical tasks. A construction project manager will break down the entire project into a series of tasks, put these tasks into a network diagram that represents how tasks are dependent upon one another, and then use the estimated durations for each task to identify the critical path and, thus, calculate the shortest possible length of time needed to complete the project. This length of time becomes the project duration.

The critical path method

Using critical path won’t eliminate delays and problems, however. On large construction projects (and even on many small ones) delays are sometimes unavoidable. Factors such as site conditions, scope creep, weather, equipment, and resources create unpredictability and complexity. And, since critical tasks on construction projects tend to be large and exacting, it’s not surprising that they can be susceptible to delays.

That said, imagine if construction project managers didn’t know a project’s critical path. When resource or equipment shortages arise, they wouldn’t know where to direct resources to minimize the impact on the project duration. If delays occur, they wouldn’t be able to predict the duration of the project’s setback. So, while employing CPM won’t make your project immune to delays, it can greatly improve the accuracy of your forecasting.

The critical path is the basis of a construction project’s schedule, and also the yardstick by which you measure the project’s schedule performance. Using CPM is therefore vital to achieving a project’s schedule and cost-performance objectives.

There is a variety of software available to speed and simplify the creation of the critical path. Construction scheduling software also reduces the risk of costly errors, assuming that you enter the task, duration, and dependency data correctly.

You can visualize the output of the CPM as a timeline or use a Gantt chart, which is a type of bar chart that represents all the tasks involved in completing a project, including where those tasks occur on the project schedule. It indicates dependencies between project tasks by virtue of how their start and end dates line up. 

construction timeline templates

Download Construction Timeline Template

Professionals have used the Gantt chart for over a century, which makes it about 50 years older than the CPM. However, it is used most effectively in coordination with the CPM to easily identify the critical path and critical tasks as well as slack times for non-critical tasks. Since the Gantt chart tracks all project tasks in connection with a project schedule, it’s also easy to identify the expected degree of progress at a specific point in time by drawing a dotted line down the chart and calculating the percentage of each task you’re due to complete. This makes the Gantt chart an excellent tool for representing the project schedule baseline.

How to Implement Key Concepts in Your Construction Schedule

If you’re planning and scheduling a simple construction project, you might have few enough tasks to draw a flowchart, go through the critical path method by hand, and create a Gantt chart on your own. To get started, check out this article on scheduling best practices by the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).

However, if you have a complex project, going through the CPM and drawing Gantt charts by hand will be overwhelming. In this case, construction scheduling software becomes critical.

Scheduling software allows a user to define project tasks and assign materials, as well as human and mechanical resources, to these tasks. As we’ve seen, you define project tasks to compute project duration. You assign materials and resources to draw up secondary schedules for labor, equipment, and materials. Most construction scheduling programs use the CPM to calculate and update the project schedule and then display the output as a Gantt chart. Taken together, these processes help manage the project at all labor levels, from the project manager to the foreman.

Which Construction Scheduling Software Do You Need?

By now, it has become clear that many types of users can benefit from construction scheduling software. The key is to hit the sweet spot between complexity and cost: Choose an affordable software that is sophisticated enough to meet your needs.

Writing for SoftwareAdvice.com, Eileen O’Loughlin says that potential buyers of construction scheduling software fit one of four typical buyer profiles: 

  • Project Scheduling Specialists: For these people, scheduling is a full-time job, which means they stand to gain the most from automating repeatable tasks. They construct and update schedules in extensive detail, and use specialized project management and performance measurement techniques, such as earned value analysis. They generally pick the single best scheduling software available.
  • Construction Project Manager: This person is also closely involved with scheduling, but scheduling is only one of the many complex planning and management activities they deal with. They’re likely to pick a construction management software suite that features a scheduler as one of many components. They may also prefer scheduling software options with integrations such as contract management and employee timesheets.
  • Desktop Schedulers: These buyers also work with detailed schedules, but they don’t have the same need for multi-user functionality. As such, they can work with simpler scheduling options than project scheduling specialists and project managers can.
  • Calendar Managers: Managers who don’t do scheduling for complex projects, and have only a few tasks with easily understandable dependencies can use freely available scheduling software or even a simple calendar app.

In addition to using the buyer’s guide above, assess how complex your project’s scheduling needs really are: 

Start by considering the typical size of projects you undertake and the number of subcontractors you work with on them. The larger and more complex a project, the more likely it is that you’re going to need multi-user functionality, mobile access, and the capacity to schedule a large number of project tasks. 

If you have many subcontractors, you’ll want to be able to export individual schedules for each one. Large commercial projects might also call for construction management software with performance tracking and reporting functions, so that the project owner can monitor cost and schedule performance as well as produce documentation in court, should a dispute with clients or owners arise. You may need automated reporting, since project owners have the right to include accountability requirements in their main contractor’s agreement.

In addition, consider the nature of tasks involved in a typical project. For large commercial projects or even residential projects with a number of highly similar units, you’ll want a scheduling solution that includes task libraries, which allow you to repeat tasks with minimal effort. Custom residential builders, for whom each project is different, wouldn’t benefit much from this feature. 

Finally, if you deal with multiple projects at the same time, you’ll want to be able to manage them in a single view — again, not a feature that your typical small residential builder is likely to need. Ultimately, know your requirements so you don’t end up paying a lot of money for something you don’t really need.

Considerations in Construction Schedule Software Selection

Below, we discuss various types of construction scheduling software solutions and consider a number of factors that will affect your decision-making process:

  • The Cloud: For most construction schedulers, cloud-based solutions offer the greatest ease of access, since users can reach schedules from the office and from mobile devices in the field. These solutions are generally designed to support multiple users, which makes collaboration and coordination much easier. Cloud-based hosting tends to be cheaper than in-house hosting due to lower start-up capital costs and the decreased need for in-house IT staff. For all these reasons, cloud-based hosting is the most popular current option.

    However, cloud-based hosting also raises questions of security that may deter some construction companies. Lastly, there’s the question of how easily you can transfer your scheduling data should you decide to move to a different platform (cloud or in-house) as well as how long such a move would take.
  • Mobile Access: Mobile access to schedules is a necessity in the field. Luckily, the lowest-cost scheduling solutions (online calendars) are actually the easiest to access from a number of different devices and locations. Other cloud-based schedulers run a close second, but you’ll want to check whether access on commonly used devices facilitates use of all desired functionalities for any given user. Is the mobile interface reliable and simple to use, or is it a hassle to conduct operations that users are going to be performing frequently? Does mobile access work well in the field? And, if the software works as an app, how quickly and often does it synchronize data?  
  • Security: Security is one of the biggest factors you’ll evaluate when weighing in-house versus cloud scheduling solutions. While scheduling information may be one security concern, think about what other information might be compromised should someone gain access to your construction management data. Some scheduling solutions feature integrated contract and bid management as well as employee timesheets and job-cost information. If you’re using an integrated management system of this sort, where would you prefer the hosting takes place? Also, who should have access to the system, and are these people trained to use the system to ensure its security and privacy?
  • Ease of Use and User Support: Construction scheduling software streamlines and expedites the construction process, but many programs have steep learning curves. If users across the organization are going to access your scheduling software, a sophisticated solution that’s hard to learn isn’t the best choice. Instead, leave the complex software to companies that can delegate scheduling to specialized staff. In addition, ask the vendor if they provide training resources for onboarding and how you can contact them for continued support. And, don’t forget to ask around the industry for the vendor’s customer service record. 
  • Cost: The cost of construction scheduling software is usually in proportion to its functionality, but the price also reflects things such as where the vendor deploys the system, what sort of customer service the vendor offers, and how many users or accounts you’ll need. If you need multi-user access, consider how many users you’ll have, the pricing model, and how easy it is to add or subtract users. 

Notes on Free Construction Scheduling Software

Cost control is paramount these days, so you should first explore whether you can meet your needs with free or open-source construction scheduling software. Some vendors also offer free trials or have free plans with limits on the number of users, features, or projects. If you need to add users or projects, you can upgrade to a paid subscription later.

If your needs are not complex, you may be able to make do with a simple calendar solution, such as free, shared, online group calendars. 

The obvious downside of online calendars, however, is that they only provide a simple schedule output because they’re not designed for scheduling complex jobs like construction. Therefore, these schedulers are only a viable option if your typical contracting job is small enough for you to enter tasks and account for dependencies manually, one at a time.

Typical Features of Construction Scheduling Software

If you decide that you need more than is available with free solutions, you’ll want to evaluate features and functionalities. The most common construction scheduling software features and tasks include the following:

  • Creates tasks and dependencies
  • Creates project schedules
  • Shows and groups related tasks
  • Shows scheduling conflicts, such as resources assigned to multiple tasks at the same time
  • Distributes information to team
  • Shows critical and noncritical activities and slack times
  • Visualizes the critical path
  • Displays a project dashboard for an overall view of progress
  • Automates charts and reports
  • Imports documents and images
  • Attaches documents and images
  • Formats to add shapes and symbols
  • Offers multiple project views (Gantt chart, mind map, assignment chart, timeline)
  • Provides the ability to see who is doing what at a glance
  • Has color coding to show late tasks, incomplete tasks, and warnings
  • Includes custom task libraries for repeated tasks
  • Creates virtual team lists
  • Customizes calendar views and the display of days and holidays
  • Enables site drawing viewing and editing 
  • Contains what-if planning and change orders
  • Includes document and contract templates
  • Gives mobile and app access
  • Allows management of multiple projects in one view
  • Offers export and print schedules for each subcontractor
  • Automates workflows
  • Marks with milestones
  • Shows percentages complete
  • Displays a live master schedule of all jobs running concurrently
  • Sends notifications

In addition, you may want a scheduling software that integrates with your accounting, customer relationship management, or enterprise resource planning systems. Some alternatives will also feature the following advanced functionalities:

  • Bid management: Quickly pull together subcontractor and vendor bids and sort through available subcontractors and vendors.
  • Contract management: Keep accessible records of agreements with subcontractors. This is an important feature if you’re working with lots of subcontractors.
  • Job costing: Stay up to date with running project costs and assess cost performance.
  • Permit management: Track application and permit information relating to electrical, mechanical, plumbing, and other systems.
  • Timesheets and Time Tracking: Keep track of resource use and employees’ hours.
  • Warranty and Service Management: Maintain records and get service.

How to Pick the Best Construction Scheduling Software for You

Now that you know the landscape, you’ll need to discover the right solution for your needs. Before you start shopping, make a list of all the features and functions that you expect to use. 

If you’re the sole scheduler, this list will be straightforward. If you’re looking for a multi-user scheduling solution, consult other users and determine their most important requirements. List all desired features and categorize them as critical or optional. 

While the sophistication of the tool will be the main determinant of price, other considerations that will affect the cost include whether you pick a solution with cloud-based or in-house hosting and how your company will access the software. Remember, though, that whatever the case, price should not be the only factor in your decision-making process.

Mobile apps and web access are now virtually non-negotiable functionalities, since users in the field need to access schedules frequently. Still, keep in mind that the user experience across devices and when using mobile data is not the same for all scheduling software.

Check out the quality and ease of use for mobile interfaces. Native apps tend to perform better than software that you access through your mobile device’s web browser. Test the speed and frequency of synchronization, and see how field conditions affect mobile access. Most importantly, check whether mobile interfaces make it easy to complete routine tasks performed by field users.

If the cost of construction scheduling software seems high, remember that improved efficiency and resource use can easily compensate for the expense. Try out a scheduling solution with an affordable subscription cost for a few months, and see whether it’s worth it. You may even be convinced to make an upgrade.

How to Evaluate Construction Schedule Software Options

To arrive at your preferred solution, do some online window shopping to see which scheduling applications most closely meet your needs. Most vendors will offer software demos and feature lists. Check out case studies of users similar to you. Read review site comments about functionality and user experience. Based on this research, you should be able to create a shortlist of options.

Next, ask construction specialists who have used the software about their experience. This may help you winnow down your shortlist.

At this point, you’ll want to evaluate the remaining options using some objective criteria. Using your desired list of functionalities, as well as other decision points such as price, quality of support, and user experience, create a decision matrix, and score each option across your selected criteria. Once you’re done, add up the scores, and rearrange your checklist in order of highest to lowest scores. You can assign a weighting for each criterion according to its priority level.

Construction Software Construction Template

If possible, arrange to trial the highest-scoring software option on your shortlist. You may want a few users to test the product out to get a range of impressions. The easiest way to conduct these tests is with cloud-based solutions. Put the software through its paces, and test whether it does what it’s supposed to do, how it performs in the field, and whether it’s actually an improvement on your existing scheduling system - only switch if you’re satisfied. You’ll see the benefits of upgrading or adopting construction scheduling software: more accurate scheduling and increased efficiency for your construction projects.

Improve Efficiency, Customer Satisfaction, and Quality with Smartsheet for Construction

As a construction professional, you know how often a project, be it a small residential or a huge commercial job, can run catastrophically over budget and deadline. Therefore, choosing the right construction scheduling software can mean the difference between success and failure. Smartsheet is a work management and automation platform that enables enterprises and teams to work better. Many of the world’s leading construction companies rely on Smartsheet to stay productive, communicate among far-flung teams, and document every step of the project. 

Use Smartsheet to improve work and project documentation, increase collaboration with proactive communication among project teams, vendors, and clients, and save time with accurate resource management. Create your project schedule and manage all aspects of your construction project in one central information hub. Toggle among Smartsheet’s multiple flexible, intuitive views - Gantt, Calendar, Card, and traditional grid - to view your project timeline and data in the way that works for you. Reduce testing and inspection errors, accelerate close-out time, and improve job satisfaction by maintaining transparency between client and site crew.

Discover how Smartsheet can help maximize your construction efforts today. 

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