What Is Construction Planning? 5 Steps to the Perfect Process

By: on June 15, 2021

As a construction manager, you’ve got to be a master at construction project planning to be successful on a project. But what exactly is construction planning, and what does a successful planning process look like?

With an assist from the latest construction software and a five-step process, you can help your project team consistently finish projects on time and on budget.

In this article, we’ve taken the well-known five phases of project management—concept and initiation, planning, execution, performance/monitoring, and project close—and adapted them to fit you as a construction project manager. We’ll also explain how software can help at each step.

Let’s get started with the basics.

What is construction planning?

Construction planning is the specific process a construction manager uses to lay out how they will manage and execute a construction project, from design to building completion. In the planning stage, you’ll identify all construction activities, design the construction schedule, and plan out your team structure (such as if you will use a contractor or subcontractors). The construction plan lists the activities required and the schedule for each part in the construction process.

Now, on to the steps for a perfect construction planning process.

5 steps to the perfect construction planning process

For each step below, we’ll give you the quick version and then follow with all the details, the full breakdown of each step of the process. We’ll also explain how software can help for each section.

And as a little bonus, we’ve created a downloadable process guide with the highlights so you can keep it handy when you start planning your next construction project.

Step 1: Create the project

The quick version:

Create a Project Initiation Document that spells out the people, resources, and budget for the project.

All the details:

Every construction project, no matter how big or small, needs to start with a business case that lays out the feasibility of the project and what it’s going to take to get the job done.

Start by creating a Project Initiation Document (PID), which describes the following in general, not technical, terms (the technical part comes later):

  • People: Number of workers needed including subcontractors, such as plumbers and electricians.
  • Resources: Necessary materials for the design and building plans.
  • Budget: Total cost estimate of the project including labor, materials, equipment, fees, and permits.

The purpose of this document is to outline the resources you’ll need to complete the project, both for your stakeholders and your crew. Check out this article for more standard project management terms.

Construction software features that can help with this:

Most options in Software Advice’s construction software directory offer basic project management tools that should allow you to build a work breakdown structure with all the work activities listed out in the plan. The software can create the Gantt chart and manage the critical path of tasks for you.

Step 2: Draft an initial plan

The quick version:

Use the S.M.A.R.T. and C.L.E.A.R. processes to set concrete, specific goals for your project.

All the details:

Now comes the point where you need to turn the PID into a more concrete plan by setting goals that are S.M.A.R.T. and C.L.E.A.R. You’ll take the specific resources you listed in the previous step and use that to inform a broader strategy that will guide how you actually execute the project.

Let’s start with the definition of S.M.A.R.T. goals:

  • Specific: Set specific goals for your project such as deadlines for key milestones.
  • Measurable: Agree on how you will measure success for goals. For example, is it good enough that you have started laying concrete by the deadline you set, or should it be completely set by that date?
  • Attainable: You need to have a plan in place for how you’re going to achieve these goals. For example, does your project depend on a specific material that might not be available at the quantity you need when you need it? If so, you need to make adjustments.
  • Realistic: Your goals need to be within your abilities as a construction manager. For example, if your project includes plans to get the electrical work done within three months when you’ve never done it in less than six months for a project of this size, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
  • Timely: Lay out a specific time frame in which you can realistically expect that you can achieve these goals.

Now let’s take a look at C.L.E.A.R. goals, which is a slight variation on this strategy.

  • Collaborative: Get everyone on board. Hold a meeting before the project begins with the entire team to lay out what is expected and have them help you identify any possible obstacles.
  • Limited: Limit these goals both in terms of scope and time frame to not get overwhelmed.
  • Emotional: Ensure that your goals will get your employees fired up and on board.
  • Appreciable: Break up big goals into achievable tasks so you don’t overwhelm your workers.
  • Refinable: Count on having to be flexible, because you can never predict what will happen on a job site.

Construction software features that can help with this:

Again, you want construction software with a good project management focus, but in this case you need to get much more detailed with budgets and timelines, so you need software that has project management as well as accounting, materials tracking, contractor management, and document management.

Step 3: Execute the plan

The quick version:

Call a meeting with your team, get on the same page, set expectations, and assign project managers to oversee progress.

All the details:

It’s time to execute your plan. Start by calling a team meeting to go over the project plan and construction schedule. This meeting is critical for your plan’s success. Without buy-in from your crew, you will fail to achieve your objectives.

Talk with each person on your crew individually, if possible, to discuss expectations and give them an opportunity to ask questions about anything they’re confused about. Is your backhoe operator supposed to be in daily communication with your engineering team because they’ll be working in the same area at similar times? They need to know that as well as what the expectations are in regards to how they will communicate and when.

You might also need to assign a project manager(s) to oversee your teams. If you’re a very small business, you may be the only project manager, but you need to have a schedule drawn up of what you will be checking and when.

Construction software features that can help with this:

A team management feature will be very helpful for this step. This feature allows you to monitor task status, work activities, and track time.

Step 4: Track your performance

The quick version:

Gather data on key performance indicators (KPIs) such as objectives, performance, and quality.

All the details:

It’s essential that you accurately track the performance of your team on this construction project and ensure they are meeting the parameters you’ve set. And in the event of an unsuccessful project, it ensures you have data that you can dive into to figure out why you failed so it doesn’t happen again.

Successful construction managers typically use key performance indicators (KPIs) to monitor the performance of a project.

Some typical KPIs you can track include:

  • Project objectives: Are you on schedule and on budget?
  • Project performance: Is the project proceeding smoothly, or are you running into some obstacles you weren’t expecting?
  • Quality: Sure, the crew is hitting their milestones, but is the work up to the quality that you want at this stage?

Construction software features that can help with this:

Many construction software options offer tracking tools, such as materials management or equipment tracking, not to mention the team-tracking options mentioned above. Use as many tracking tools as makes sense: More data is better than less.

Step 5: Close out and evaluate the project

The quick version:

Using the data you gathered, evaluate your performance and talk with your team on how you could improve on the next project.

All the details:

Just because the building is over doesn’t mean you’re done with the planning process. The lessons learned and data gathered from this project help inform how you approach the next project, so it’s important to perform the close-out tasks. This work can also serve as some of the pre-construction planning for your next project.

Thanks to the fact that you had a clearly-defined construction project plan and a way to track performance and obstacles, you’re well-equipped to conduct an even more successful construction planning process the next time around. You’ll know where the obstacles are and what mistakes were made, which will then inform how you can tweak the next plan in order to maximize success.

But this shouldn’t be a process that takes place just in your own head. Call a final meeting with your crew to discuss how you performed. Conduct a brainstorming session to get ideas on what you could have done better, and take extensive notes. They’re your eyes and ears, so don’t lose the opportunity to collect their valuable insight.

To formally close this project out, create a final project budget and contrast it with the original budget, and then draft a final project report that you share with key stakeholders.

Construction software features that can help with this:

A good construction software solution should have custom reporting tools that allow you to process the data you have and create reports that you can examine after the project to spot where you can make improvements.

Here’s a visual representation of the planning process. Click here to download a copy.

5 steps in the construction planning process

Start working on your next construction project plan

Now’s the time to fix your construction planning process to keep your next project on time and on budget. And it’s a lot easier to do than you think. Here are a few simple steps you can take tomorrow to improve how you run your construction projects:

  • Evaluate your current construction software. Does it offer the features discussed above? If not, it may be time to start examining options that do. Compare solutions and read user reviews here, or check out our construction software buyers guide for more help.
  • Create a mock Project Initiation Document, and ask yourself some questions: Have I been going into this level of detail before a project? How could it help me? How could I incorporate this into my next project?
  • Examine your current work schedule. Where can you schedule time to conduct an extensive planning process that incorporates all of these steps? Be intentional and carve out some time to do it, because it’s very easy to allow your time to get swallowed up by day-to-day emergencies.

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