A well prepared schedule which is regularly updated allows us to detect early when a project is running late. When we fall behind, the normal course of action is for the contractor to place more resources on the project or work extended hours in the hope of catching the lost time up. Unfortunately this doesn’t always help as the true cause of the slippage hasn’t been uncovered. In fact adding more people or resources to the project may even add to congestion making the problem worse – especially if they aren’t the right resources.
Usually the longer the problem persists the worse the schedule slippage becomes and the less time remains to catch-up the lost time.
When schedule slippage is detected it’s important to uncover the real reasons and then take action to rectify the problems. Sometimes the cause may be a minor bottleneck which could be fixed with small adjustments to the running of the project.
Reasons for construction projects falling behind schedule
There are many reasons for a project finishing late. In this article I’ll only focus on reasons caused by the contractor. These include:
- Material handling on the project site – this is one of the commonest causes of delays on projects. Materials aren’t reaching the area where they’re required. This is a particular problem with multi-storey buildings where everything has to be lifted by crane. Projects often underestimate the number of cranes required, forgetting that trucks have to be off-loaded and that lifting activities don’t happen uniformly throughout the day. Congested project sites can also be a problem delaying deliveries and blocking access routes. What can appear simple on a piece of paper, getting an item from point A to B, is sometimes not so simple on a busy project. Yet often simple steps such as packaging materials differently, having more materials handling equipment, working the lifting equipment longer shifts, changing the sequencing of lifting in the day or more focussed supervision on this activity can unblock this bottleneck and improve production on the whole project.
- Poor productivity. If our labour and equipment aren’t producing what is normally expected we will need extra resources to complete the same amount of work. However, just throwing additional resources at the project doesn’t always yield the desired result and it’s also very costly. It’s often more effective to uncover why the productivity is low and try and rectify the problem. Some reasons for poor productivity include:
- Employees aren’t working their full shift. They may take an extra five minutes on either side of their tea and meal breaks and leave their work place up to fifteen minutes early. Before you know it the project is losing between thirty minutes and an hour for every person on every shift.
- Workers may have a low morale due to an underlying problem such as conflict with management or Supervisors, mistakes with their wages, etc. Resolving these problems and improving morale can improve productivity
- Workers don’t have the right skills. Obviously a skilled and experienced carpenter will usually produce better quality work faster than someone who isn’t as skilled.
- Frequent breakdowns of equipment. Breakdowns of key items of equipment such as cranes, concrete mixing plant or excavators can cause severe disruption to a project. After suffering innumerable delays on my projects due to crane breakdowns I persuaded the company of the folly and the cost of using old cranes and we embarked on a replacement scheme. Sure new mobile cranes are expensive, but just the increase in productivity on our projects more than compensated for these additional costs. Unfortunately those studying project schedules don’t always appreciate how disruptive broken equipment can be. Even hiring a better replacement item can change the mood and productivity on the project.
- Shortage of materials. This is usually caused by the team not ordering sufficient materials or not allowing for fabrication lead times. Sometimes however the supplier has their own problems and it may be easily resolved by approaching another manufacturer. Even problems with insufficient delivery trucks can disrupt supplies. It could be an easy fix by bringing on other transport companies.
- Theft of materials or equipment. In previous articles I highlighted one project where a third of every load of cement the project received was stolen en route. The project experienced cement shortages which hampered our production and caused delays. Sometimes the theft could be as small as removing a battery from an excavator which, in the countryside, could mean the machine and the other equipment working with it stands for several days. Even the theft of small electrical tools from a tradesman can mean they’re not working efficiently for hours or even days. Unfortunately theft can create bigger problems particularly if it is a long lead item such as an electrical distribution board.
- Having too few resources of a particular trade. I’ve often experienced projects where one trade has held up the others. For instance if you have insufficient scaffolders you aren’t going to be erecting the scaffolding fast enough for your steel fixers and carpenters so they are going to be standing. If we need more people ensure we get those with the skills we are short of on the project and not just more of everyone. Sometimes there is only a minor hold-up and it may be possible to get the project through by asking a few employees with the required skills to work extended shifts.
- Poor quality work resulting in rework. Poor workmanship causes delays when completed work has to be demolished and rebuilt. Even minor rectification work can distract valuable resources away from critical tasks.
- The Supervisors and the team doing the work aren’t aware or don’t understand the schedule. This may seem stupid, yet, this happens surprisingly often. Management may give a copy of the updated schedule to Supervisors but often this is the schedule for the whole project for the remaining duration and it could be several or even hundreds of pages long. Most Supervisors are only concerned with their section of work and what needs to be done in the next couple of weeks. Therefore give them only their relevant sections of the schedule for the next few weeks. In fact I’ve found that, if possible, providing a schedule in a pictorial form highlighting the important dates works well as it can be put up on their office wall and is easily understood by their team. Even better is to spend time explaining to the Supervisor what needs to be achieved and explaining why certain dates are critical to the project. It’s amazing how a team who know what they have to achieve and the reasons behind it can then deliver.
- Neighbouring sections of work negatively impact each other. This is usually because of congestion, safety issues or access problems. By analysing these problems sometimes we can develop solutions which may mean using different access systems, bigger cranes, additional safety measures, changing the sequence of the work or even working different shifts (one section could work day shift while the other at night). Yes, there may be additional costs, but not falling behind schedule is often more important.
- A subcontractor isn’t performing. One non-performing subcontractor can impact other subcontractors and your own team. Often all it takes is the subcontractor to improve their performance, bring on extra people to stop slippage on the schedule. In extreme cases you may consider taking work away from the subcontractor. Of course ensure that your dealings with the subcontractor are in accordance with your contract with them. Also, understand why they aren’t performing as the reasons could be due to your team or the customer’s team.
We will all at some stage fall behind schedule on our projects. It’s important we detect this slippage early. Then, don’t take the obvious choice and add more people to the project, but rather analyse the reasons for the slippage and then take the necessary action to rectify these issues. Spend some time in the field and watch what the team is doing. Where are the bottlenecks? How could we do things better? Make sure your team understands the key dates on their section of work and how it impacts the project as a whole.
Of course, construction projects aren’t only finished late because of the contractor’s failings, it’s often caused by the customer or their team. My next article will deal with how customers can cause projects to finish late. It’s important to consider and address all the causes for a project running late so you can ensure slippage is caught up and the project is completed on time.
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