Schedule Compression: Invaluable Tool or Necessary Evil?

Dec. 4, 2023
To put it in literary terms, it is the Dr. Jekyll and Hyde of the construction industry—alternating between a civilized entity and the embodiment of evil.

Schedule compression. Within the construction industry, this term has a sort of dual identity.

For some contractors, it is a useful tool, one to be implemented sparingly but which can help get a wayward project back on track. To others, it is a procedure to be avoided at all costs, as it will inevitably lead to a decrease in resources, worker burnout, quality issues and, ultimately, higher project cost. To put it in literary terms, it is the Dr. Jekyll and Hyde of the construction industry—alternating between a civilized entity and the embodiment of evil.

Perhaps that’s a bit of hyperbole, but the fact is, it can either of the above, depending on how it’s used. In the fast-paced world of construction, time is everything. Meeting project deadlines, satisfying clients, and staying competitive all hinge on efficient scheduling. But while it’s a worthwhile goal, sometimes it just isn’t in the cards.

Perhaps the project schedule wasn’t properly developed. Even assuming a well-built schedule, there are various factors that can contribute to project delays that are out of the contractor’s control: weather, supply chain issues, project revisions, an expedited project launch are just a few. Yet whatever the reasons for the delay, schedule compression can be instrumental in getting a project back on the straight and narrow. Before taking a look at the pros and cons of this often misunderstood approach, let’s define what it really is.

What is Schedule Compression?

According to the Master of Project Academy, schedule compression techniques are applied if a project is behind the schedule. “The objective of schedule compression is to try to compress the schedule without changing project scope. Because, if a project scope has not changed, and if the project is behind schedule, you can meet the planned deadline only by compressing the remaining schedule of the project.”

If a project has over 20% compression, there is an issue, because 20% compression means you and your team will need to work weekends. If you are compressing even more than that, it becomes a resource issue where your field teams are expected to work more hours than there is actually time in a day. And time is one of those things that is most definitely out of our control.

There are two common compression techniques for getting a project back on track. While each can achieve the same objective, they take a slightly different path.

Fast-Tracking: This method calls for executing two or more activities concurrently for some portion of their duration, even if they would normally not be done in that manner. In other words, critical path activities are performed in parallel instead of series. It can be utilized without adding additional resources and without changing the project scope, which makes it an attractive option.

Crashing: In this process, the contractor adds resources to the project, which naturally translates to potential budget overruns. Consequently, it is advisable to crash those activities that will generate the highest level of schedule compression at the lowest added expense. It can even involve skipping or reducing certain steps in the project’s overall process.  

To put things into perspective, here are the major differences between these two methods of schedule compression:

  • With fast-tracking, you’ll reschedule project tasks to be tackled either partially or totally in parallel; crashing requires more resources to ensure timely project completion.
  • Crashing is going to increase project costs, while fast-tracking will not.
  • Fast-tracking increases risks, while crashing has no significant impact on risk.

Regardless of which method you decide to use, schedule compression carries certain risks. It’s important to note that none of the risks outlined below is meant to scare anyone from utilizing this approach. The truth is, it can be an effective way to manage a project—if done right. However, compression is often not managed appropriately, leading to over-compression and a negative impact on budgets, timelines, project quality, even relationships. 

Coordination and Communication

For that reason, the two most indispensable elements to a workable schedule compression plan are coordination and communication. Compressed schedules leave less time for exchanging critical information, resulting in miscommunication, confusion, and delays in decision-making; consequently, ensuring that everyone is on the same page puts both qualities at a premium. This can be especially crucial using the crashing technique, as the additional resources—especially human ones—create the need for even tighter coordination.

With proper coordination and communications, these pitfalls can be avoided or at least minimized. 

Resource Allocation: Compressed schedules demand careful resource management. Balancing labor, equipment, and materials within tighter timeframes requires meticulous planning to prevent shortages and bottlenecks. This tends to be a greater issue in fast-tracking, in which there are simply fewer resources to work with.

Increased Risk of Errors: Rushing through construction activities raises the chances of mistakes and rework. When schedules are squeezed, cutting corners can compromise quality, leading to costly fixes and delays down the line. This is primarily an issue with fast-tracking due to the lower resource level but can also occur with crashing when unfamiliar crews are working with each other.

Increased Costs: This is primarily an issue with the crashing approach, since adding resources obviously necessitates increased capital. And while fast tracking does not increase costs, working on more things at the same time can be stressful and cause burnout. What’s more, it can result in errors which ultimately requires working to be redone.  All these factors inflate project costs, impacting profitability and straining budgets.

Safety Concerns: Construction work carries inherent risks, and hurrying through tasks can compromise safety. A compressed schedule may force workers to take shortcuts, bypass safety measures, or work under heightened pressure, increasing the risk of accidents and injuries. This is especially true with fast-tracking, where workers are expected to do more without additional assets. However, in crashing, you can end up with “trade stacking,” in which you are asking workers to figuratively stand on top of one another.

Adverse Impact on Team Morale: Intense schedule compression creates a stressful work environment, leaving construction teams overworked and fatigued. Prolonged periods of high pressure erode morale, reduce productivity, and increase the likelihood of errors.

Contractual Implications: Failing to meet compressed deadlines can have legal consequences, including penalties and damage claims. Missed milestones strain client relationships, tarnish a company’s reputation, and result in lost business opportunities.

Quality Compromises: Time constraints may tempt construction teams to sacrifice thoroughness, leading to compromised workmanship and lower quality standards. Such compromises can result in performance issues, dissatisfied clients, and the need for post-construction fixes.

Overtime Presents Multiple Downsides

The overtime issue inherent in the fast-tracking method can be particularly detrimental, as scheduling overtime results in decreases in productivity. A recent article on the website Construction Analytics presents the facts behind the loss of productivity due to scheduled overtime. What’s more, not only does overtime result in lost hours with less productivity, but the cost of the overtime hours also actually increases. And that’s to say nothing of team morale, as workers who are asked to work excessive overtime on multiple projects become burned out and more prone to errors.

There’s a fine line between managing acceptable levels of compression and creating mountains of over-compression; crossing that line can lead to a project that goes sideways. Therefore, finding the acceptable levels of compression in a schedule is instrumental to project success.

David Hernandez is the head of US Operations for Elecosoft based out of Elecosoft’s Austin, Texas office. Visit the Elecosoft website at www.elecosoft.com. Follow David Hernandez on LinkedIn here.

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