In my travels, I regularly find companies with scheduling processes that are missing, broken or less than optimal. For design/ build companies, this always surprises me, since scheduling is such an integral part of what these companies do. Scheduling affects not only the customer experience, but many other aspects of the company as well, such as purchasing, human resource allocation, cash flow and profitability.
Before delving into the scheduling process, I want to say that changes will only be successful if owners and senior managers are all committed to adhering to them. Once you agree to the changes that should be made, it has to become the process going forward. If something isn’t working, you can tweak it, but not following the process — whatever the process may be — can’t be an option.
There are many options when it comes to scheduling: white boards, spreadsheets, software programs, etc. They all have pros and cons. You need to evaluate the options that appear to be a good fit for your company, and then commit to a process. You can change this process in the future, but everyone should know what the current process is, and should be committed to it.
1. Have a visual. One of my clients uses a large white board to brainstorm, make notes and map things out. It’s a nice visual, but there’s no way to access the information from outside the office. As a solution, my client used Excel to create a schedule. The schedule can be quickly updated each day, and then shared with everyone involved via email.
2. Hold weekly scheduling meetings. In my experience, a weekly scheduling meeting is a best practice. Ideally, the meeting should be held at the same time and on the same day each week. Holding the meeting on Wednesday or Thursday can make it easier to see if it’s necessary to work the upcoming Saturday, and allows time to get materials and equipment lined up. The weekly scheduling meeting should be attended by everyone who has a voice in deciding when work is scheduled and who will be doing the work. Begin the meeting by scheduling high-priority jobs and then fill in other jobs to fit the time frame. Schedule the current week and the following two weeks at this meeting. There’s not much value in scheduling beyond this unless you have jobs that absolutely must be done by a certain date.
3. Communicate schedules to clients. After the scheduling meeting, you should be able to tell a customer when their job is scheduled to start. Any time you discuss scheduling with a customer, be sure to mention that many things could change the schedule — weather, equipment issues, jobs running long, etc. — and that you’re not making promises, you’re simply informing them of what the schedule looks like as of today.
4. Stick to the schedule. Once the schedule is set, do everything in your power to stick to it. Scheduling project work is one of the most difficult aspects of your business due to the complexity involved. By not sticking to a schedule, frustrations run high. There are times when the schedule is going to get blown apart, but it should be the exception, not the rule.
5. Be flexible but keep the balance. Try to avoid squeezing last-minute clients into an already tight schedule. Your key people may be less inclined to say “yes” to these situations if they know what the implications are going to be on the schedule and how it will affect other clients. Sure, there is some value and benefit to be gained by sliding in work for certain people. It’s a balancing act. You want the schedule to be stable for the reasons outlined above, but you also want to be flexible and customer-oriented. If you’re too rigid, your phone will stop ringing, and that’s not a good thing either.
The reality is that your schedule will change (sometimes every day), even with a weekly scheduling meeting, due to changing priorities, weather, equipment issues, emergencies, etc. There’s no way to avoid this. Your scheduling process must accommodate changes on a daily basis even as you seek to minimize changes.
What is the state of your scheduling process? Are your employees frustrated? Are your clients frustrated? Do you feel like your schedule is out of control? If so, now is the time to regain control of your schedule with a documented, systematic scheduling process for project work.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in August 2014 and has been updated.