Is project scheduling a “fluid” science? Although the science remains the same, the approach and results have changed significantly with time. With precedence method scheduling overtaking the industry, combined with computer programming, two significant changes have occurred. First, more detailed scheduling has become increasingly practical with the compaction of the output. Second, is that with this added detail, schedules have become more increasingly complex, less stable when changes are injected, more difficult to test and prove out logic, and finally greater subjectivity in the logical application, meaning that there are several ways to reach a destination that may not be the route that best preserves owner’s options and or accelerates for the owner’s optimal benefit. 
All of these changes have turned what was a confusing report for many owners, into a nearly useless tool, impossible for owner’s to abosrb or use to strategize. Forget proving the logic, leaving the contractor to interpret this critical project instrument they produce and are evaluated by diminishes its value. 
For example, it’s much like being in a foreign country where you do not speak or understand the language. You are summoned to court and are given an interpreter assigned by the prosecution to present your position and provide you with critical information. This would not be a preferable circumstance, not because a conspirator environment exists, per say, but rather a misalignment of priorities. Your agenda would not be the first priority.
Owner’s need not be experts to assert better control for both the protection of critical options and optimizing the project outcome. Owners must, however, have an understanding as to what and where these options and priorities are represented within the project schedule. Here are 5 steps that you can take to exercise greater influence and control of your project’s schedule:
1. Ownership of the Schedule – It must be clear that you as the owner, who is the ultimate risk-taker and funding the “party”, own the project schedule in the sense of route mapping and cost impact. You may get some push back by contractors who find any involvement by an owner to be turf encroachment. This should be well discussed in a philosophical way during the interview and evaluation process. Remember the contractor will be your traveling companion for better or worse on a long journey where you pay all the expenses. Make sure you are choosing a team that at least has the flexibly to see your agenda as the primary objective. Contractors must own means and methods, and by proximity, believe, or at least behave as if they own the project schedule as well. You are paying experts to take your priorities and figure out how best to get to the final destination. However, the contractor’s offering is just that—an offering. You must understand how the route affects your options, the intermittent milestone dates, as well as cost impact. You have every right to affect the path dates or outcome of the project. But, remember, the consequences of those insertions can be problematic. Worst case scenario is when you discover that a decision you made cost the project time and affected the budget. This kind of situation is what makes being an owner intimidating, or at least frustrating. 
2. Owner’s Objectives – Be prepared to clearly identify what your objectives are via priorities, expectations, options, and outcome. These may all sound similar, but many owners assume that these are obvious because they should have organically developed during the planning and development stages. Be clear and specific. In track, relay sprinters spend an excruciating amount of time developing and practicing baton hand off because they know that these races are won or lost not only by the fastest individuals, but also by the team with the best mechanics. Construction is similar. After many months of planning, development, and design, along comes the contractor or contractors to receive the hand off with a relatively minimal understanding of the “intuitive” project plan and nuances. It is no surprise that they will almost immediately default to their own priorities, which many contractors believe are also the owner’s priorities. 
3. Prioritize – If you have properly modeled your project then you have some idea of what are your wants versus your needs. Everything in a project schedule has trade off values (e.g., acceleration will most always have an increase in cost, design-build becomes a shared or collaborative vision, fast-track projects sacrifice leveraged planning, etc.). You must understand your priorities. However, going into a project expecting that you will get everything you want with no cost or time impact will lead to an adversarial and disappointing experience, which, once finished will assure that most relationships involved will not endure. Those relationships that do endure will likely spend significant capital and time to recover. Knowing how your list is prioritized will allow you to make informed decisions when negotiating the project delivery plan.
4. Reporting Rules – Set the ground rules for schedule reporting. Preferably time and cost must be part of the same analysis and reporting. Many contractors will tell you that cost loaded scheduling will be expensive, which has some truth because it is more to manage. However, there are other ways to fuse the two together. First, the master schedule should include milestones, benchmarks of completed sequences. Second, these milestones should be tied to “burn rate”, the amount of project cost that will be consumed at each mile stone. A project that is on track, despite what the schedule says, will show the rate of consumption match up to the progression reported on the schedule. These cost milestones must be identified in the negotiation stage and not after the project is perceived to be lagging. There are other ways that this cost data can be a valuable asset in determining actual progress that we have discussed in other published guides. Another reporting method that improves your ability to follow a schedule is to include sub categorized break downs. When projects are broken down into smaller projects that are tied together, it becomes easy to understand the individual tasks. Finally, be sure that your schedule has a clearly defined critical path—the string of sequential tasks that determine the minimum time needed to complete the project, which, if affected, will delay your project. With these tools, there must be an agreed frequency of project updates. The master schedule should at least be updated monthly, or in real time if there are major changes in sequence, logic, or delay. Weekly short interval schedules, sometimes called look ahead schedules, are subordinate to the master schedule and should also be included. But beware, too often the project is built using short interval schedules that are created in the field and are devoid of any tie to the master schedule. 
5. Schedule of Values – The schedule of values (SOV) submitted by the prime contractor(s) should be carefully reviewed; this establishes both the rate of payment and the completion projections for portions of work. When used in conjunction with the payment applications, this will establish a contractor’s actual burn rate. Be sure the schedule of values and payment applications are being prepared and reflect the project objectives, not the contractor’s. I have found that this is generally a weakness in the industry. Contractors prepare applications based on their needs and maximizing the amount of cash received to minimize their own risk. In some cases, savvy contractors can front load a schedule of values enough to essentially work off owner’s cash. This becomes quite obvious when the remaining project work load and the remaining cost on the last application are seriously misaligned. We specially prepare all applications for our clients, so we know exactly what is in the application and if it matches the progress on site (i.e., burn rate).
As the owner, you have the right to question something that you do not understand. Ask questions and never accept, “that’s how we do it”, or any other platitudes. Everything in a schedule must have some logical reason for being there or it does not belong. Additionally, the sequence and logic must have a reasonable explanation for why it is the way it is. Do not be intimidated or afraid of sounding uninformed. You pay experts to do this work; they can explain to you why they have modeled their schedule a specific way. If you feel like you are encroaching, remember you are the primary risk-taker and it was your vision that assembled this team. You have every right to ask questions until you are satisfied that you understand the path. There is no dumb questions, only poor timing and or methods of asking. So, ask before committing, and ask sincerely. Most quality contractors will be happy to answer questions if they do not feel they are being attacked or being put on the defense. If a contractor can’t or won’t answer these kinds of questions, you are speaking to the wrong firm. Move on and save the grief!