The 6 Most Common Causes of Project Delays in Construction
Delays in construction projects are going to happen no matter how much planning and preparation you do beforehand. However, the level of planning you do can help reduce the length of those delays.
Typically, there are three categories of delays; delays caused by owners, delays caused by contractors, and delays caused by external factors. Delays caused by owners or project leads could be anything from change orders to a lack of funding for a project to slow decision making. These types of delays are mostly on large-scale projects with many stakeholders. Then there are delays caused by contractors. This would include the lack of material or equipment, site management, management of subcontractors, and even labor. Lastly, there are external factor delays that are out of your control. Weather, acts of God, government regulations, and material and construction equipment shortages in the industry would fall into this category.
Despite the number of reasons for delays within these three categories, we've discovered the six most common causes of project delays in construction are:
We've covered each cause of project delays and how to manage these project delays in detail below.
A Poorly Defined Scope of Work
The scope of work in construction is the contract agreement outlining what work needs to be done to complete the project, as well as who is required to do the work. This is often considered the most important part of the construction process as it defines the project as a whole. Think of it as your guide throughout the entire process.
Even in our day-to-day lives, it's hard to find a solution to a problem when we haven't defined what the exact problem entails. Taking this approach of defining the problem or project before assigning tasks is a necessary first step to avoiding delays in construction projects. It also helps the stakeholders get on the same page which we will touch on later.
However, with everything in life, change is inevitable. There are always going to be little adjustments that need to be made and little frustrations or roadblocks along the way. Projects often become more complex than originally thought, methodologies and tactics need to be adjusted, and planning can never be one hundred percent accurate.
Nevertheless, a poorly done scope of work can cause a lot of problems down the line like budget overruns, project delays, and poor customer satisfaction. Changes in the project's scope of work could also include poor assessments of health and safety hazards on a job site, a client deciding that they want to make some adjustments, or not proactively forecasting some uncertainties.
How To Create Better Scope of Work Documents
To avoid the scope of work process as a cause of project delays, there are a few options. For one, your experience will play a huge role in how you define the original scope of work. The more experience you have with a specific type of job the more likely you are to project an accurate scope of work whereas with less experience you might be more naive. Either way, there are likely going to be mistakes along the way, but if you take those mistakes as learning opportunities then you're going to improve your scope of work predictions in the future.
Overall, a well-created scope of work on a project will ensure fewer delays. Things you might want to include in your scope of work process to manage project delays might be popular definitions to reduce confusion across teams, create a summary overview of the project that's easily accessible, mention milestones and deliverables, clearly assign what roles are in charge of what tasks, and produce a schedule and timeline of those tasks.
Inadequate Planning, Organization, and Scheduling
The scope of work should include some information about planning and scheduling, but there are also specific problems that can arise with scheduling and planning that are outside what the scope of work can provide.
For example, project organization goes beyond just who's being assigned what role. A lot of planning also requires making sure you have all your documents and admin tasks in order. These could be documents like the contract with your client, any work or change orders, receipts for purchases, permits, drawings, employee timesheets, and more. Losing any of these documents can cut into your revenue and timeline and cause unnecessary headaches that lead to delays in project completion. Having something as simple as a Google Drive or document-specific software where you can organize all your documents for each project can help you stay organized and avoid any delays.
On the job site, the scheduling of roles and timelines, or lack thereof, can also cause some project delays. It's human nature to think as much in a linear fashion as possible. You complete one task before moving on to the next. However, this isn't always the most effective way to run a schedule and in fact, can slow everything down, leading to more delays.
For large-scale projects, several subcontractors can have very specific jobs to complete. Oftentimes, information is only relayed to them once the subcontractor before them has completed their task. While this is okay in some instances, a lot of the time subcontractors will be able to start their objective a bit in advance if given a heads up. There often is a logical order to a job, but great subcontractors will know how to work with and around each other.
How To Better Schedule and Organize Your Projects
The goal of scheduling and planning should be to notify everyone involved in the project when different tasks and stages of the construction are complete. But beyond that, a good schedule should be accessible to everyone involved from the owners to clients to subcontractors so that they can plan ahead.
If your company has the means, it's a great idea to assign the task of scheduling to someone with a lot of experience with general contracting and subcontractors. This way, they're able to understand and accurately predict the scope of work for each task and create a timeline that will help avoid any delays in construction. Bonus marks if they can create a shared timeline that notifies each contractor involved in the project of everyone's process so they can get a head start if possible.
Poor Communication with Stakeholders
It's normal in any company to work in your department or team silos. After all, when you're assigned a task, it's easiest to hone in on just that task and not worry about anything else. However, if you're the construction owner or project manager, your task is to manage everyone. With that comes knowledge of the project timeline and stage that only you know. However, that also gives you the ability to inform all the stakeholders involved to provide the context to the job at hand. This would include updating everyone from the subcontractors to the clients about delays, scheduling, and timelines.
It's also important that you continually communicate the vision of a project and what the outcome of the project should be. For example, below is a graphic that illustrates exactly how important communication is on a construction project:
As can be seen, if communication is not done well, every person on the project can have a different understanding of the final goal. It's your job as a contractor on a project or a project manager for a large undertaking to understand the needs of the client and filter through all the information to find out exactly what it is that they want. From there, it's important to update every person involved with the actual building and design process on that vision to help manage expectations and delays. Without it, you're a ship lost in the wind with no strategy of where to go next.
How To Communicate Better with Stakeholders
How you prefer to communicate should be a topic in every conversation that you have with every project stakeholder before even breaking ground. The best way to create this strategy is to be open and honest about what your expectations are as a leader and make sure that you have a clear understanding of the ask of the client. It is your job as the owner, manager, subcontractor, or employee to complete the job as it was designed.
Budgeting and estimating the cost of a project is one of the most technical and challenging parts of the construction process, which also makes it one of the most important. There are some challenges created by external factors that you can't control like material prices going up, heavy equipment shortages, and labor costs increasing due to labor shortages across the industry. However, this makes budgeting for things that you can control that much more important and will allow you to better manage any delays that do arise due to budgeting.
The reason it's so important to create an accurate budget is that some projects only have a certain level of funding. Any drastic increase to that budget means that the project may have to be stopped for a few weeks until more money is found or prices of labor and materials, hopefully, decrease. Even worse, projects can stop altogether. Only extremely large companies can afford to have projects go over budget and not be delayed. However, that won't reflect well on them once the project goes through its audit and either the government or the client feels that they've overpaid.
For smaller contractors who do landscaping or smaller-scale projects, while the overrun for the budget may not be as extreme, they're still working for a client who expects that the budget set at the start will be adhered to. While there probably is some wiggle room, having a client end a project because their hired contractor isn't able to work within the budget is not a good reflection of customer service.
How To Create Better Budgets
The first tip would be to create a forecasting budget within the initial scope of work and have a detailed conversation with the client. Talk transparently with your client about the cost of labor, materials, and heavy equipment. While emphasizing that having a set budget is good, it's a best practice to have your client set a clear definition of what price is too high and create more of a scaled version of a budget. However, your primary goal should be to stay within the initial price if possible.
The second suggestion is to track every purchase and cost religiously. It's your job as a contractor to know when prices change and why. Keeping track of each cost from project to project and week to week can help you notify trends and communicate them more accurately with your clients. It's one thing to read about price changes and another to actually experience them.
The third tip is "estimate, estimate, estimate". Giving an incorrect budget estimate is normally a sign of ignoring the little things that can add up in a budget. It's easy to remember labor, material, and equipment costs when creating a budget, but what about other operation costs? For example, you may have to factor in certain costs like if you have an office and an administration team, driving and mileage costs, or simply having to run to the store to get a few small things that don't seem like much at first but can add up in the end. These are all miscellaneous purchases that you should be creating space for within your budget to make sure your client isn't overpaying in the end and that you're not going into debt to finish a job.
Poor Material and Equipment Management
Material and equipment management on a job site is crucial to not delaying your project. Is the material that was bought going to waste because it wasn't managed correctly? Do you have to buy new lumber because the purchase you made was all poor quality? Are you renting heavy equipment that is sitting idly for a few days? Did you forget to order equipment and now you can't do the job? Did you order the right equipment for the job? These are all questions you should be asking yourself when it comes to material and equipment management.
Not only do these issues contribute to budget overspending but they also contribute to construction delays. If material is damaged or you've forgotten to rent equipment, you have delays that can be anywhere from a few hours to a few days, putting you behind schedule. Alternatively, if you've rented some equipment but it's the wrong type for the environment or has the wrong attachments, it can also cause delays.
How To Manage Materials and Equipment
Knowing what material you need, protecting it from damage, and ensuring you've picked the right equipment and attachments are vital to a project's success and scheduling. Whether that means getting compact track loaders or skid steers, a mini-excavator or a standard-sized excavator, or ordering it at the right time so you're not overspending on the rent and waiting around for it to be delivered, material and equipment management is crucial to reducing delays on your project.
Weather is the only delay that you have no control over. Although material, equipment, and labor prices may rise, you can always make some adjustments wherever possible. But what about the weather? Depending on where you are in the country that could be a blizzard, a hurricane, a heat wave, a monsoon, or just the common rainfall. Each of these weather conditions has a different level of caution, but all of them will either slow down, delay or pause construction, especially on projects in their early stages.
There isn't much you can do from the standpoint of stopping the weather from happening, but there are ways you can prepare to limit the number and significance of weather delays.
How To Limit Construction Weather Delays
Depending on where you are in the country, the first way to mitigate weather risk would be to plan ahead and watch the weather. If you're in an area that doesn't have snow but has really bad heat waves, plan to do a lot of early stages of construction in the cooler months. And vice versa, if you have months where snow is normal, plan to do the early stages in the warmer months.
The second strategy is making sure your team has the right equipment and follows safety protocols. In the rain, this might mean wearing waterproof clothing and in the summer you encourage wearing clothes that breathe better while wearing sunscreen and drinking lots of water.
While it won't ever be perfect, there are ways to reduce the amount of delays weather can have on a construction project.
What To Do Now
To close off, the 6 most common ways construction projects get delayed are poorly defined project scopes, inadequate planning and scheduling, poor communication with stakeholders, budget inaccuracies, material and equipment mismanagement, and weather. With each of the suggestions above, we hope that you can turn these common reasons for delays into reasons that your business stands out from your competitors.