A critical review of the literature on delays in construction

23Sep16

by Farhad Eizakshiri, Paul W. Chan, Margaret Emsley 

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.

Review of Research on Delays in Construction: Emphasis on Causes and Consequences

There is a general belief that completing a project on time is an indicator of success (Assaf and Al-Hejji, 2006; Chan and Kumaraswamy, 1997; Nkado, 1995; Xiao and Proverbs, 2002). This probably explains why so much attention is placed on trying to understand how projects can be completed within the specified project duration. Deviation from the project duration is thus considered to be negative. Therefore much attempt has been made to identify causes of delays that are significant, in order to avoid or minimise their impacts. Some typical causes identified in the literature include such factors as the degree of uniqueness of the project, speed of decision-making, deficiencies in scheduling, poor communication between project actors, low labour productivity, availability of materials and resources, and adversarial contractual relations (Chan and Kumaraswamy, 2002). Researchers have also noted that delays are caused mainly by the actions of the contractor and/or the project owners/clients (Aibinu and Jagboro, 2002).

In uncovering the causes and consequences of construction delays, the research methods adopted are also noteworthy. Scanning the literature, it is striking that the positivist methodology is typically assumed, with researchers adopting quantitative methods (typically self-perception questionnaire surveys) to identify the factors causing construction delays (see e.g. Faridi and El-Sayegh, 2006; Chan and Kumaraswamy, 2002; Toor and Ogunlana, 2008; Le-Hoai et al., 2008; Ellis and Thomas, 2002; Zakeri et al., 1996; Manavazhi and Adhikari, 2002; Acharya et al., 2006; Al-Kharashi and Skitmore; 2009). There is also a sense that these normative ‘factors’ have come to be pre-ordained in the literature such that many researchers simply sought to either confirm that the prevalence of these ‘factors’ or investigate the magnitude of these pre-determined factors in their specific context. Thus, much research on construction delays have hitherto been acontextual, which in turn limits the possibility of transferring lessons learnt from research into practice. Furthermore, the (over-)reliance on selected informants from industry – typically managerial staff – as the basis of knowledge generation to explain the causes and effects of delays can be problematic (Alvesson, 2002).

Critical perspectives of research on construction delays

By reviewing past research on construction delays, four critical observations can be made. Firstly, as discussed above, researchers have mainly been motivated to determine the causes of delays in their respective countries so as to find ways of improving the time performance of projects. However, as it has been argued, such efforts have been futile because of the acontextual approach adopted by such scholars. Consequently, factors have been identified and ‘recycled’ from one research project to the next. Flyvbjerg (2009) observed that delays continue to plague the industry. His research covering 258 projects across 20 nations and 5 continents concluded that 9 out of 10 projects suffer overruns in the 70-year period of his sample projects. Thus, the problem of delays persists, indicating that no learning seems to have taken place from the wealth of research undertaken.

Secondly, although delays can in principle occurs at any stage of a construction project, i.e. from conception stage to completion. Past researches have mainly emphasised the project execution stage, focussing on potential solutions in the construction phase (Chan and Kumaraswamy, 2002; Abdul-Rahman et al., 2006; Acharya et al., 2006; Nkado, 1995). The implications of actions taken at the early stage of projects (also known as the “fuzzy front end” stage) on time performance in the later stages of the project life cycle. This is despite growing recognition of the criticality of the early stages of the project life cycle in shaping project outcomes (see e.g. Kolltveit and Grønhaug, 2004). For example, it is accepted wisdom that the front-end of projects is fraught with information uncertainty and problems among stakeholders of seeking consensus on the assumptions and values that underpin project objectives (Williams and Samset, 2010). Yet, this stage of the project life cycle has largely escaped the attention of researchers explaining project delays. Arguably, many pivotal decisions made during this stage of the project life cycle would have direct and indirect impacts on the long-term success or failure of the projects. As Flyvbjerg (2009) maintained, “no other stage in the project cycle is more susceptible to premature closure, lock-in, path dependence, anchoring, overconfidence, group think and similar problematic behaviour that all result in ignorance of relevant distributional information and thus in inadequate project preparation”.

Thirdly, there is very little critical discussion about the definition of delay. In order for delays to materialise, there must be a deviation from the plan. Yet, it is observed that many researchers on construction delays merely focused their attention on the deviation, rather than the plan. There is a tacit assumption that the plan is always accurate to begin with. However, an ‘inaccurate’ plan – whether optimistic or pessimistic – would yield a deviation. Indeed, project time performance would normally deviate from the plan if the plan is not well-founded and precise to begin with. Flyvbjerg et al. (2003) state that “a significant cause for schedule delays and cost overruns in most large-scale projects can be found in unrealistic baseline plans”. However, researchers of construction delays rarely problematises the accuracy of project time plans and its role in creating the ‘delay’ later in the project life cycle.

Nonetheless, inaccuracies in project time plan have been well-documented in the literature. Williams and Samset (2010), for instance, suggest that psychological and political biases, combined with errors in information and planning methods can lead to unrealistic time plans. Similarly, Flyvbjerg (2009) noted technical, psychological, and political-economic reasons that could lead to unrealistic project plans. Drawing on Kahneman and Tversky’s (1979) notion of the ‘planning fallacy’, Flyvbjerg (2009) observed situations where “planners and project promoters make decisions based on delusional optimism, rather than on a rational weighting of gains, losses and probabilities”. To illustrate the ‘planning fallacy’ in an example, Buehler et al. (2002) showed that there was a tendency for his final-year students of psychology to consistently underestimate the time needed to complete their research dissertation. That said, Flyvbjerg (2009) stressed that it is improbable that an entire profession of forecasters collectively make the same mistakes time after time in forecasting wrongly. Instead, he argued that project managers and planners frequently lie with numbers, as he coined the phrase “strategic misrepresentation” (Flyvbjerg, 2002; 2005; 2009; see also Wachs, 1989 and 1990).

Fourthly, it is observed that human judgement tends to be absent in the study of construction delays (see Skitmore and Ng, 2003; Hoffman et al., 2007). If Flyvbjerg’s (2002) assessment of strategic misrepresentation holds true, then there is much scope to investigate how such misrepresentation is intentionally invoked when creating project time plans. Here, researchers on construction delays have tended to assume that by articulating the causes and consequences of project delays that practitioners would therefore be able to intentionally bring about change for improving time performance. Yet, it is surprising that to find that scholars have hitherto failed to consider the role of intentions play when constructing project time plans at the early stages of the project, which in turn could bring about a delay – intended or otherwise. Indeed, such a critique extends to the wider field of project management, and there is greater purchase in the mainstream management literature in terms of exploring the role of human intentions in seeking managerial outcomes (see e.g. Ghoshal, 2005; Little, 2009, and; Flyvbjerg, 2009).In the next section, the idea of intentionality is considered with a view to seek an application to research on construction delays.

 

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