A critical review of the literature on delays in construction


Delays in construction have always been a topic of concern for construction management researchers. Ahmed et al. (2003) identify delay as the most common, complex and universal phenomenon in construction which is typified by cost and time overruns (see also Abdul-Rahman et al., 2006; Arditi et al., 1985; Alaghbari et al., 2007; Xiao and Proverbs, 2002; Ahmed et al., 2003; Al-Khalil and Al-Ghafly, 1999). Arditi et al. (1985) even consider the severity of delays in construction to have the potential to impact on the state of the overall economy of a country.

For a long time many researchers in the field of construction management have tried to investigate the causes and effects of construction delays. These studies tend to focus attention on explaining the causes, which in turn would help guide practitioners to identify possible measures for mitigating against (or even eliminate) delays in construction projects. Yet, despite the wealth of research finding the causes of, and possible antidotes for reducing, delays in projects, the failure of many projects to finish on time remains problematic globally. For example, 70% of the construction projects in Saudi Arabia have been estimated to experience some form of delay (Assaf and Al-Hejji, 2006). In Nigeria, it has also been noted that seven out of ten projects suffered time overruns (Odeyinka and Yusif, 1997). Another survey in Malaysia concluded that 17.3% of 417 public projects experienced a time overrun of around three months of delay in 2005 (Sambasivan and Soon, 2007). All of this point to the fact that little has changed in spite of all the research into delays in construction.

Given this backdrop, this critical review revisits past research into construction delays in an attempt to offer fresh insights into the nature of the problem. Through this review, it is found that many scholars have in the past focussed their attention on the execution phase of the project life cycle when explaining the causes and consequences of delays. In so doing, the project time schedule in the planning phase tends to be taken for granted. Put another way, delays result from poor execution by project actors that in turn ought to be managed. It is argued in this article that the assumption that the project time schedule in the planning phase is always ‘right’ needs to be challenged since an inaccurate time plan – whether optimistic or pessimistic – would yield a deviance in execution. Therefore, there is a need to study more deeply how the planned schedule comes together in the first place. A corollary of this is that this demands greater scrutiny of the role of stakeholders’ intentions in bringing about the project time plan.

This critical review is organised in three sections. Firstly, trends in research on construction delay are traced, with a view to identify the limitations of previous work. Secondly, critical perspectives are discussed, which call for the need to place greater emphasis on the validity and reliability of project time plans, and the role stakeholder intentions play in deriving the planned schedule. This implies a need to account for strategic decisions made at front-end stage of projects where the estimation of a project’s duration might go ‘wrong’. Thirdly, the article concludes with possible ways in which stakeholder intentions might be investigated and applied to research on construction delays.


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