A construction master schedule is a key tool, used in project management that helps planners and engineering teams plan and execute the delivery of a project.
If you’ve spent time on large infrastructure or civil projects in the past, then chances are you’re already familiar with what they are. But, if you’re new to the industry or you’ve recently started getting more involved with planning, then this guide is for you.
What is a master schedule, and why is it important?
In short, the master schedule (sometimes called the master plan or programme) provides a high-level overview of all of the work required to complete your entire project from start to finish. Within the schedule, you’ll usually find all of the key information, including timelines, milestones, resources etc. needed to track the progress of your project from start to finish.
These plans are essential to managing the project, as they provide a consistent roadmap that allows project managers, planners, engineers, and external stakeholders a visual representation of the project.
That kind of information:
- Helps highlight key dates
- Track performance
- Track budgets
- Highlight delays
- Helps the team to make informed planning decisions
Without a master schedule or some form of an overarching plan, it would be extremely difficult to know which actions to take next, how things are progressing, or if there are any major issues regarding time or cost.
What to include in the master schedule
As with most things, the specifics of the master schedule will likely vary from one site to the next. As you can imagine, the demands, length, and issues on one project can vary dramatically. But that being said, you’ll usually find some form of the following in most master schedules.
The master schedule helps identify all of the major activities that need to be completed to achieve project completion successfully.
Common activities that you might expect to find include: preparation, permitting, design development, procurement, construction phases, inspections, testing, commissioning, and handover.
It’s worth noting that all of the major activities on the master schedule are typically outlined at a high level and are there to provide a framework for more detailed planning.
Each activity in your schedule is assigned a duration, which represents the estimated time required for completion.
These estimates are usually based on calculations made from ‘first principles’ (using anticipated production rate of a resource and known quantities), but should also also consider risk, historical data, expert judgment, and known external factors, like weather conditions, resource availability, and site constraints.
When estimating activity durations, it’s essential that you try to get them as accurate as possible. That way, you’ll end up with a more realistic timeline.
Dependencies on your schedule help highlight any activities which are interlinked and that require something to be completed before work can begin.
These dependencies also help determine the critical path and show how delays or changes in one activity can impact the rest of the project.
Put simply, Milestones mark significant dates, on your project timeline that highlight key activities such as the start and end of the project, phase completion, and handovers.
Having these dates planned in your schedule provides you with a series of checkpoints, which can be used to monitor site progress and ensure that the project is on track.
While the master schedule focuses on the overall project timeline and major activities, it may also indicate the high-level resource requirements for each phase or activity.
This can include labour, materials, equipment, and subcontractors needed to complete the project successfully.
Resource allocation at this level helps identify potential bottlenecks or constraints and ensures that resources are available when needed. Costs can also be tracked by putting values against these resources.
Updates and Revisions
It’s important to remember that the master schedule is a dynamic document that requires regular updates and revisions as the project progresses.
As activities are completed or modified, the master schedule should be adjusted to reflect the current status. Unexpected issues, delays, and changes are inevitable in construction. But as these things arise, you can alter your plans to help get things back on track.
Creating the schedule
The master schedule is usually outlined by the owner, contractor, and architect during the pre-construction phase of the project. As mentioned before, the master schedule can vary greatly from one project to another - but the plans are normally pulled together and formed into some kind of Gantt chart using software like Oracle Primavera P6, Asta Powerproject or Microsoft Project.
Once the initial plans have been made, they’ll often be managed and maintained by a team of planners, which liaise on a regular (usually weekly) basis the Engineers and delivery team on site.
The master schedule can also be used effectively to provide a framework for the short-term lookahead plans. In this ‘top down’ approach, a small window of upcoming scheduled works (usually 4-12 weeks) is given to the delivery team to add further detail to the plans to enable planning to a daily level.
Benefits of the master schedule
By now, it should be pretty clear that a master schedule is an incredibly useful tool. If actioned properly, it will help you and your team track progress, resources, and potential issues. But the benefits don’t stop there:
Allocating time for activities and key dates helps ensure the project is on track and allows you to identify delays. In turn, you can then make informed decisions and take corrective actions to minimise project overruns.
Planning and scheduling the allocation of your resources allow you to plan budgets and reduce any over-expenditure.
By identifying critical activities and potential delays, schedules enable proactive risk management and help you mitigate any potential issues.
Above all else, a good construction schedule provides the whole team with a communication tool, which helps keep different teams and stakeholders informed about project timelines, milestones, and progress.
Maintaining the schedule with lookaheads
There are lots of different approaches to keeping the master schedule up to date. But one proven method is by implementing the use of lookahead plans.
In short, a lookahead plan is a more detailed view of the project which focuses on the coming weeks of activity. It’s a continually moving plan that typically focuses on the next 4-12 weeks.
Within the lookahead, you’ll find most of the same categories of information as the master schedule, i.e. timelines, planned activities, milestones, resources, dependencies etc. but with a much deeper level of detail.
This version of the plan is (usually) updated by project engineers on a week-by-week basis and is then handed over to a planning team, where the information can be fed back into the master schedule, where applicable.
To find out more about lookaheads, check out this article here.