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Building Against the Clock: The 8 Major Construction Schedule Risks for General Contractors

Jarone Ashkenazi
Published Feb 9, 2024

When a construction project gets off schedule, everything suffers. Your profit, your relationship with the owner, even your reputation can take a hit if the schedule gets too far off base.

As the general contractor, the heavy burden of schedule management lays on your shoulders. To fully execute a holistic schedule, you need to analyze risk, understand the goals of all the stakeholders, and confirm the activity duration for each task. While the owner may not look at the line-by-line construction schedule, they will pay attention to the critical path and milestones throughout the project. This will give them an overarching view of the project and help them understand when major events are happening.

Top 8 Construction Schedule Risks

As we all know, the unexpected is to be expected in construction. Good project risk management starts with remembering that, though you may have the job planned perfectly on paper, it almost always plays out differently on the job site. So, when you develop the project schedule, be sure to include space for float to allow for those unforeseen challenges that pop up.

Creating a schedule is one of the key components of project planning and to do it well you must perform detailed a schedule risk analysis from procurement, subcontractor selection, site conditions, and more. Let’s talk through the top eight construction schedule risks you’re likely to encounter on the job and how to prepare for them.

1. Poor Scope Definition

When the project scope isn’t clearly defined, you’re forced to go off an educated guess. Since you can’t determine a specific activity duration for a poorly defined project scope, you need to make sure to account for extra float in the schedule. Since owners and CMs ask for timelines early on in the design development phase – when the scope is not 100% defined – this will be a recurring issue and you need to communicate that to the appropriate stakeholders and project team.

2. Change in Project Scope

Unfortunately, you have no control over this risk as changes in project scope will come directly from the owner or CM. Any change will impact a schedule (positively or negatively) and so you must assess any change in project scope against how it will impact your critical path and milestones throughout the project. Similar to poor scope definition, you must notify the owner or CM as soon as you grasp the full change in scope and how it impacts your schedule. Being proactive in showing how the change impacts the project schedule will provide clarity, improve decision-making, and make sure you are protected for duration change.

3. Insufficient Project Float. Not Accounting for Schedule Overruns

Even when you have all the information to plan for the duration of every task (e.g. ordering of certain material or completion of a task), there are always unforeseen changes that can impact your schedule and forecasting. Anything from material shortages, transportation delays, site conditions, and many other factors can impact each line item. That is why it is imperative to include a strategic amount of float throughout the project, especially for the items that carry the most risk. These high-risk items are usually directly related to milestones throughout the project and can cause changes to the critical path (CPM) and overall schedule duration.

4. Supply Chain Issues

Like I mentioned above, everything from the price of materials, availability of transportation (trucks, planes, etc.), and even unforeseen natural disasters can impact a schedule. Changes in demand, labor disputes and more can impact a supply chain and it is imperative to assess the risk and availability of a certain line item by analyzing the overarching supply chain risk for your project.

5. Poorly Sequenced Project Activities

For a schedule to hum along without any major hiccups, sequencing activities correctly is crucial. Each task will directly impact the following task and if certain tasks aren’t linked together, their dependencies (the tasks that can only begin once the previous tasks are done) cannot begin. For example, before paint needs to begin, the framing, rough MEP, drywall, tape/mud all need to be sequenced and linked to inform the painter when they can begin. This is where you’ll want to lean on some project management software to help properly sequence activities in your project schedule.

6. Poor Project Management

Poor project management can cause a domino effect throughout the whole project and is one of the biggest project schedule risks. Often, this stems from a lack of communication. Your CM may not have the best communication tactics or you may have poor lines of communication with your subcontractors and suppliers. When you are not clear on what’s expected, don’t have an efficient mode of communication, or are not working collaboratively, the project schedule will negatively be impacted. Make sure that there is open communication with all stakeholders and that you are working together to assess and analyze risks.

7. Labor Shortages

No matter the size or complexity of the project scope, finding qualified labor can be a challenge on a job site. And simply, the lack of appropriate manpower to finish a certain activity will cause schedule delays. Although you are not directly responsible for your subcontractor’s workforce, it is imperative to properly vet your subcontractors to understand their workforce size to avoid some of these issues.

8. Health and Safety Hazards

Construction is one of the most dangerous industries out there. Implementing proper health and safety standards on your job sites is one of the biggest steps you can take to effective risk mitigation on the job site. Require your subcontractors to be properly trained on specific pieces of equipment and trained to handle any pending hazards. You won’t be able to predict when an earthquake will come or when someone may fall off a ladder, but if you instill proper safety protocols, you can equip your team members with the resources they need to stay safe.

Risk Mitigation is Critical to Maintaining Your Project Schedule

Yes, construction is a high-risk environment, but if you have a strong project schedule and perform schedule risk assessment you can manage your risk throughout the lifecycle of the project. It is essential to conduct a thorough schedule risk analysis at the onset of the schedule creation so that all stakeholders are aware of the associated risks with the project. While it is impossible to eliminate all risks, especially on complex projects, identifying the activity duration of each line item, accounting for schedule overruns, and communicating with all stakeholders throughout are key to project success.

Further Reading: Why Spend Time With Project Controls

Jarone Ashkenazi

Jarone started his construction career working for a commercial general contractor in Los Angeles, before transitioning to being an Owner's Representative for the past eight years. Jarone has led multiple projects and has been integral in cross-departmental communication and implementation of processes with design, leasing, planning and facilities/operations teams.

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