Dodging Deadly Delays — Handling the Inevitable
Delay is deadly because requires extra time, extra attention, and extra labor
nterruptions in project schedules are killers — and not just because they create ulcers for the project superintendent. Delays can be deadly because they require the expenditure of three things that are always in short supply: time, effort and personnel. Add those three items up and they total the fourth thing most contractors are light on — money.
Now, spending money's not a bad thing — if and when you planned on spending it. Unfortunately, most of the money expended correcting delay is (probably) unaccounted for during estimating — and therefore absorbed as loss.
Delay is a slippery thief — silently and steadily encroaching on the bottom line. Sometimes it's easy to spot, such as stoppage caused by a busted hose on a backhoe. Other times delay isn't so discernable. Perhaps it will manifest itself as an hour lost waiting for a generator to be delivered or a worker chronically showing up late to work.
The Effects of DelayDelay affects a job in many different ways. The loss of money through expended man-hours is easy to visualize, but what about the negative impact on morale and productivity? Let's look at an example:
Imagine you're a superintendent overseeing a million-dollar project and you have the enviable daily responsibility of coordinating 16 to 20 different skilled trades (in different unions), scores of workers, and perhaps hundreds of material deliveries for your project. Broken a sweat yet?
Now, let's suppose that every one of the individual skilled-trade people has their own agendas, attitudes and opinions (which they're seldom afraid to share) regarding virtually everything effecting their work.
During the course of a construction project, the interaction between these variable parties can grow to be quite tense and, it might be said, quite enlightening — if you happen to be an anthropologist studying de-evolution of man. Even on a normal day, a typical exchange between an electrician, let's say, and the super may go something like this:
Electrician, "Hey, you! There are a hundred *@-d*#* (*place name of other trade here*) guys in my way and there's no g*@-d*#* way I can get any of my g*@-d*#* pipe in the g*@-d*#* ceiling until...."
Super (to himself), "Good grief, I need a drink!"Our superintendent has certainly got his hands full and this is just a fraction of his duties. Keep in mind that the owner, architect, and perhaps his own employer, are making almost daily changes to the scope of work, many of which have to be priced out, argued over, and approved before proceeding. Remember, this is a normal (?) commercial building situation. Imagine what happens when we introduce unexpected and unanticipated interruptions and delays into the project.
Not a pretty picture is it?
Let's help our super out. Like so many things learned in life, the most important tool needed when correcting the problem of delay is to possess the ability to recognize the delay in the first place. Many times, it's not as easy as it sounds so let's discuss some common construction delays and a few methods for handling the inevitable:
Types of Project Delay (Major)Equipment Delay
The good thing about an equipment delay is that it's easily recognizable. When a generator doesn't show up, at least you know right away because your men aren't making any noise — or on the contrary, they may march into your trailer and make a lot of noise! The same goes for heavy equipment — if it's not there, you can readily tell it's not there. There's something tangible and recordable that allows you to go back later to recoup costs. Of course, the only avenue one has at the time is to hunt down the offending equipment as soon as possible and keep a log of lost hours.
Major Material Delays
Purchase orders, quick shop-drawing and submittal turn-around, and continuous communication are the major tools in avoiding this one, but there'll always be a few major material delays that sneak through. Now, like other delays, it may not seem damaging at the time, but let's look at this example:
The wood doors that were due today didn't make it. After several frantic phone calls, you find out they're not coming until next Friday — a week from now! Now, the carpenter that was suppose to be finishing door #27 and smoothly going on to #28, will have to knock-down, clean-up, and leave only to return to set up again next week. Not very efficient is it?
And it's not just the carpenter that's affected. In addition, the painter will need to return to stain and varnish the doors. Will the painter be happy upon hearing this? I don't think so! Many painters (and almost all subs) will demand more money for an extra, unplanned trip (known as mobilization) and, quite frankly, deserve to be reimbursed.
Daily Material Delays
Here is where things can get a little tricky. Let's say the fascia material that was to have arrived at 7:00 a.m. didn't make it in until 7:40 a.m. This seemingly small delay, though frustrating, may not appear to be actionable (that is, warranting the action of going back to the supplier to recoup costs) at the time. And if it's truly a one time affair, that's probably a reasonable strategy.
But there are many material deliveries on any given job — perhaps hundreds. Let's say it's exactly 100, and let's also give them the benefit of a doubt and say that only half of these total deliveries are late, and when they are late, they're only 20 minutes late.
50 (# of deliveries)
X 0.33 (man-hours waiting)
X 4.00 (# of men standing around)
X $34.15 (billing rate per hour)
Now, of course, I'm generalizing quite a bit and some of these men will be somewhat productive, but this illustration is meant to show how little delays, when spread over the course of a project, can add up to real money by the end of the job.
Equipment Break Downs
Every contractor who's been in business for a long time understands the value of preventative maintenance and the sound implementation of a maintenance program, including small tools as well as heavy equipment. A piece of advice: stay away from cheap power tools. Pay for the good stuff, they're worth it. Burning up motors only causes additional time and effort to get the tool replaced, hardly worth the $30 you saved when you bought it.
Design and Architectural Error
For some reason, I find architectural and design delays the most frustrating of all. Perhaps this is because the architect had months or even years to flush out the details before the project began. Regardless, errors on the plans and specifications, along with errors in code adaptation and misinterpretation, are appallingly commonplace in today's construction environment. What's worse, when you factor in the tight economic and aggressively competitive atmosphere of the design business today, this problem will only grow more significant before it gets better.
The best, and perhaps only, avenue for the contractor in these cases is to chronicle the lost time in a daily logbook to use as negotiation fodder later on. Sure, it would be nice to charge them for lost time, but it's been my experience that the design firm will virtually never admit that they're wrong — owing to an absolute horror of liability and responsibility — and therefore very seldom offer to cover your loss.
So wait until the end of the job, when all of those lingering verbal-promises, on-the-fly cost-changes, and late or delayed change-billings rear their ugly heads, and sit down with the owner and architect to reconcile your final payout. Then pull out your notes and logs, and "let the real negotiation begin."
Field Error and Personnel Delay
All right, now that I got that out of my system, I've got a confession to make: contractors aren't perfect either. I know, that's hard to believe. Still, errors in the field occur all the time and many man-hours are lost in the remediation. Since we already know that time does indeed equal money, we must admit that quality control, care, and skilled workmanship are not just the trumpeting of a good marketing brochure, they're also money in our pockets.
Another potential loss factor is in the discipline of the workers themselves. Employees who consistently show up late or seem to "have a hard time getting going" ultimately dip into the company's profit well. Clear communication and strict employee guidelines are really the only way to plug this leak. Employee productivity and motivation are entities unto themselves requiring sincere, consistent and spirited commitment by the company's owners and managers.
Some customer's are wonderful to work with. Others aren't. As long as nature indiscriminately allows anyone to make a lot of money, this will most likely never change. Often, a customer will find it necessary to stop out at the site and throw his or her weight around. If this happens to you, avoid your first impulse — remember, there are witnesses — take a deep breath, then take time out to explain, inform, and even cater-to the owner's desire. This may, of course, involve some minor changes, which aren't fun or productive, but in the long run, you've made the customer happy and a happy customer is just good business. Of course, if the changes are of a grand scale, you'll need to involve the architect.
Other Types of Project DelayThere are many other types of construction delays and, in keeping with our theme of recognition being paramount in finding a remedy, here are some other potential money-losers that may spring up:
- Mobilizing major equipment more often than absolutely necessary
- Waiting for information — be it from architect, owner, general contractor, etc.
- Overcrowded work areas — workers stumbling over each other is clearly not productive
- Having inadequate numbers of workers on the job due to poor planning, sickness, absenteeism, etc.
- Waiting for site layout or staking by surveying or civil crews
- Pulling workers away to put out fires. Sometimes, this is necessary but try not to overdo it.
- Coordination and scheduling errors by the GC or superintendent
- Late or non-completion of work by the owner or contractor outside of your contract area (utilities, etc.)
- Too much relocation of work or staging areas in the building itself — can you leave the masonry tenting up for the painters and caulking sub?
- Conflicting orders from superiors. Remember, one boss is best!
ConclusionProject delay is something that will never go away completely as long as humans are involved. But with clear communication, strict discipline, and consistent enforcement of rules, policies, and expectations by the people running the project, delay can be minimized. By reinforcing the dogma that all delay is equal to a certain number of lost dollars, delay can be quantified and transformed into something more tangible and easier to grasp, thus making the ability to effectively target and implement remedies that much simpler.
About the Author
With over 25 years in construction, primarily as an estimator and project manager, Steve Saucerman now writes, speaks and consults for the construction industry. He also teaches part-time in the Building Construction Technology division for Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill. He has published two books and over 350 articles to date and his writing is featured in construction periodicals all over the world.