BY ROBERT P. MADER of CONTRACTOR’s staff
SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. — If you’re going to have an estimate bust, you’re better off knowing up front, Paul Stynchcomb told contractors Feb. 28 at the Mechanical Contractors Association of America convention here.
Stynchcomb of Bower, Kriz & Stynchcomb in Houston is an expert on scheduling and author of “Using MCAA’s Labor Factors.” He is also an expert witness on construction claims, so he knows all the standards that proof arbitrators and courts demand.
“How can you claim you were forced to deviate from a plan you don’t have?” he pointed out.
Every project must have a schedule and a contractor must superimpose his plan onto the schedule. Having a plan allows a contractor to better control labor productivity and thereby give himself a chance of making a profit. Every plan must contain enough detail to allow the contractor to make decisions and course corrections during the project.
Stynchcomb said he doesn’t know how a contractor can get along without a plan. Otherwise, how does a contractor know how many people he needs when, what tools they need and how much supervision they’ll require?
A contractor should set up a plan that’s customized based on how the firm is comfortable tracking its work, he said. Each activity gets a code. An activity can’t have a code that just says “HVAC,” Stynchcomb noted, if a job has 5,000 hours of it. The project manager should break a job down into units of work and measure productivity and progress through the course of the job based on those units.
The units can be geographic or based on duration or by resources needed. The unit must define the work to be done and confine it to a single trade. The unit must have boundaries, such as by floor, area, building or even by crew.
The unit of work should be anywhere from three to 22 days. If the duration is shorter than three days, Stynchcomb said, the project manager will be overwhelmed by too much detail. If it’s longer than 22 days, then too much time elapses to proactively fix any problems. An activity has to continuous — no stops and starts.
Once the PM has all his activities determined, he can list quantifiable resources needed to do the job, especially how many people. That crew number allows the PM to come up with a duration so he can resource-load the schedule, and match up his plan, the schedule and the original estimate.
Then it is time to get the foremen and superintendent involved. One way to do it, he suggested, is to have them re-estimate the job, then buy it out and value engineer it. That way, they have the scope of work down cold. The foremen can then take a set of drawings, draw boundaries and break the work into pieces. The pieces should identify the activity by system, location, building, elevation, column line or some other measurable identifier. The foremen should list the crew they need and the duration.
While the job is in progress, the percentage complete must be tracked against physical progress, such as feet of pipe. It can’t equal a computation of labor hours. Keeping track of labor productivity allows for creation of a labor performance report that’s a broad measure management can use to spot trends. If the curve starts trending downward, they can ask the superintendent what happened. A contractor with a solid labor productivity curve has ammunition against unreasonable schedule changes.
“You’ve got to make sure the labor curve dictated by the CPM is actually staffable,” Stynchcomb said. “If you can’t, that’s a notice requirement to the GC. Do not submit your OK to a schedule that you can’t staff profitably.”
If the schedule and a contractor’s labor requirements change, the contractor should get together with field supervisors and walk through the affected activities to review the estimated, planned and actual labor hours. He should make sure that the crews are writing down the right activity code, Stynchcomb noted.
The contractor has to identify the problem and it may be self-inflicted, such as lack or dilution of supervision or lack of materials and tools. If it’s external, such as changes in scope or unforeseen conditions, then the contractor must provide notice to the GC according to the contract terms.
If there’s a dispute about loss of productivity, Stynchcomb said, one of the best ways for a contractor to prove his case is the “measured mile” method, i.e., actual productivity on similar tasks on the same job.