If you're running a successful 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. So 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.

K.I.S.S. 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 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 comfortable with.

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 whomever 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 project.

Dependencies. In construction, you often can't start one task until another is complete. You can't frame 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 modified schedule.

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 early (lead).

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 “whos” or “whats” 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 multiple projects 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 carpenters.
  • 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 project.
  • 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 Gantt chart.
  • 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 baseline.

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, a feature that allows you to have instant feedback on your current cash situation.