What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping?: Ghost Schedules on Construction Projects

One hand clapping

I just finished reading a report issued this past month by Navigant’s Construction Forum entitled, “Ghost Schedules – What, Why & What’s the Risk.” As one would expect from Navigant, the article was in depth, interesting and straightforward. I won’t attempt to summarize the article, but if you are intrigued by the concept of a “Ghost Schedule,” or if you have no idea of what that means, Navigant’s article is an excellent place to start.

Reading Navigant’s report, or “Research Perspective,” to use Navigant’s parlance, reminded me of an article I wrote over twenty years ago that had a similar other world quality. It was titled,  “What is the Sound of One Hand  Clapping, a Critique of the Collapsed As-built Schedule  as a Tool for Calculating Project Delay.”

While the articles differ in scope, both articles address the difficulties that can result from imposing artificial constructs upon what should be an empirical process. The Navigant article points out that  while there may be many reasons for producing a “ghost” as-built schedule, they are often driven by the concern that the updated project schedules are not being accurately maintained, sometimes due to owner insistence that an update will not be accepted unless it portrays a particular view of the “facts.” Of course, inconsistency can result from a variety of issues, including contractor regret. A “constructed schedule” (meaning one that does not reflect reality) may result from the contractor’s desire to reconstitute history or the owner’s insistence that the project schedule reflect its version of the facts before it is accepted. Or, the contractor may be producing “what if” schedules routed through tasks vulnerable to potential owner delays. Regardless, it is one thing to use a “constructed schedule” as a planning tool but a far different thing for an owner to insist that its version of the facts be incorporated into the project schedule. The latter, of course, leads to the obvious question – whose schedule is it?  So, what is an owner to do?

If the owner assumes control of the project schedule and all the risk of being wrong, the owner may swing in the end. If the owner allows the contractor to proceed with what the owner perceives to be a flawed schedule, the contractor may finish on time, or it won’t, but at least the owner cannot be blamed with interference. If the owner dictates the schedule and is right, the owner will get no thanks and the schedule will have little value. If the owner’s schedule turns out to be wrong, the contractor will have a built in defense .

What then should an owner do if confronted with a “project” schedule that the owner believes to be  contrived, or perhaps just flawed? Our suggestion is that the owner should not interfere with the contractor’s control of the schedule. In fact, we think that is the worst thing an owner can do. Even worse than termination. Rather, it is our suggestion that the owner “shadow” the schedule with the real progress thoroughly documented. Yes, that is another way of saying that the owner should create its own “ghost” schedule, updated no less than monthly and that it should share that schedule with the contractor. Why share it? Because it is just information and it might have a positive effect. After all, the flawed schedule may just be the result of a contractor error that can be corrected. The contractor cannot blame the owner for being wrong because the owner did not take over the schedule. Of course, the owner should carefully track and document the real progress of the work and, of course, the owner should get a good lawyer on board.

Yes, this is expensive. But it is far less expensive than trying to construct an impact schedule after the fact, with all of the attending problems that arise from an after the fact impacted schedule analysis.  What problem would that be?  Why it is the problem of “The Sound of One Hand Clapping”.

Contact me at rhughes@wendel.com and I would be glad to forward you a copy of the article.

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