Managing Construction Delays: Strategies and Techniques

Published on: November 3, 2023

Delays during the construction process are inevitable. The most successful construction managers anticipate delays in advance, apply construction delay analysis techniques, mitigate risk to the extent possible, and adjust their plan to limit downstream impacts when unexpected delays occur.

Expected Reasons for Construction Project Delays

In 2022 alone, 91% of construction managers surveyed indicated that they were involved in projects that experienced delays. Most of those delays were related to an unrealistic project plan (31%) and resource issues (19%).

Many of the delays in construction are expected; that is, they happen on enough construction projects that you can expect to face these risks on yours and should plan in advance to prevent them from stalling your project. The delays we categorize as expected are those due to lack of funding, increased costs, labor shortages, and poor planning or communication.

Lack of Funding or Investing

One of the most common causes for delays both early on and later in the project is lack of funding, and in most cases the greatest delay occurs because of insufficient initial funding. If the construction project is dependent upon loans, investments, or government grants, delays can ensue as the construction manager or project team navigates negotiations, paperwork, and potential alternative funding options.

Increased Costs or Spending

Going over budget can lead to construction delays for several reasons:

  • It might be necessary to revisit the initial plans and designs to find cost-saving alternatives
  • The team may need to seek additional funding to cover the difference
  • Contracts may need to be renegotiated with the client, contractor, subcontractor, suppliers, or others
  • The team might elect to purchase different materials than originally plan or delay the purchase of materials to ensure adequate funding, both of which can affect the timeline

Additionally, budget overages can increase project complexity, put strain on relationships with suppliers and contractors, change the availability of contractors and materials, and reduce the overall morale of the team, all of which can lead to delays in the delivery of your project.

Shortage of Available Labor

Construction is like a choreographed dance; each step in the construction process is dependent on the step before and likewise, is foundational to the step that follows. The timing of each resource’s contributions is critical and must be carefully orchestrated to ensure the drywallers come before the painters, for example.

When there’s a shortage of available labor, it can influence the entire project plan. If the project is ready for drywall installation on June 5th, but resources aren’t available to do the work until June 15th, all the steps that are dependent on drywall installation are also pushed out 10 days.

Lack of Communication and Planning

Lack of communication and careful planning is the single most prevalent cause of project delays in construction. Here are some examples:

  • A crew arrives with excavators and backhoes to break ground on a new addition, only to find that utilities crews haven’t flagged the lot yet
  • An oversight leads to a 10-day delay between completion of plumbing and scheduling the inspection, delaying drywall, trim, etc.
  • The client elects to change the color of the hardware early in the project, but the designer fails to notify the construction manager and the wrong hardware is purchased and installed

These kinds of delays can lead to days, weeks, or even months of lost time and are preventable with adequate communication and planning.

How to Handle Expected Delays

The best way you can handle expected delays in your project is to anticipate those that can’t be prevented and prevent those that can with proper time management, planning, communication, and guidelines.

Time Management and Planning

There are several steps you can take to help anticipate, prevent, and adapt to delays as a construction manager:

  • Always use a detailed project schedule that clearly identifies dependencies and estimates realistic timelines
  • Build contingencies into your budget so unexpected costs become expected and anticipated
  • Identify which activities in your project plan have more flexible timelines and which are rigid and will determine the overall project timeline
  • Monitor progress daily to stay ahead of any action items, delays, or issues that arise and ensure timely handoff and communication

It’s also important to conduct a lesson learned session at the conclusion of each project to identify what you learned during that project and how you can apply it to future projects to prevent delays and improve outcomes. Review lessons learned before starting each new project to ensure continuous improvement.

Proper Communication and Realistic Guidelines

Proper communication is a valuable tool for construction managers as they prevent and navigate construction delays.

First, proper communication can help you prevent expected delays in the first place. Ensuring that all team members know the role they play in the project plan, including the timeline and the components of the project that are dependent on their work, can help facilitate communication and prevent delays.

Second, clear communication with both clients and contractors can help you set realistic guidelines around the construction process, including the likelihood that delays will arise.

Unexpected Delay Reasons

While most delays in construction are related to the expected problems we discussed above, including lack of funding, increased costs, labor shortages, and poor communication, delays can also be caused by unforeseen circumstances. These situations are less common, but when they do occur, they can be more catastrophic and lead to more extensive delays and other downstream impacts to your construction project, like damaged equipment, injuries, and additional costs.

Weather and Climate

Adverse weather conditions can directly impact your construction project. Rain and snow can make the site muddy and waterlogged, making it difficult to perform excavation, foundation work, or concrete pouring. Extreme heat can pose potential challenges for the health and productivity of workers and affect the curing of concrete and other materials. High winds can sometimes lead to safety concerns and pauses in work as well.

Freak and Uncommon Accidents

Sometimes unexpected and uncommon accidents can delay your project. These include equipment failures, natural disasters, hazardous material spills, unforeseen geological or site conditions, theft, vandalism, and worksite injuries. These situations can rarely be predicted or prevented – except in the case of worksite injuries – and require a different approach when they occur.

How to Handle Unexpected Delays

In some ways, you’ll do the same things during unexpected delays as you do during expected delays:

  • Have realistic expectations about how much time it will take to get the issue resolved and get the project moving again
  • Communicate with all involved as soon, as transparently, and as frequently as possible to avoid frustration and ensure alignment (especially when there’s a change from prior communication)
  • Monitor the situation daily so you’re ready to set the project in motion when the pieces fall into place, avoiding any additional delays due to unpreparedness

However, in addition to these measures, unexpected delays require additional empathy, understanding, flexibility, and patience.

Consider how COVID-19 likely impacted construction projects. Although it doesn’t fit into the most common culprits, it’s certainly unexpected. Staff couldn’t work within six feet of one another. Employees and contractors who were exposed had to quarantine and those who were symptomatic or who tested positive had to isolate. Childcare facilities were closing down without notice, leaving workers unable to fulfill their obligations at work. Clients who had already secured financing faced unexpected job loss and financial changes at the last minute, halting projects mid-construction. Building materials were in short supply and in some cases, on backorder for months at a time. While realistic project expectations, communication, and monitoring helped, compassion and, in most cases, a new plan were also required.

Flexibility and Understanding

Unexpected delays require flexibility and understanding. In most cases, the chances that the project will get back on schedule are low. Instead of working to get the project back on schedule, focus on addressing the issue at hand, showing empathy for those affected, and translating that empathy to the client to bridge the gap. Set realistic expectations with all involved around how long it will take to be up and running again, how the unexpected delay will affect the project budget and timeline, and what you’re doing to help.

Patience During Delay

The single most important trait you can display during catastrophe is patience. When illness, loss, injury, or another catastrophe has delayed a project, it’s important to give your stakeholders the time they need to recover. Pressuring the team to get back to work before they’re ready can lead to disengagement, reducing the quality of work, increasing the likelihood of injury, and ultimately driving costs and extending the timeline even further.

On the opposite site of that coin, patience and empathy can build camaraderie that drives stakeholders to deliver as soon as feasible, supporting a successful project.

Creating and Executing a New Plan

Finally, be proactive in recognizing when it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Sometimes the original plan can’t be adjusted to accommodate catastrophe and you have to start over. In these cases, sit down with all stakeholders, facilitate an honest conversation about the risks and barriers, and draft a new project plan that takes into consideration the resources that are available. Consider whether the same issues are likely to arise again and take steps to mitigate risk. Be realistic when you estimate timelines – even if it means the project will take longer to complete – to prevent delays and coordinate teams this time around. Ensure you have buy-in from the entire team before you move forward.

Your Story in Construction Management Starts Here

Whether you’re nearing high school graduation or considering a career change well into adulthood, it’s never too late to explore a career in construction management. Construction management can be a great way to put your communication and strategic thinking skills to work to propel major projects that excite you and improve your community.

Take the first step toward your career in construction management today! Join Park University’s respected Construction Management program to prepare yourself for a rewarding career in the construction industry. Gain the knowledge, skills, and hands-on experience you need to excel in this exciting and challenging field.

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