If you're running a successful building or remodeling company,
chances are you've developed a scheduling system that helps you
keep your jobs on track. It may be as simple as a xeroxed
calendar or a dry-erase board. But if it's working, why should
you consider computer scheduling? Manual whiteboards and paper
lists might show you where a project is now, but computer
schedulers are like a crystal ball: They show you where you're
going. You'll be able to see what will happen to your
completion dates as job conditions change, and you'll know what
to do to get back on track. Some of the systems described here
also incorporate project management features —
automatic notification by fax or e-mail, budget and job-cost
tracking, and the ability for project managers to interact with
the schedule using PDAs or wireless pagers.
It takes a little discipline to use computerized project
scheduling, but the old excuse that "it takes a college degree
in project management" isn't true. While some products have
features that the typical home builder or remodeler will never
need, none is more difficult to use than standard business
software like Word and Excel. Greenhorn schedulers sometimes
make it harder than it needs to be. Scott Dixon, a builder who
created the online BuildLinks scheduler says, "The biggest
problem we have is convincing builders a good project schedule
doesn't have to be a detailed personal task list for everyone
on the job. If you schedule hundreds of items, you have to
maintain and track hundreds of items, and that's when builders
give up." The best approach is often to schedule the big
milestones, and let project managers and lead carpenters fill
in the day-to-day details using whatever methods they're most
Using these computer schedulers is really no different than
thinking through a project on paper. You select (or create) the
activities that make up the project; put them in order; assign
a length of time to each activity; plug in the resources
necessary to complete each of the activities (people,
materials, equipment); and finally distribute your schedule to
whoever needs to see it.
Selecting a Scheduler
In this article, I've reviewed the schedulers in rough order
from "advanced" to "simple." Simple doesn't mean bad. Some
products, like VirtualBoss, are simple schedulers but have
other project management capability that might make them more
useful to some contractors than more complicated products. But
in order to evaluate scheduling software, you need to
understand a few key concepts and how each of the various
products might handle them.
Project. For purposes of
scheduling, a "project" is a unique, one-time endeavor that
requires multiple tasks, completed in order, and has finite
start and finish dates. Building a house is a project, while
making a phone call is not — relationship management
software like ACT! and Outlook lets you schedule tasks but are
not project schedulers.
Task or activity. Tasks or
activities are the individual building blocks of a
construction, you often can't start one task until another is
complete. You can't frame the house until you get the
foundation done — that's a dependency.
Critical path. String all
your dependent activities together starting with the first, and
you've created a "critical path" or "CPM" (critical path
method) schedule. If you delay any one activity along the
critical path by a day, every activity that comes after it is
going to start one day later, and the finish date of the
project is going to move back as well. Some advanced schedulers
have tools to compare the original (baseline) schedule to the
Calendars. Even the simplest
schedulers reviewed here have some facility for excluding
weekends and holidays from your schedule. Advanced schedulers
have the ability to overlay separate calendars for individual
tasks and resources, such as "not available" days for a
particular subcontractor, or limiting deliveries from a
particular supplier to certain hours.
Task durations. The simple
schedulers in this article allow you to schedule only in
full-day increments. That could be a problem if you need to
track one backhoe on four job sites on the same day. Advanced
schedulers let you break down tasks to hours (useful) or even
minutes (not a good idea).
Lead time and lag time.
These are two of the most misunderstood concepts in project
scheduling. Most of the products described here make at least
some provision for lead and lag, but they might call them
different things (float, overlap) or require you to enter them
in different ways (numbers, dates).
"Lag" time is the amount of time you have to wait after one
task is complete before you can start the next — for
example, waiting for the concrete pad to cure properly before
you can start wall framing. "Lead" time is the opposite
— it's the time you need in advance of an activity to
set it up. Allowing six weeks to get a set of custom cabinets
is an example of required lead time.
Here's where it gets confusing: Lag times, which you would
think of as negative (as in "lagging behind"), are usually
expressed as positive numbers, while lead times could be
negative numbers: A +2-day interval means that you have to wait
two days before starting the next thing (lag), whereas a
2-day interval means that you could start two days
Constraints. Maybe you have
customers who live in Europe most of the year and will be
available to lay out their whole-house audio system with your
subcontractor only on two specific days in March. Or Grandma
will be visiting in the third week of May, so you can't
schedule your bank closing any time that week. When those kinds
of limitations (constraints) exist, they override all other
aspects of your schedule. Simple schedulers might let you
attach a note to an activity to indicate a constraint, whereas
advanced scheduling products like Microsoft Project or
Primavera SureTrak actually let you bind a schedule to the
constraints you set.
Resources. Resources are the
"who" or "what" that are necessary to complete a task. Simple
schedulers (QuickGantt, VirtualBoss) typically allow you to
assign one resource per task, or possibly a resource and a
budget amount. Advanced products allow you to assign multiple
resources, such as workers and materials and equipment, to be
tracked along with a single activity.
Resource allocation and resource
leveling. Just because you book the same electrician on
eight different jobs on the same day doesn't mean she has
enough employees to actually cover the projects for you. Simple
schedulers don't take resource allocation or leveling into
account at all — you'll be on your own to keep track
of who has the goods to get the jobs done and what the impact
on your schedule and budget will be.
But what if you had 100 houses in production in eight
different communities? Then you'd want your scheduling software
to help you out. Advanced schedulers have the ability to
red-flag over-allocated resources and let you analyze whether
it would be more cost effective to put more masons on the job
or let the project run a week longer at the other end.
Schedule "views." All of the
products in this article will show you your project information
in different ways, depending on who is looking at it for what
purpose. Advanced products generally offer more views than
simple products. Here are the common ones:
• List view. A simple list of what
needs to happen, one item after another. Simple
"clipboard-friendly" lists are often the best way to distribute
your schedule to your project managers and lead
• Calendar view. Familiar to users of
Outlook and ACT!, a calendar view places activities on a
normal-looking calendar, especially good for presentation to
your clients or for quick at-a-glance overviews of a
• Gantt chart. Named after
early-20th-century management pioneer Henry L. Gantt, this is a
special type of bar graph that shows not only start and finish
dates but also how activities relate to each other. Some
software products use a modified bar graph instead of a true
• PERT diagrams. Program evaluation
and review technique diagrams (also called network diagrams)
depict scheduled activities and resources as a series of boxes
that can be edited directly, a handy way to tweak your project
during planning stages .
Notifications. If a week of
freezing rain is making your framing run late, there may not be
anything you can do to make up the time, but at least you'll be
able to notify your project team and your customer that they'll
need to start, deliver, or move in at a later date. That can
mean printing, faxing, or distributing notices electronically.
Some schedulers have direct e-mail and fax capability; others
can save certain views and reports as web pages; and still
others have full-blown real-time collaboration capability using
the Internet or a wireless handheld device.
Even if the product you select is weak in built-in electronic
sharing features, you can always add a .PDF (portable document
format) driver such as Adobe Acrobat and distribute your
schedules and task lists electronically by "printing" them to
.PDF, then e-mailing the files.
Schedule and project
tracking. Electronic schedulers are designed to be
updated as the project progresses. All of the products in this
article will automatically recalculate all future activities as
you enter corrections, as well as provide some visual feedback.
Simpler products might change the color of a graph or diagram
to let you see what has been completed, whereas advanced
schedulers allow you to save the original schedule as a
"baseline," then compare the modified schedule against that
Some specialized products, such as CDCI's cPM, track not only
time but also money, correlating the amount of work you've
completed to the amount of money you've received, to give you
instant feedback on your current cash situation.
The scheduler you choose will depend on the kind of work you
do, the number of projects you need to track, and other
software you might want to integrate with your scheduler. I've
tried to organize the products in order from most advanced to
most basic, but keep in mind that even basic schedulers may
have advanced project management capability. And be aware that
including a product here is by no means a "recommendation":
You'll still need to do your homework, try out demo and
evaluation versions, and determine how any of these products
might fit into your overall business plan.Joe Stoddardis a technology consultant to the
building industry and a contributing editor atThe Journal of Light
Construction. You can reach him at
SureTrak Project Manager
Primavera Systems, Inc.
$499 for single-user license
Feature for feature, SureTrak Project Manager 3.0 is similar
to Microsoft Project, minus the web-based collaboration tools.
It's nowhere near as user friendly, though, and of all the
products reviewed here, SureTrak requires the most project
scheduling experience to use effectively. That's not
surprising, since SureTrak is the little brother of Primavera
Project Planner (P3), which is the gold standard for scheduling
big commercial construction projects like roads and bridges. In
fact, SureTrak can be set up to share P3 project files, ideal
for contractors and subcontractors who might have one foot in
the commercial construction world.
Primavera SureTrak Project Manager uses
the Progress Spotlight — the yellow areas —
to help the user quickly pinpoint activities and
For home builders and remodelers, SureTrak 3.0 has a few
interesting features. Every license includes a copy of Project
KickStart, a third-party wizard that walks users through the
steps of setting up a project schedule. Project KickStart can
integrate with ACT! or other contact managers to pull in
resources without having to retype.
SureTrak also makes use of Fragnets, predefined snippets of a
schedule that include activities and the relationships between
them, which you can save and reuse over and over. Progress
Spotlight is a one-click interface enhancement that highlights
a range of dates in order to examine activities and
Like MS Project, SureTrak can save views as web pages and has
the capability to e-mail schedules and reports directly to
Microsoft Project Standard
$599 for Project Standard single user
According to Microsoft, 75% of all project managers using
software use Microsoft Project. It's estimated that there are
five million users worldwide, making Project the de facto
standard that all other scheduling software can be measured
against. It has every feature discussed here, as well as dozens
more that you'll probably never need to use.
Despite the power of Project, Microsoft has made user
friendliness a priority, and the latest version is loaded with
interactive help and task wizards that let even scheduling
novices accomplish advanced scheduling chores. If you haven't
looked at Project for a few years, I guarantee you'll be
pleasantly surprised at how feature-rich and easy to use it has
become. Project ships with some generic residential
construction templates, or you can import third-party templates
such as those available from 9dots software
Project integrates easily with the rest of Microsoft Office.
Contacts (resources) can be fed from Outlook, Access, or Excel.
Tasks can originate in Outlook or Excel and be distributed via
Outlook e-mail. Word can be used to tag notes and do mail
merges. If you're using ACT! or any other contact management
software that can hook to Outlook, you can use those contact
address books as well.
A "PERT" or "network view" is a handy
way to see and manipulate activities and resources. Here, in
Microsoft Project, you can drag and drop to reorder your
schedule, or edit items directly in their PERT
One thing that distinguishes Project from the competition is
its use of "resource pooling"; it maintains a common database
of all your resources --subs, suppliers, equipment, employees
— across multiple jobs. Resource pooling makes it easy
to spot the over-committed drywaller or backhoe. Project is
also strong in the project-tracking department. You can create
a project baseline when you first set up a job, then compare
your progress to that baseline as you go along.
In recent years, Microsoft has morphed Project from strictly a
project management tool into a project collaboration tool,
allowing project teams to work together in real time using the
Internet. Of course, to use that feature you'll need a copy of
Microsoft Project Server ($1,499 for five users) and a
full-time connection to the Internet. If you don't want to set
up your own Project server, you can rent space on someone
(www.msprojecthosting.com) offers service
for $50 a month plus $20 a month per user who connects to the
account. If you don't need a fully interactive collaboration
site, you can share Project data by publishing static data (a
snapshot in time) to any web server with Microsoft Office
extensions installed, or you can save list views in Excel or
Microsoft Project's flexible "views" let
you put a lot of information on one screen. Above are a project
list view on the left, an interactive Gantt chart on the right,
and a resource leveling view on the bottom.
One thing missing from MS Project is support for handheld
devices. Project 2000 (but not 2002) can be synchronized with
PalmOS PDAs using a third-party solution called Project@Hand
(www.natara.com), but surprisingly, there is
no native support at all for Microsoft's Pocket PC platform.
According to the company, Microsoft has made the decision to
instead pursue tablet PCs for its mobile users of
(Note: For this article, we reviewed Project 2002; by the time
you read this, Project 2003 will be available.)
FastTrack Schedule 8.0
AEC Software, Inc.
$299 (PalmOS add $99)
At $299, FastTrack is only a few bucks more than basic
schedulers, but it has big-league features on par with
Microsoft Project and SureTrak. What's more, it's one of the
easiest schedulers to use and the only product with full
support for the Macintosh platform. For another $99, you can
add a PalmOS version for your PDA, which will synchronize with
the desktop version or work as a stand-alone.
FastTrack has three basic views: Calendar, Schedule, and
Resource. The Schedule view has both a task list and a Gantt
chart. If you don't like the existing views, no problem: A
distinguishing feature of this scheduler is its fully
customizable interface. You can add and move columns, rows, and
other elements to create and save an endless variety of views.
FastTrack has Excel-like calculating capability to define and
track budgets. Resources are fully definable, and each can be
controlled with its own calendar.
Like other advanced scheduling products,
FastTrack allows you to set different work calendars for each
resource in your schedule.
FastTrack can schedule and analyze resources across multiple
projects, a good feature for production home builders. Groups
of tasks can be rolled up into milestones on the schedule or
saved as "FastSteps" to be reused over and over.
FastSteps is a built-in scripting capability that allows you
to automate repetitive scheduling tasks or reports by grouping
together a series of commands. For example, a FastStep could be
created to generate and print a report of all unfinished
activities every time you update a schedule.
Builders running lots of simultaneous
jobs will like FastTrack Schedule's one-screen views. The
user-friendly interface is fully customizable.
Finally, if you're migrating from whiteboards, you'll
appreciate the "wall chart" printing feature that will tile
your schedule on standard-size paper.