How Robins & Morton got better with TimeTable

An ENR Top 100 Construction Firm uses R&D to improve efficiencies and reduce risk. TimeTable Visio is breathing new life into the old Gantt.

Daniel Fahmi Soliman
June 8, 2019

It sounds like clickbait, I know, but hear me out. Construction is big business – it represents about 6% of the U.S.'s gross domestic product, so making a small change can lead to big savings, reduced risk, and better communication.

Robins & Morton, a Top 100 Contractor in Engineering News-Record magazine, specializes in healthcare construction. They rank third in the country for healthcare construction in Modern Healthcare magazine, and tout an impressive 80% repeat business statistic. Full disclosure, Robins & Morton is the parent company of Buildfore, so yes, we're proud.

CPM scheduling is typically accomplished by using project management software like Oracle's Primavera P6, Microsoft Project, or Asta PowerProject. The reason Robins & Morton doesn't always use CPM schedules is straightforward: the Gantt chart. They find that Gantt charts are difficult to read, and really provided no value to the project stakeholders. Keep in mind, we’re talking about Gantt charts here, not the CPM scheduling practice. As a result, Robins & Morton has been using what they call "Visio Schedules." These are diagrams created in Microsoft Visio that look similar to Gantt charts without the grid or sheet on the left, and where a series of tasks can sit on the same row.

These "Visio Schedules" are color coded, easy-to-read, and are generally plotted on large rolls of paper for trade contractors to read. Because of this, foremen and those without formal training in project management can read these schedules and have an understanding of where they need to be, when they need to be there, and what needs to be accomplished.

Even though this sounds like a great compromise, there are cons to the Visio Schedules.  Microsoft Visio is a simple diagramming software, so essentially these schedules are just pictures with no scheduling logic or data tied to them.

I've personally witnessed the creation of these schedules in action  ̶  project schedules taking hundreds of hours to create and maintain through the lifecycle of the project. For the projects that opt out of CPM Scheduling, they use a Visio template with a calendar, where they can adjust the dates and durations of activities. Then, they drop colored boxes to signify certain tasks. Usually, a series of tasks, are placed next to each other on one row. Arrows that represent relationships are linked from one activity to another. The process is methodical and can be an art or a science, depending who you ask, but using the computer to remember relationships or constraints isn’t a possibility here.

In a CPM, you can set a task to start when another task is finished, and the software will always make sure that’s true. When the first task starts early, or is delayed, the following task follows suit and so on. You can instantly see the chain reaction throughout the entire schedule. This means CPM schedules are fully parametric: it’s a smart, living document. In Visio, you get none of this. The Visio shapes are just that: shapes. Visio doesn't have the ability to understand the relationships between shapes at the same level as CPM software.

As seasoned schedulers are exposed to this process for the first time, their reactions are usually the same: it is a combination of, “this is just wrong,” and “this madness must be stopped!”

There’s a disconnect between clients that want a final product that is easy to understand and schedulers who demand a parametric schedule created with logic. There must be a way to satisfy everyone’s needs..

Buildfore, a new startup founded by schedulers at Robins & Morton, created a solution that bridges the disconnect. We created an installable Visio plugin that imports CPM schedules into Visio. The process is simple: the person responsible for creating and maintaining the schedule works in a standard CPM scheduling software, like Microsoft Project or P6, just like business as usual. The schedule file is then imported into Visio with the plugin and it automatically places shapes that represent activities into a timetable relative to when they start and finish. It’s a quick process, completing in just a matter of minutes on both large and small schedules.

Depending on schedule, 1 sheet in this format replaces about 9 Gantts of the same size

The plugin does more than just place shapes. It has a variety of settings to choose from. For example, the scale, or the amount of horizontal space a day takes, can be set; there are a total of 12 scales to choose from; you can also choose to show or hide weekends. Also, the plugin will dynamically color code the shapes based on the schedule data. There are a variety of other shapes that the plugin adds as well, like a shape that just shows a day count or manually added tasks.

The plugin is aptly named “TimeTable” and Buildfore aspires to not only make this type of scheduling a standard, but also transfer the name to the output.  This means, instead of using Microsoft Project to create a Gantt chart, you would use TimeTable to create a TimeTable.

TimeTable is being used on several projects at Robins & Morton today. After creating a CPM schedule in professional scheduling software like Primavera P6, the schedulers are exporting the Gantt Chart and importing into TimeTable. The TimeTable is then printed on large plots of paper.

The time saved is hundreds of man-hours per project but more importantly, the risk is greatly reduced. The number of errors is drastically reduced too. As an additional vetting process, some of the projects tie the CPM schedule to 4D software. This binds a project’s 3D models to the schedule, creating a 3D simulation of the construction process and demonstrating the validity of the schedule.

Robins & Morton is seeing reduced risk for jobs that are using Visio Schedules powered by a CPM engine. But that’s just half the story: before TimeTable because of risk or mandates by the contract to use CPM more than half of all Robins & Morton’s projects go the traditional scheduling route with a dedicated CPM schedule and forego a Visio schedule due to the additional work (creating the same schedule twice).

Now that projects no longer have that limitation, TimeTable practically automates the entire process, allowing many users to pick it up with virtually no training. The projects that are now adopting TimeTable to view and communicate the schedule are seeing more collaboration, input, and communication from trade partners and clients alike. This means better outcomes for everyone.

Buildfore recently made TimeTable available to the public and has seen contractors large and small embrace this new concept. For more information or to download TimeTable, visit our product page here.

TimeTable is a tool for schedulers and project managers alike that converts your gantt charts into a format that anyone can read and understand.

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