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7 min read

Pull Planning: Backwards Planning to Success

The CrewCost Team
Published May 10, 2024

Most professionals working in construction management have experienced this situation — The project starts off with a great schedule that was intimately planned during the preconstruction phase of the project, but as the project progresses, certain schedule dates are not met and that starts to affect other activities on the project. Things can go sideways very quickly, with delays, liquidated damages, and backcharges or re-mobilizations eating away at the budget and no solutions in sight for being able to right the ship and get the project back on schedule.

While traditional CPM schedules are great tools and serve a valuable function on most projects in the construction industry, they aren’t able to capture all of the dynamic conditions on a project. These changing conditions, on the site and within the capacity of the workforce, can quickly derail a project, unless they are handled differently. Enter the pull planning scheduling technique. Let’s talk about what pull panning is and how it can help your project.

Key Takeaways

  • Pull planning is a collaborative scheduling approach that involves all project stakeholders, empowering everyone from subcontractors to suppliers to contribute to the project timeline.
  • Unlike traditional top-down scheduling methods, pull planning starts with the desired outcome and works backward, allowing teams to plan tasks based on realistic resource constraints and production capacities.
  • Pull planning aligns with the principles of Lean construction by minimizing waste, promoting continuous improvement, and enabling practices like just-in-time material delivery.

Understanding Pull Planning

Pull planning is a scheduling approach that involves all project stakeholders in the planning process. Unlike traditional methods where construction schedules are dictated by project managers, pull planning empowers every team member, from subcontractors to suppliers, to contribute to the project timeline. This method uses visual tools like large boards and color-coded notes to map out the entire project timeline, ensuring all tasks are clearly defined and visually represented.

Traditional scheduling methods driven by a more static CPM schedule (critical path method) push activity start dates and durations based on an estimate used to generate the schedule. Pull planning, however, turns this notion upside-down: pull planning starts with understanding the outcome, or in this case completion of the activity, and populating the steps and durations between that outcome and the beginning of the task, essentially pulling backward from the end goal.

As opposed to dictating how fast the activity will be performed based on the CPM schedule, which usually does not capture the complexity of the available resources and constraints on the project and their effects on production rate, pull planning relies on the ‘last planners’ i.e. the front line managers responsible for performing the work, to effectively understand what the workforce in the field is capable of doing and planning accordingly. This helps to mitigate unrealistic expectations of what the labor force can produce and results in a more continuous flow of work, which ultimately results in faster completion of the activity. 

👉 Learn more about the Last Planner System

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast, and in the case of pull planning, the whole goal is to make things as smooth as possible. Let’s take a conceptual look at what the process of running a pull planning session looks like:

1. Pre-Planning Phase

Gather the Team - The first step in the pull planning process is to assemble all key project participants, including the superintendents and foremen for both subcontractors, as well as self-performed crews. In certain cases, it may be advantageous to have vendors present if they can speak to the procurement of a long lead item that has the potential to affect or delay the project’s overall schedule. This ensures that all necessary parties are involved from the start of project planning and can provide input.

Project Overview - Provide a complete overview of the project to all parties. This includes sharing the project's scope, objectives, and any potential constraints that might impact the schedule. Each party’s full understanding and buy-in is key, because in order for the pull planning session to maximize its effectiveness, there needs to be as complete of a holistic understanding of the activities that need to happen on a project and how they interact amongst all parties.

2. Workshop Setup

Choose a Facilitator - Selecting the right facilitator is key to leading the pull planning sessions. This person should be knowledgeable about the project and skilled in leading group discussions. Usually, the project Superintendent or a General Superintendent will have the technical knowledge and charisma to perform this role.

Scheduling Tools - Prepare the workspace with necessary tools like a large wall space or whiteboards, sticky notes of different colors or magnets (each representing different tasks), and markers.

3. Conducting the Pull Planning Session

Map the Workflow - Start from the project’s end date and work backward (hence the "pull"). Each participant places their sticky notes on the board to indicate when they believe their part of the project can realistically start and finish.

Identify Dependencies - Determine the dependencies between tasks. This involves understanding how the completion of one task affects the start of another, ensuring a logical flow of operations. Understanding how the tasks affect one another dynamically is one of the most important pieces of the pull planning session, because it breaks up the massive task of trying to understand how to coordinate all of these interconnected tasks from one person or a small group and effectively crowdsources this from the experts that will be building the work.

4. Sequence and Schedule

Adjust the Timeline - As tasks are added, the timeline may need adjustments. The entire team collaboratively shifts tasks around on the timeline to accommodate dependencies and constraints. Making sure all stakeholders are present for this and generally in agreement is key, because this understanding will form the basis for how the different teams will work together and coordinate these activities moving forward.

Finalize Project Milestones - Establish key milestones and checkpoints throughout the project that will require specific outcomes to be achieved before moving forward.

5. Review and Adapt

Continuous Improvement - Regularly review the schedule with all parties involved. This allows for adjustments based on project progress or unforeseen issues. The key thing to understand is that the pull plan is a living document and needs to have the flexibility to adjust as conditions on the site change. Adjusting not only allows the plan to be effective, but also drives towards the goal of continuous improvement.

Feedback Loops - Create feedback loops where workers can report back on task completion and any issues encountered, allowing for real-time schedule adjustments. Having a mechanism for feedback is critical if you actually want to drive improvement and efficiency. If there is no feedback mechanism, it robs a lot of the power from using this method and then it really starts to look more like the schedule is being driven by a static CPM schedule. Having a robust feedback loop will help to support the process of continual improvement and make sure that lessons learned are re-incorporated back into the process for better results on the next iteration.

6. Documentation and Follow-up

Document the Plan - Ensure that the final pull plan is documented and distributed to all stakeholders. There are a variety of ways this can be done, either through different planning software that is designed for pull scheduling, or it can be done simply by recording the plan in a spreadsheet and distributing it out to the stakeholders involved. Memorializing this plan is important because that will help to drive accountability amongst the different teams as the plan gets put into action on the project.

Regular Updates: Hold regular update meetings to ensure that everyone is on track and any necessary adjustments are made in a timely manner. IF things aren’t working or need to be adjusted, this is where those adjustments to the plan can be made. Likewise, if things are going well and adjustments can be made to pull the schedule further to the left, that can also happen in these meetings.

🔎 Dive Deeper: Foundations of Construction Project Management

Benefits of Pull Planning in Construction

For small to medium-sized construction firms, adopting pull planning offers several significant advantages:

  1. Enhanced Collaboration - Pull planning breaks down the barriers between different teams. By involving everyone in the scheduling process, it fosters a collaborative environment where each participant has a stake in the project's success. Subcontractors can be especially difficult to manage and like to have things done their way, so when multiple subs aren’t playing well in the sandbox, it makes for a very stressful and challenging project environment. Pull planning allows everyone to discuss their needs and goals in a coordinated group setting, which can help to drive a culture of greater collaboration.

  1. Reduced Waste - This method allows for just-in-time delivery of resources, minimizing unnecessary inventory and reducing the risk of material damage, thereby adhering to Lean principles of waste reduction. Pull planning allows for this by making Just-in-Time (JIT) procurement much more feasible which, ultimately, helps to reduce waste and improve flow.

  1. Increased Flexibility - The dynamic nature of pull planning allows teams to adapt to changes more fluidly. As project conditions evolve, the plan can be adjusted in real-time, providing a flexible approach to project management. The bottom line is that on a construction project, things change all the time. What makes pull planning so valuable as a tool and practice is that, if it is used correctly, it can help manage these changing conditions in a reciprocally dynamic way that can help to mitigate the impacts of them on your project substantially.

  1. Greater Transparency - With a shared visual schedule, all team members have a clear understanding of project timelines and dependencies, which enhances overall transparency and accountability. This helps to create a culture of trust amongst all stakeholders involved in the project, especially the owner. Pull planning is a great tool for helping to build a better relationship with Owners, as it shows the effort and attention that is being taken to help them achieve project completion faster and can help lead them to wanting to do more work with you.

Pull Planning vs. Traditional Scheduling

Traditional scheduling methods often rely on a top-down approach, where the project manager sets the pace and structure of the work. This can lead to inefficiencies and a lack of responsiveness to ground realities. Pull planning, by contrast, is inherently adaptive. It views the project schedule as a collaborative and evolving document, which can lead to smoother project execution and fewer delays.

By looking at upcoming tasks, analyzing the breakdown of specific steps, in which order they need to happen, and estimating durations based on the actual production capacity of the crews on the job, pull planning provides a much more realistic picture of how a construction activity is going to get accomplished, as opposed to setting an arbitrary completion date from the CPM schedule that was estimated prior to the construction phase of the project kicking off.

Pull Planning’s Role in Lean Construction

Pull planning is an integral part of the ideology of Lean construction. Lean construction focuses on maximizing value by minimizing waste, and pull planning directly supports this by ensuring tasks are only performed when necessary and in the correct sequence. This adherence to Lean principles promotes efficiency and continuous improvement throughout the project lifecycle.

Pull planning is just one tool or method associated with Lean construction, but is a powerful one because it touches on so many of the fundamentals of Lean Construction, like reducing waste, improving flow, and providing means for continuous improvement among processes. Pull planning can be used in conjunction with other Lean construction best practices, like Just in Time (JIT) material procurement and delivery. This is a practice of trying to minimize the time a material is onsite before it is installed to build permanent work. If you have a very accurate understanding of when the material will be needed for the work by planning the activity schedule, then you can have it delivered very close to when it is actually needed, thus reducing the amount of time the material sits onsite and takes up valuable space.

Final Thoughts

As construction projects get increasingly more complicated, having administrative tools that ease the burden of the overwhelming amount of variables that factor into successfully planning and executing a construction activity are becoming more and more valuable. Pull planning, if it is not already a practice utilized on your jobs, should be one of those practices. It helps to manage the complexity and variables by crowdsourcing the solutions from the professionals actually building the work.

It also helps to make sure that everyone on the project team, from the management to the field labor, is on the same page as far as expectations of how fast the work will get done, which crews will be working in which areas at what time, and how different trades can cooperate to ensure that operations onsite are going as smoothly as possible. 

Further Reading: What Emerging Contractors Can Learn from Lean Construction Principles

The CrewCost Team

The CrewCost Team consists of men and women who have worked in the construction industry as project managers, general contractors, sub contractors and more. They share their decades of experience on our blog as a way to help other contractors grow healthier and more profitable businesses.

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