Pull Planning 101: A Guide for Subcontractors

Published: September 08, 2021
Last updated: September 14, 2021
Read time: 4 minutes

Construction scheduling has always been a little rough around the edges. Timelines can get dicey, materials get delayed, and red tape often throws a wrench in the payment chain. However, in recent years, contractors have discovered a more efficient alternative to the processes they’ve always relied on: it’s called pull planning. Pull planning is a unique alternative to disordered scheduling, and is gaining steam as a way to improve construction management at large. We’ll take a look at what it is, who gets involved, how it works, why it’s important, and how to prepare for and practice pull planning at your construction business.

What is Pull Planning?

Pull planning is a construction scheduling technique that establishes key project milestones, like the project completion date, then works backward to outline the steps to achieve each milestone quickly and efficiently. The defining features of pull planning are strong collaboration and the backward timeline. Looking at the project “backward” illuminates how earlier tasks ultimately impact key milestones. 

Old methods of construction scheduling didn’t clearly draw these lines between said project milestones and seemingly unrelated tasks by other team members. Pull planning corrects this by encouraging better individual responsibility for tasks that could delay a milestone down the line. The process is so effective it is used as part of the Last Planner® System to support lean construction. Roughly 15% of contractors are using or have used pull planning.

During a pull plan session, primary stakeholders will:

  • Meet to develop a schedule for each phase of a project
  • Commit to completing tasks within a certain time frame and sequence 

Who Gets Involved

Having the right construction team in a pull plan meeting is critical. All of the following project stakeholders should be present: 

  • General foreman
  • Design leads
  • Project managers
  • Quality/safety supervisors
  • Subcontractor/trade leads 

As these individuals work on creating a comprehensive schedule, they are obliged to collaborate and become accountable to one another. Getting trade leads on board early, during planning, also has added benefits: it encourages a team mentality and gives each team a feeling of ownership in the project.

construction estimating

How Pull Planning Works

  1. All key stakeholders gather in one room to create a schedule. If even one trade is without representation at the meeting, the pull plan process could produce a flawed schedule that may cause a project delay.
  2. Post-It notes are the building blocks for schedule creation. Each note names a particular work activity and specifies its duration and handoff. Meeting participants take turns adhering sticky notes to wall-mounted paper or a dry-erase board, working together to sequence a schedule around milestones from right to left (i.e. reverse-engineering the project from the target completion date to the starting point). This approach is quite different from push-planning methods, which entail the forward sequencing of activities from a defined start date.
  3. Participants commit to the Post-It notes they place on the schedule. Each note represents an obligation to complete an activity by a certain date.
  4. The completed schedule is documented and converted into work plans. After the meeting concludes, the project manager enters the schedule into a spreadsheet program. Then the leadership team breaks down the schedule into weekly work plans specifying clear deadlines and expectations.

How to Prepare for Pull Planning

  • Gather materials. Collect markers, Post-It notes (one color for each trade), project-related documents, and other items that can aid the scheduling process.
  • Decide how much time is needed. A pull plan meeting should last no more than two or three hours. Attention begins to wane beyond that point. For a large project, you can schedule multiple pull plan meetings over several days.
  • Select a facilitator. A book titled “The Lean Builder” offers this advice: “If possible, choose a facilitator that is neutral to the project. This can help allow for better collaboration…The facilitator’s role is crucial to the success of the pull plan, and a good facilitator will be able to lead the team, ask good questions, and keep everyone on track.”
  • Send out invitations. Specify the date, time and purpose of the pull plan session. State the expectation that each person must contribute detailed activities for completion of your project.
  • Set up the meeting room. Prepare the wall surface where sticky notes will be placed and spread out all materials. 

Best Practices for Pull Planning

  1. The facilitator should explain the pull plan process before it begins, and emphasize that the team will work backward, from the final milestone to the first milestone.
  1. The facilitator should poll participants to determine if any have not attended a pull plan session before. This will identify individuals who may need some guidance.
  1. Attendees should openly discuss and resolve constraints that may affect their ability to hit a given milestone.
  1. The Post-It notes should detail every activity needed by each trade. This is the only way to see how activities precede, follow, overlap and interact in order to reach designated milestones.
  1. Before ending the session, the facilitator should make sure all participants commit to their respective activity durations and handoff deadlines.

Another Option: Digital Pull Planning

The traditional pull planning approach with Post-It notes does have drawbacks. It relies heavily on physical space, material resources, in-person attendance, and a skilled facilitator. Plus, when someone enters the Post-It note schedule manually into a spreadsheet program, some details could be misconstrued in translation.

Digital pull planning, in comparison, does away with those drawbacks by moving the planning process into an online platform. A high-quality digital software solution also will allow project managers to view metrics in real time, on mobile devices, once a project is underway. This gives them a better understanding of how well the project is moving along, so they can identify issues early and make adjustments.

Is Digital Pull Planning Better?

That depends on individual preference. However, it’s worth noting that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated many contractors’ adoption of digital construction technology. “With the pandemic hitting hard last year, everyone was forced to go from being in person to going online,” says Erin Murphy, project manager at CG Schmidt, a contracting company located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “I think a digital solution became necessary [for planning] — and it took out a step, going from paper and turning that paper into something electronic.”

Pull planning can help ensure that construction projects progress smoothly and finish on schedule. Whether you use the in-person method or a digital solution, the ultimate goal is the same: to promote a communicative and collaborative team environment that optimizes productivity.

How To Learn More About Pull Planning

Quick Methods:

  • Search for #pullplanning on Instagram to view pull plan meeting photos
  • Search for #pullplan, #pullplanning, #leanconstruction and #virtualpullplan on LinkedIn to read informative posts
  • Google “pull planning software” to explore digital options

Deeper Dives:

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Tracy Glass Construction Writer

Tracy Glass is a seasoned writer focused on serving the construction industry. Tracy works with construction business owners, corporate marketing directors, agencies and video production companies throughout the U.S. and Canada. Tracy has written for a wide range of construction-industry clients, including contractors, equipment manufacturers and SaaS companies. She can be reached at [email protected]