by Kenneth W. Andersen with Norma
When I was in commercial construction, I used formal scheduling
procedures on all of my projects. With formal scheduling, each
task or activity in the job is written down, placed in
sequence, and assigned a certain amount of time. Years later,
when I switched to residential construction, I felt that houses
were so simple a formal schedule wasn't needed. I decided I
could get by with a daily to-do list and a list of future
At first, things went smoothly with this approach, but before
long I found that materials were not arriving on time,
specialty contractors were not being given enough notice, and
in general the house was not being built in the most efficient
manner. All of this translated into more headaches and
frustration and less profit for me.
The question was what to do about it. And the obvious answer
was to formally schedule the house.
A False Start
Naturally, I had to do it the hard way first. I made a list of
the major activities required to build a house and purchased a
copy of Microsoft Project. But I ran into problems when I
started entering the activities into the computer. Sequencing
tasks was difficult because they wouldn't all fit on the screen
at the same time. Unable to see the big picture, I made
mistakes and ended up with a schedule that had flooring going
in after the closing date — not the best approach.
So I decided to go back to the way I'd originally scheduled
jobs, prior to scheduling software: I wrote each activity on a
3x5 note card and then taped the cards in order on the wall.
This allowed me to see the entire project at once and
understand how tasks related. It's the foundation for the
procedure I use today.
Begin With a List
Using my estimate as a starting point, I now make a list of the
activities — or tasks — needed to build a house and
write each one on a Post-it note. I use Post-its because
they're easy to move around on the wall (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. To schedule his jobs, the author
writes each task on a Post-it and then arranges the notes on
the wall. The tasks are color-coded: yellow for work
activities; blue for owner decisions; green for materials that
can be ordered without owner involvement; and purple for
interactions with the bank or building inspector.
Although I like to think in terms of building from the ground
up, I don't write the notes in any particular order. That comes
Each note contains the name of an activity and the number of
working days it will take to complete (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Each Post-it contains a
description of an activity plus the number of workdays the
activity is expected to take. The lines and arrows indicate the
order and timing of tasks.
I base the number on my own experience, conversations with
subcontractors, or records from past jobs. If I think roughing
in the plumbing fixtures will take eight days, the note will
read "Rough In Plumbing Fixtures 8D." At this point, I don't
care about the exact date the work will happen — only how
long it will take.
Build a Sequence
Once all the activities are written on Post-its, I tape a
large strip of paper (brown parcel paper works well) onto the
wall and begin to stick notes to it. The paper is there because
later on I will draw lines between the notes. My goal during
this phase is to put the tasks into a logical sequence. The end
result is a flow chart of basic activities: frame the walls,
frame the roof, install roofing, install siding, and so
Plan Ordering Tasks
After I've determined the basic sequence, I look at each
activity and ask myself what I need to have on site to complete
it. If the activity is "Install Kitchen Cabinets," for
instance, the cabinets will need to be ordered far enough in
advance that they are there when we need them. If the lead time
for cabinets is 60 working days, I take a Post-it and write
"Select Kitchen Cabinets 60D" on it. This note goes up on the
wall with all the others. Later on, I'll attach a specific date
to this ordering task — 60 working days before the date
that we plan to install cabinets.
Scheduling exact dates for ordering material may seem picky,
but in my experience, the main reason construction jobs run
late is that materials don't arrive on time. When they do
finally show up, the person who is supposed to install them may
be on another job. This is especially true of special-order
items and ones with long lead times.
To make the ordering activities stand out, I write them on a
particular color of Post-it. The ordering activities that
involve client decisions go on blue Post-its; when I look at
the flow chart and see blue, it reminds me that I need to get
the client to decide something a certain number of days before
some other activity can happen. The ordering activities that
don't involve client decisions — ordering roof trusses,
for example — go on green Post-its. Each ordering
activity is linked by number to a corresponding work activity.
For example, the 14th ordering activity I wrote down was
"Select Interior Paint Colors," so I wrote the number 14 on
that blue Post-it and on the yellow Post-it for the task "Paint
Interior." Tasks that involve the building inspector or the
bank are written on purple Post-its.
Break Down Big Jobs
The next step is to look at each activity and determine
whether it should be divided into smaller tasks. For example,
on a simple project, framing could be a single activity. But on
a bigger, more complicated job, framing may be broken down into
tasks like floor framing, wall framing, roof framing, and
installing exterior doors and windows. That makes it easier to
determine when to order particular groups of material, because
you probably wouldn't want all the framing, doors, and windows
to show up at the same time.
Once the project is broken down into sufficient detail, I try
to find activities that can happen concurrently. For instance,
I could schedule roofing at the same time as plumbing and hvac
rough-in. When activities are scheduled concurrently, the
Post-it notes split into parallel lines of tasks (Figure
Figure 3. Many tasks can happen
concurrently. For example, the electrician could be on site
installing electrical trim at the same time that the
tile-setter is laying tile and the hvac contractor is
installing air registers.
To avoid confusion, I draw lines between the notes to indicate
where they belong in the sequence of activities. There's
nothing unusual about scheduling tasks concurrently — we
all do it. The difference in my method is that I plan for it
consciously, which allows me to squeeze the maximum amount of
time out of the schedule.
If I don't like the way the schedule is shaping up, I can
rearrange the notes until I'm satisfied that the activities are
laid out in a logical way. Then it's time to calculate the
duration of the project by adding up the durations in the
longest line of notes.
Benefits for All
Once I know how long the job will take and have decided on a
starting date, I can attach specific dates to specific
activities. That allows me to give the client definite cutoff
dates for choosing things like fixtures, flooring, and colors.
And if the client is late in making selections, it's relatively
easy to document that extra time will be needed to complete the
Also, with a realistic schedule I can give specialty subs two
or three months' notice about when they'll be needed on the
job. If something changes beforehand, I can keep them informed.
At first when I started scheduling this way, the specialty
contractors didn't take me seriously; now they appreciate the
long notice. They know they'll be needed within a few days of
the original date and that the house will be ready for their
Putting together my first Post-it note schedule took a fair
amount of time, but after that I was able to schedule similar
projects more quickly. The greatest benefits? I've reduced the
total time it takes my company to build a house, and I can give
the client a reasonable completion date instead of just a
A Role for the Computer
You can run this kind of scheduling system completely on
paper, which is how I did it for many years. Recently, though,
I began using a computerized scheduling program — not as
a substitute for the process I've described, but in addition to
I still list the activities, decide their duration, and
arrange them in order on paper. Only then do I turn to the
computer. Entering the flow-chart information into a scheduling
program (I use Microsoft Project) is no big deal. I let the
computer do what computers are good at — crunch the
numbers. The program adds up durations based on the sequences
in the Post-it flow chart. Then, after I enter a starting date,
it calculates and assigns dates to each activity (Figure
Figure 4. The author organizes the
schedule with Post-it notes but uses Microsoft Project to
manage it. He inputs the job's starting date and the duration
and sequence of activities, and the program calculates
Using the computer also makes updating the schedule
easier because the program can calculate total duration and
change activity dates much faster than I can.Kenneth W. Andersen and Norma
Jean Andersen own KWA Constructors Inc. in West Fargo,