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The challenge of balancing time estimates with actual time spent

29 January, 2023

We've all been there. We take on a relatively straightforward job and we provide the customer with a time estimate based on our best understanding at the time. But when it's time to invoice the customer for the work, we realize that the original time estimate is grossly exceeded.

We now have to decide between sticking with the original estimate or surprising the customer with an increased bill. The business person inside our head is telling us to invoice the customer for the full amount, after all, we only gave a time estimate.

But the customer minded professional inside our head is worried about how the customer will react and what the consequences would be. Skilled and experienced project managers must take into consideration a wide mix of uncertainties.

Unforeseen situations can occur due to external factors such as unfavorable weather conditions causing delays, material supplier delays or unexpected surprises such as additional demolition required. Even seemingly small things, like construction workers having to clear a building site from debris prior to starting work, can cause work to not progress according to plan.

These types of unforeseen situations are generally not included in site reports to the site manager but if they are, only at a very late stage in the project when time estimations are already failing. The immediate results of these types of lax reporting practices include actual billable work being done but not reported on and thus not included in customer invoices.

The result of continued under-reporting difficulties in planning leads to decreased productivity and profitability. Luckily, there is a solution. Using Buildbite’s easy-to-use project management capabilities, each active project is broken down into Phases and Tasks. Each Phase and Task can be assigned to a named builder or craftsman and the time spent working on specific tasks is easily tracked with Buildbite's Time Tracking and automatically compared against original time estimations.

The project manager can set up timetriggers for each time estimate and receive automated notifications when certain time thresholds are exceeded. This will give the Project Manager ample time to react and take corrective action in a timely manner.

The challenge of not knowing what was (actually) agreed

Construction sites are often very busy with many ongoing workstreams. Often, a project manager manages multiple construction sites simultaneously, each with its own building crew, logistical challenges and priorities.

During normal circumstances, specialist craftsmen follow the project plan they are given meticulously. However, there are situations when there is a need to deviate from the plan. These deviations may be the result of unexpected circumstances, but it’s equally common that the reason for these deviations is the customer.

Change requests by the customer are a common occurrence on a construction site. These change requests can vary from minor changes, such as changing the planned material, to changing the placement of fittings, electrical appliances or general building design changes.

At first glance, these changes may seem trivial. However, the one thing that makes these change requests challenging, is that they are sometimes only agreed upon verbally between the customer and the specialist craftsman (and not the project manager). Herein lies a major challenge.

The customer is rarely an expert in construction-related topics and is unlikely to fully appreciate the scope and consequences of their request. The outcome of these types of change requests is often an increase in cost, project delays and a difference in understanding of what was actually agreed. This can have a negative knock-on effect on the entire construction project.

Unless these change requests are documented, and explicitly agreed upon, the customer is often not willing to cover any additional cost that these changes may result in. Understandably, this is a common source of conflict and customer dissatisfaction.

Fortunately, this can easily be fixed. Using Buildbite’s chat and approval workflow capabilities, builders and customers alike can discuss specific tasks, ask questions and share information such as photos and videos related to the change request at hand. Requests by the customer can be converted to new tasks with time and cost estimates that the customer will need to approve prior to work starting.

The Project Manager has the additional ability to use the built-in strong authentication feature, leaving no room for misinterpretations between the project manager and the customer.

How capturing information for reporting purposes breeds trust

Managing a construction project can be complex and sometimes even confusing. To maximize productivity, many construction companies have resorted to managing multiple, parallel activities on the same building site. These “just-in-time” models are, however, vulnerable to unforeseen events. Successfully orchestrating everything taking place on a building site requires two things: experience and access to accurate, up-to-date information.

As an example, to make sure the construction site is running smoothly, a project manager must know when a specific task is expected to be completed before new construction material can be delivered to the building site. Construction material that is delivered too early (or too late) to the site can cause delays and even make some tasks impossible to complete together.

Unfortunately, the nature of the construction business is such that accurate time estimations are notoriously difficult to make. To make matters worse, many construction workers are reluctant to complete any kind of complex time reporting as it's perceived to be both unnecessary and difficult.

This lax approach to reporting has had a devastating effect on productivity and puts businesses at risk. Additionally, a lack of accurate reporting can result in potential future legal and financial liabilities. At Buildbite, we set out to make capturing information easy.

Using Buildbite, anyone assigned to a task can easily upload videos, and pictures and add comments to those tasks. In addition to being helpful to the construction crew, it also helps the business. The ability to easily capture and report all completed tasks is key to overall productivity, risk mitigation and customer satisfaction.

Transparency and accuracy in reporting also creates a culture of trust between the construction company and the customer. Customers are rarely aware of all the work that goes into completing a specific task and might challenge invoices they might suspect are inflated.

Inviting a customer to follow and to actively comment on work in progress helps to build a culture of transparency and trust that makes dealing with unexpected and unforeseen situations easier. Construction companies using Buildbite can use many of the built-in collaboration and communications features to both capture information and for sharing these with customers.

Using Buildbite’s time tracking capabilities, each team member in the project can easily track the time spent on a specific task. Each timestamp is also geotagged, meaning that the exact location of the person performing the task is documented. Do customers really understand the cost implications of their decisions? Most homeowners have a clear vision of what the end result should look like.

They might have looked for inspiration in interior design magazines or have used professional designers or architects to help them form a vision of what the end result should look like. However, very few homeowners have sufficient experience (let alone expertise) to properly evaluate the cost impact their design choices can result in.

To an untrained eye. two custom kitchen designs may look very similar but be worlds apart when it comes to cost. This may be due to the material but equally, be because of the time required to complete the build. Another example of customers struggling to appreciate cost implications is connected to change requests.

Minor changes made to the choice of tiles, fittings, drain types or appliances may require significant structural changes to the original plan and lead to delays, additional work, and increased cost. Unfortunately, providing accurate, ad-hoc, cost estimations on the construction site is difficult and estimates are known to be wildly off by the time the customer receives the invoice for the work.

This can lead to complaints and customers refusing to pay their invoices. At Buildbite, we want to do our bit in making construction projects free of friction despite the gap in knowledge between professional builders and customers. Bridging the gap requires proactive and transparent sharing of planned tasks prior to work commencing.

Using Buildbite, customers and specialists can easily share pictures, drawings and design ideas and discuss these in detail prior to work getting started. A specialist craftsman can use simple drawings to explain and visualize to a customer how a certain task would need to be completed and what the cost implications are.

By creating a change request the customer can be required to approve of these changes to avoid misunderstandings.

The challenge with observable progress in construction

As humans, we have a natural tendency to measure progress by observing a linear movement toward a predefined goal. In construction, we make estimations on progress by looking for clues of progress, such as how much time has progressed on a certain task, documentation of work completed and by visually comparing the current state with the desired state (often depicted in the form of a rendering or drawing).

However, in many renovation or construction projects, the progress of different work phases can be difficult to observe. Certain work phases and tasks require unproportionally long preparation time (with very few signs of actual progress) whereas certain tasks require significant time before work can resume (e.g. construction materials needing time to cure).

This seemingly slow progress and lack of visible progress can be highly frustrating for a customer and at worst lead to mistrust, micromanagement and overall poor customer satisfaction. At Buildbite, we understand that collaboration and communication between the construction team and the customer is key to successful construction projects and the foundation for building trust and transparency.

Using the built-in timeline visualizations in the application and the ability to capture and upload pictures and videos and add comments to these, customers always stay up-to-date on the progress of work stages even if there are no visible signs of progress on the construction site.

This ability to proactively keep customers informed has the additional benefit that project managers can spend more time managing their project team and less time responding to customer requests and questions.

The challenge of missing documentation after the construction project

Construction projects can sometimes be quite admin-heavy and the amount of paperwork, financial documentation and permits during a construction project can be overwhelming. This documentation includes everything from planning permissions, drawings, bids, details on what material was used as well as details on invoices and project plans.

Often, this documentation is created by many different stakeholders and shared between all parties in the project, using many different tools such as WhatsApp, email, phone etc. And to add additional complexity, documentation is often shared using many different formats.

Some documentation is shared in printed format, whereas other documentation is shared in electronic format such as pdf documents, excel spreadsheets, etc. And let's not even cover the complex topic of version control of frequently updated documentation.

All of this is making it extremely difficult for the members of a construction project team to always have the latest information at hand. But having access to accurate documentation during the project is only part of the challenge. Homeowners are required (in many countries by law) to store and maintain all relevant documentation relating to the construction project.

Any future construction project is relying on this documentation being reliable and missing or inaccurate documentation can have severe consequences - both financial and judicial - e.g. when the house is up for sale. It is the seller's responsibility to provide information that may affect the buyer's decision to purchase.

The ability to provide detailed documentation on all construction done on a house becomes important if a legal dispute arises after completion of the transaction. At Buildbite, we understand the necessity to keep all project-related documentation in one place.

All documentation related to a project is indexed and organized according to Project, Phase and Tasks and all communication and documentation are stored in the application. A homeowner can easily retrieve documentation on e.g. what building material was used in a certain part of the property and show photographic evidence of a certain task having been completed according to specification (e.g. waterproofing or electrical wiring).

In the case of property exchanging owners, having the ability to share information (if requested) increases trust between the seller and the buyer and dramatically reduces the need for detailed site surveys. It also speeds up the buying process and reduces future financial risks for both parties including insurance companies and banks.

The challenge with lack of instructions to complete a task

Professional construction workers take pride in the quality of their work. But sometimes, even the most skilled builders struggle. Sometimes, the reason is the quality of the construction material and sometimes the tools used for the task are not fit for purpose.

However, in many cases, construction workers struggle because they don't have clear instructions on how to complete a specific task. A lack of instruction can lead to ad hoc improvisations on the building site, slower-than-expected progress, and outright construction errors.

In the unfortunate situation that a construction error takes place, and a customer takes the construction company to court to establish liability, the focus will be on determining if clear instructions were given and if the construction worker followed these. These court procedures are very expensive, time-consuming and obviously stressful.

Buildbite is designed around the concept of Projects, Phases and Tasks. Each task is assigned to one or many individuals and task-specific documentation such as instructions can be uploaded to aid whoever is assigned to completing the task.

For example, when a project manager uploads necessary instructions to a specific task, the project manager can require that the worker acknowledges that he/she understands the instructions prior to starting. In rare cases the instructions are not clear (or well understood) by the team member, he/she can reject the instructions as being insufficient.

Not only does this remove any kind of ambiguity relating to instructions but it also means that the project manager needs to ensure that the instructions are available prior to assigning tasks to individual workers. This nurtures a culture of quality and accountability.

The challenge of two-way communication in construction

Very few construction projects go exactly according to the original plan. This is a normal aspect of any construction project and is not a sign of incompetence and/or poor planning. Being able to make changes "on the fly" and to implement these changes successfully (to accommodate for an unforeseen situation) is in fact a sign of professionalism.

Many of these change requests are stemming from the customer, although it's equally common that construction workers identify a potential problem mid-project and the need for changes to the original plan. As mentioned before, this is a sign of alert professionalism and a result of an open and transparent work culture.

Unfortunately, sometimes a potential problem is not identified early enough to allow for necessary remedies to be implemented and seemingly minor issues can result in catastrophic outcomes. For example, a minor change to prevailing weather conditions (e.g. low temperatures and icy conditions) may have a catastrophic impact on the health and safety of workers on a construction site. Project managers aren't always on the construction site in person and may be unaware that actions are required.

The whole project team must have the tools available to communicate and share their concerns and suggestions for improvement. But not only that, they need to rely on their suggestions being acted upon by the project manager.

Without an easy-to-use tool that supports a two-way dialogue between all stakeholders, these types of insights are easily lost and never actioned upon and can lead to employee satisfaction issues at best and legal disputes and physical harm at worst.

Not only can this lead to a negative reputational impact but also a complete shutdown of the business. At Buildbite, we want to empower open and transparent communication. Buildbite includes powerful communications capabilities allowing project stakeholders to discuss topics related to specific tasks. Because all communication is structured around specific Projects, Phases and Tasks, important feedback and information are easily shared between all included team members.

Additionally, the chat feature also has the unique capability of empowering users to convert chat messages into mutually agreed tasks. This means that feedback from someone on the building site (on e.g. a safety-related issue) can be converted into a task to be completed before work on the building site continues.

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