Who’s Afraid of Deadlines?

Published: Mar 26, 2020

Well aware of the inherent risks in building any sporting arena, Turner Construction Company contracted to deliver to the citizens of Denver a brand new NFL stadium by August 2001. Had this been a normal stadium project, the three-year timeline would have been aggressive enough. But unique to this particular undertaking were unprecedented challenges, some of which came as complete surprises.

It is positively amazing that this $400 million NFL flagship (officially named INVESCO Field) came in not only under time, but under budget, as well. The "under budget" aspect should be emphasized. Most stadiums, without encountering any of the above-mentioned obstacles, either open late or open unfinished, with months of "weekday" finishing touches remaining between games. Those arenas that have been brought in on time, in the literal sense, almost always conclude in the panic mode, running three frenzied shifts per day and usually costing millions of dollars over the guaranteed maximum price. To hand the owner the keys to a completely finished stadium ahead of schedule and millions of dollars under budget is unprecedented in the industry. How this was accomplished will be of interest to all who must win the race against time, in any business.

Never Create Your Timeline in a Vacuum

Every deadline, big and small, requires a map. How one is going to get to the end state, and in what order, must be plotted out on a piece of paper, not etched in stone. The Turner timeline is a living document, reflecting unavoidable changes in course over the many months. Certainly, the design-build team would have preferred a straight, uneventful journey. But it was prepared to react with flexibility to circumstances outside its control. Its schedules were designed to adapt. The only thing that never changed was the delivery date to the customer; that had been etched in stone.

Developing a logical sequence of events for all that must be accomplished in order to construct a one-of-a-kind NFL stadium must be something like trying to imagine a million dollars in a single stack of one-dollar bills; the mind rebels, it cannot build up the image for long. Of course, Randy Mendenhall, Turner's scheduling guru, had a computer to retain the more than 7,000 activities that had to be mapped out logically. Nevertheless, he had to develop each schedule, one by one, each with its own set of internal monitoring mechanisms.

Mendenhall speaks in a deceptively slow, midwestern drawl, which may be his way of managing his own emotions in such a fast-paced environment. When asked how he could coordinate the thousands of tasks that had to be completed before opening day, he laughs. "That wasn't the hard part; the hard part is always getting all the trades to buy in. They want to know if the schedule is realistic. Can it be done? I have to convince them it can, and then I have to enforce it." It would have served no purpose for Mendenhall to dream up a timeline that ended in August 2001, just to please Turner management; it would soon be exposed as a floating abstraction, a castle in the sky that could not be built as scheduled. So he involved the major subcontractors in all of his planning. "I try to get as much input as I can from those who will actually be performing the work." There is no conflict of objectives; everyone on the project wants to finish it as soon as possible. The quicker they get it done, the more money they make.

Mendenhall's timelines are really made up of minischedules, separated by milestones that represent significant "drop-dead" deadlines within the overall project. If the milestone is jeopardized, Mendenhall calls for battle stations; all of the subsequent tasks down the line are, by implication, also threatened. A recovery schedule must be developed to regain the original pace. One of the ways to enforce the schedule is to take advantage of every opportunity to move ahead. Mendenhall, accordingly, never counts on the identical opportunity being there the next day. "I grew up on a farm; the weather changed so fast that, when there was a clear spell to get something done, we rushed into it. It's that same way on a job site; for all you know you may be about to experience the worst winter in thirty years. You'd better make good use of every day you have."

Tim Romani likens milestones to incremental racing times. "A marathon runner needs to know his times for eight miles, twelve miles, etc. If he waits only for the final, finishing time, he'll never be able to manage his own race. It's the same thing with us." Mendenhall agrees and adds that schedules also perform a self-diagnostic function. "You have to have a schedule in order to find out where the problem is. Then, once you understand why you're not where you thought you would be, you can begin to recover." Between monitoring the status of milestones on the timeline and recovering where necessary, Mendenhall's day is rivaled only by that of an air traffic controller. "You can't let this get to you," he drawls, gesturing to the critical path charts that cover the four walls of his office. "I've seen a lot of good people that it got to." Some of the individuals he refers to no doubt developed their schedules in a vacuum.

Every business deadline, regardless of the industry, has some sort of schedule. Like sales or production quotas, they are sometimes the result of an airy business math, which divides the final goal, mandated by the customer or board of directors, into twelve-month chunks—and there's your target. Those who have to actually do the work may not be consulted, for fear of introducing objections that could jeopardize the end date; and that end date represents management's inviolable commitment to the customer. Management may even feel a bit embarrassed for caving in so quickly to the demands of the customer and now makes its own demands with a toughness that would have better served the company in earlier negotiations. The rank and file, then, is brusquely presented with a schedule, which is also enforced, like a law the police may not believe in but are compelled by grim duty to follow to the letter.

An unrealistic schedule creates cynicism within the team tasked to keep pace. Certainly, a team that does not believe it can do the job will, in all likelihood, fail; and it doesn't take the whole group to feel that way in order to jeopardize the schedule. Just a few members, whose work must be done before others can follow, can cause a ripple effect that will be very hard to contain later. If the team, moreover, senses that its leader is not a believer and is just bravely going through the motions, the deadline will not be met. By soliciting the input, and the commitments, from those who will perform the work, management not only has a more realistic schedule, it has also made it difficult for anyone to come back at a later date and object to the timeline. If the promised end date initially seems overly ambitious, a brainstorming session is in order, in which all who will be involved can explore creative solutions to meet the customer's mandate. Instead of a half-hearted collection of individuals, haunted by an impending failure, management will have mobilized a team bent on victory.

Adapted with permission of the publisher from Deadline by Dan Carrison. Copyright 2002, Dan Carrison. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association. Click here for more information about this title. For information about other AMACOM books, visit www.amanet.org/books.