Submittal Schedule: What It Is and Why You Might Need One

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Checklist Manifesto" by Atul Gawande. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What is a submittal schedule? Why is it crucial that engineers and contractors use them? What can the rest of us learn from the submittal schedule about how to work efficiently?

A submittal schedule is a type of checklist that specifies when people need to communicate, about what, and with whom. The submittal schedule typically dictates that various experts speak to each other on specific dates regarding progress in specific areas, as well as who needed to share, or submit, information before the next steps can proceed.

We’ll look at how the need for submittal schedules in contracting arose and why the concept is a useful one for the rest of us to know.

The Submittal Schedule + the Demise of the Master Builder 

Before we discuss what submittal schedules are, let’s look at why they’re necessary.

People used to hire master builders, who designed, engineered, and oversaw the construction of large and small projects from start to finish. For instance, master builders built Notre Dame and the U.S. Capitol building.

However, by the mid-20th-century master builders became obsolete because one person alone couldn’t master the advances occurring at every stage of the construction process. Architectural design and engineering design became separate specialties. Other specialties and subspecialties developed. Builders split further into areas of expertise such as finish carpenters and tower crane operators. Major projects now involve 16 different trades and hundreds of workers who must do their jobs in coordination with others. 

The construction process is orchestrated using sophisticated submittal schedule and checkpoints that enforce roles, communication, and follow-through. The major advance in the industry over the last few decades has been perfecting this process of tracking and communication.

To manage increased complexity, the entire construction industry was forced to evolve. However, much of medicine is still structured like the master-builder era — with a lone physician executing all of a patient’s care — even though times have changed to the extent that a third of patients have at least 10 doctors involved in their care by the last year of their life. As a result, care can be uncoordinated and subject to error.

In construction, failure isn’t an option. Massive structures must stand up straight and withstand all kinds of pressures and potential disasters such as fires and earthquakes. 

The Rise of the Submittal Schedule

To see how the submittal schedule works, the author visited the Russian Wharf project in Boston while it was under construction in 2006. The project, completed in 2011, consisted of a high-rise, glass-and-steel waterfront building that incorporated commercial and residential space while retaining historic aspects of the original building on the site.

The nerve center for the project was a room where the construction schedule, essentially a huge checklist, was posted on the wall. This consisted of multiple, large sheets of paper containing numerous computer-created, color-coded lists. They listed every task by order and date — for instance concrete pouring and steel delivery for each story were scheduled at certain times. As each task was completed, the project executive noted it on the schedule and printed out the next phase of work. The construction schedule was designed to build the project in layers, using day-by-day checks to ensure that the knowledge and skills of hundreds of people were correctly applied at the right time and place.

(Shortform example: above, an example construction schedule.)

A second type of schedule, called a submittal schedule, specified when people were to communicate, about what, and with whom. The submittal schedule dictated that various experts speak to each other on specific dates regarding progress in specific areas, as well as who needed to share, or submit, information before the next steps could proceed.

Besides maintaining communication, the submittal schedule was a means of handling unexpected developments. Experts could make judgments, but they had to discuss problems with a team, taking others’ concerns into account and agreeing on what to do.

(Shortform example: above, an example submittal schedule.)

The submittal schedule operated on the assumption that if you got the right people talking to each other, problems could be averted or addressed. To deal with the unexpected, the builders relied on communication and group knowledge, rather than the expertise of an individual.

Submittal Schedule: Success Built on Communication

The reason for the construction industry’s emphasis on communication is that failure to communicate is the most common reason for major building errors.

For example, there was a serious communication oversight in the construction of the Citicorp building, now called The Citigroup Center, in Manhattan. It features an unusual design — a slanted top and a nine-story stilt-style base. During its construction in the 1970s, the welding contractor building the base changed specifications without consulting the architects — the contractor switched from making welded joints to less-strong bolted joints, which could have failed and caused the building to collapse in 75 mile-per-hour winds. 

The architect discovered the change in 1978, a year after the building opened, when he reviewed the plans in response to a question from a Princeton engineering student. He informed the building’s owners and not long afterward, Hurricane Ella began moving up the coast toward the city. An emergency crew worked secretly at night to weld two-inch-thick steel plates around two hundred bolts to successfully secure the building.

While the construction industry’s checklist process hasn’t been perfect, it’s been amazingly successful. Building failures are extremely unusual. And although buildings are more complex than ever, and are built to higher standards for such things as earthquakes and energy efficiency, they take a third less time to build.

Submittal Schedule: What It Is and Why You Might Need One

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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