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In the construction industry, many things can get in the way of delivering a project on schedule, such as unexpected weather changes, misunderstandings within the team and poor planning.

In an informal survey of construction project managers, when asked what metrics their teams constantly strived to improve, nearly a third said they needed to complete projects on time. Completing projects on time while maintaining scope, quality and compliance with company safety standards is not easy but will make project teams stand out within the company and more importantly, keep clients happy.

Why Projects Fall Behind Schedule

1. The Scope of Work is Not Initially Understood

Too many contractors end up fighting for a project without completely understanding all the details and exactly how the owner expects it to be carried out. Without taking extra precautions to ensure the project is well-defined, teams sometimes take on more than they intended. As one respondent said, “the scope of work is not completely understood.”

Define the scope of the project as early as possible. According to an article from Wolfe Law Firm, “It is important … to outline [the] scope of work deliberately and specifically, because it will be a determining factor in one’s liability to another party...The general contractor would not want to sign a general contract with a broad, open-ended scope of work because then the [owner] could read much further into the provision than was intended.”  Do not submit a bid unless it is clear exactly what is expected, and when negotiating a contract, make sure the terms of the contract are clear and well-defined in order to avoid being held responsible for something outside the original project plan.

2. Errors in Communication

How many times has the project manager or team member misinterpreted an email or verbal communication because of its lack of details? Many of the project managers surveyed said communication was an issue within their entire team. A failure of communication to understand schedule deadlines, lead times or sub constraints can create many loopholes in the way the team carries out their tasks, thus reducing productivity.

Other communication barriers that create delays range from ambiguous drawings to a reduction of accuracy as messages are passed along the many areas of a construction team. Due to these errors, people often fall behind on project updates. To overcome communication errors, use direct language and feedback to make sure the recipient understands the message and consider conveying the message both verbally and in written form.

3. Managing Subcontractors

The superintendent needs to discuss the specific plan and ideas with the subcontractors before they begin the project. State expectations and standards and make sure that the subcontractors understand them. Similar to the definition of scope discussed when bidding for a project, subcontractors should have a narrowly defined scope when they arrive at the jobsite.

While a contract is not required for subcontractors, consider it necessary to ensure completion of the project in the way that the superintendent desires. If subcontractors can’t perform as intended, give them a chance to state why they are not able to do what is needed and what they can do instead.

Unfortunately, things don’t always go as expected. In that case, keep an open mind. As one PM said, “through strong relationships with subcontractors and being able to deal with different personalities, you will be able to get the most out of people.”

4. Weather

Project managers need to have ways to work around the weather, rather than trying to control it. They can reference data from looking at reports of the location’s weather from previous years before starting the project. Resources include US Climate Data for generating expectations for local weather and Weather.gov for insights regarding snowfall and rain.

One contractor tracks bad weather days and records these instances to share with their customers to prevent extended delays. Being transparent with customers about potential weather on the front end helps keep the relationship positive. If unfavorable weather conditions are imminent, safeguard the site in advance.

5. The General Contractor is Behind Schedule

When the GC is behind schedule, this holds everybody back and pushes the timeline back. What’s more, when a GC falls behind without updating the overarching project plan, this miscommunication can lead to more unexpected delays due to a lack of coordination. Make sure the team understands the long-term project plan, using tools such as ProcorePrimavera or Microsoft Projects to define the timeline. Tools like Priority Matrix are useful to manage the day-to-day tasks and exchange of information, while tools like Procore and Primavera show a large-scale picture of the project and where it should be at different stages.

However, just having project management software doesn’t instantly solve the problem. One challenge project managers face is that not everybody complies when they are told they have to make updates once a week. To make sure project plans are updated regularly, set aside one to two hours every week to update the plan and make it a regular occurrence in the schedule.

There are more than 100 long-term scheduling software solutions for the construction industry. For those who prefer a manual method of project planning, the most commonly employed technique is the Critical Path Method. A simple spreadsheet from Vertex24.com may be an alternative to complex software.

6. Unexpected Changes

Every project manager knows the feeling of frustration when their equipment doesn’t arrive on time, or the project owner wants change orders. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce unexpected changes:

  • If the owner of the project wants the change, they need to know the repercussions on the timeline early on. Transparency helps build a strong relationship with the project owner and the project won’t be considered “behind schedule” if the additional time is agreed upon at the time of the change.

  • Identify potential changes early on. This might involve thinking back to changes that lengthened the timeline in previous experiences with similar projects. If possible, integrate these potential changes into the Critical Path planning to reduce the chance of changes interfering with the schedule.

  • Delays are is inevitable when materials do not come in on time. If it is in the budget, add additional equipment to be prepared in case things change, especially if that equipment can be used in the future for another project.

  • Agree on a point with the project owner where no more intentional changes are allowed to be made. This will ensure that valuable time is not lost due to late-stage changes in the plan.

  • After the project ends, do an analysis of the unexpected changes that delayed the project, in order to be better prepared next time.


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