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Project Schedule Delay - Causes and Ways to Mitigate It

If your work involves contributing to project delivery, project schedule delays are unavoidable " Many of the project managers think that completing projects on time appears only on books. Well, this is not true. With effective project management practices, using risk management skills, effective planning, and resource management, project schedule delays can be minimized. 

We will be going over these in this post:

  • Causes of Schedule Delays in Projects
  • The common causes for Schedule Delays in Projects
  • How to mitigate project schedule delays
  • Let’s go through each of them one by one.
  • What is Project Delay?

Before diving into details of schedule delays in projects, let's describe what the project delay is. There is a popular magic triangle in project management. The triangle reflects three aspects of the project - scope, cost and schedule. The scope is what is to be delivered from the project.

There is a defined budget to complete the project that is planned to be spent throughout the project.
The project team focuses on project scope and spends money to complete the project on time. The project schedule defines activity start, finish dates and duration

If the planned activities cannot be completed on time in a project, this is called a "delay". Note that, delays can be on activity level, phase level, or the overall project level. For instance if a team member is completing an activity in 9 days while the original duration of the activity was 7 days, there is an activity level delay. Similarly, there could be delay in project phases. Finally, if the overall project deadline is delayed, this will be a project schedule delay.

Causes for Project Schedule Delays

When we’ve surveyed 425 participants who attended our corporate training programs, 47.2% of the respondents reported that schedule delays are the top project management issue in their organization.

As you can see from the pie chart, schedule delays were the number one issue for their organization for the majority of the project managers. There can be several reasons for a project delay. We will be going over the top five reasons for the project schedule delays.

1- Ineffective Scope Management

The project team must collect complete and correct customer requirements. Once done, it should define a clear scope. In case the scope if not clear, there may be misunderstanding as to what customer wants. This can result in rework and project schedule delays. How can an unclear scope cause a delay, let’s understand it a little further. Let’s say for instance, a customer did not communicate his needs well to the project team. The result of this will be ambiguous definition of the scope statement. When the product development will start the work, there may be some work done based on assumptions. Furthermore, the team might even feel the need to improve or add to the features to make the product function or to look better. Hence, there could be scope creep and gold plating happening also. 

It's possible that the customer did communicate correct requirements but the project team didn't write the requirements correctly or completely.  Resultantly, in the scope statement, there may be more product features written. Or probably some product features weren’t written clearly or in detail. What would happen next is that upon inspection of the deliverables, the customer would find mismatches between what he wanted and what was delivered. So, he may be requesting rework on some of the deliverables, causing project schedule delays.

As you see, ineffective scope management could easily become the reason for project schedule delays. Hence, the project manager and his team must ensure that they gather maximum information from the customer and document it well. The project manager then must make sure throughout the project to adhere to the customer requirements. He should understand that unclear scope could decrease the amount of work to be done and it could also increase it very much. So, he should not let project schedule delays occur due to ineffective scope management.


2- Unrealistic Activity Estimation

Once the project scope has been defined, the project team makes the activity estimations. Since, estimation of every single activity can affect the project deadline, definitive and realistic estimation must be ensured. If an unrealistic activity estimation is made, the project is bound to witness delays.

If an activity could be done in 10 days, for instance but it was planned for 20 days, what would be its effect on the project? Well, it'll cause the project to complete 10 days late. Imagine then if estimation for several activities is not done correctly, how much impact this will have on the project deadline?

In order to estimate an activity duration, the scope must be clear. If the project scope wasn't written clearly but you are good in estimation. It is because when the activity will start, you may have to make scope adjustments, causing the activity to deviate from the planned duration. Furthermore, the project manager should know how competent his resources are and how productive they are to complete the activities. He should also know about the availability of the material and equipment required to complete the activity. Based on all this information, he can then correctly estimate project activities. Furthermore, the project manager should use his expert judgement to estimate the activity and not assumptions

The best estimation is often based on past experience of doing a similar activity. However, when you have not done a similar activity before, you could apply various estimation techniques for the activity estimation. For example, there are techniques recommended by PMI that you can use. These techniques are 3-point estimation, Parametric estimation, Analogous estimation. These techniques help you prevent making assumptions for activity duration and make realistic estimations instead.

3- Improper Risk Management

Every project has a certain level of risk. In fact, every individual project activity may have some level of risk associated to it. If a risk occurs and there is no ready plan to deal with the risk, you will experience project schedule delays. Depending on the severity of the risk, the delay could be minor but it could also be significant. 

However, when you have proper risk management in place, you would look at every possible thing or scenario that could cause delay in the project. You will also ensure that proper risk assessment is done, risk owners are assigned, risk control plan exists and that it is also implemented well. 

Risks, once identified, should be properly assessed for their probability and impact. If you’ve determined the risk, but you did not understand well the severity of its impact, for instance, its planning will not be worth it. Furthermore, risks should also be properly categorized and prioritized to help you manage them well. 

One of the risk management strategies to overcome project schedule delays is reserve management. However, often absence of reserve management also become source of project schedule delays. If you know that a risk could occur and it will cause a project delay, you should add a contingency reserve in the activities. The reserve could also be added in project phases, or in the entire project. So, when an identified risk occurs, the reserve to prevent the project from getting late will be utilized.

So, in the absence of risk management or with improper risk management, risks will occur and you will not be able to handle them. Therefore, proper and continuous risk management is very important if you want to avoid project schedule delays. It will help you not only in meeting project deadlines but also fulfilling the project budget.


4- Incompetent Resources
Assigning competent resources for the project activities is crucial. If you assign a junior team member for an activity that requires seniority, it is obvious that the activity will take longer to complete. This will then result in schedule delays in projects.

Assigning an incompetent resource may be good in terms of saving money but your project activities may end up delaying just because of him. A resource who is incompetent to do a particular job may be too slow than expected in completing the activity. Or probably he is not skilled enough to produce the deliverables as expected, causing the need to rework.
We know that a project often consists of hundreds or thousands of activities. You can imagine how much collective delay incompetent resources could cause to these activities. Competent resources on the other hand are not only good for completing the activities, they can focus to achieve the project objectives. They also aim to work faster, they reduce waste and incorporate their creativity to achieve the best results. 

Therefore, the project manager should always carefully identify and understand the technical as well as the non-technical requirements of the activities. And, make sure to assign competent resources to get the

5- Gold Plating
Gold plating is a project management term defined as "doing more than the required project work". In some cases, project resources continue to add on new functions or features or try to do more although their activity has finished for a particular task. This causes project schedule delays. Project management is all about delivering a defined scope, within a defined budget and schedule. Not, delivering more than the agreed scope.

Though Gold Plating may be good for the customer as he would be getting additional things for free, it costs the project more. In some cases, the customer does not like to get additional features. So, he may not be happy with the extra effort that you have made. 

The project team gold plates with good intentions, which are obviously to please the customer more. And, sometimes, the project manager adds extra features to earn credit. Or, he may want it done to divert customer's attention from defects or to prove his team's ability.

5- Gold Plating
Gold plating is a project management term defined as "doing more than the required project work". In some cases, project resources continue to add on new functions or features or try to do more although their activity has finished for a particular task. This causes project schedule delays. Project management is all about delivering a defined scope, within a defined budget and schedule. Not, delivering more than the agreed scope.

Though Gold Plating may be good for the customer as he would be getting additional things for free, it costs the project more. In some cases, the customer does not like to get additional features. So, he may not be happy with the extra effort that you have made. 

The project team gold plates with good intentions, which are obviously to please the customer more. And, sometimes, the project manager adds extra features to earn credit. Or, he may want it done to divert customer's attention from defects or to prove his team's ability.  However, it may backfire. In either cases, whether the customer likes gold plated outcomes or not, you will incur more cost on the project and also face schedule delays.  

How to Mitigate Project Schedule Delays

There are three fundamental ways of mitigating project schedule delays and these are explained below.

1-) Make Project Scope Clear
If the scope is not clear, there may be mismatches between what is delivered and what customer had actually wanted. If there are mismatches, the rework activities will delay the project. So, for the scope to be clear, we should first of all make sure to collect customer’s requirements thoroughly. 

When interacting with the customer, you must make sure to ask as many questions as possible until the customer confirms that you have understood exactly what he wants. No assumptions should be made! The next step is to define a clear project scope. The scope includes the acceptance criteria, constraints, exclusions and the detail of the deliverables needed. It also includes description of the work needed to produce the required deliverables. Hence, defining a perfect scope, which is also clear, unambiguous and detailed is very important. It not only helps stay on the schedule, it also helps you run the project smoothly. 

5- Gold Plating
Gold plating is a project management term defined as "doing more than the required project work". In some cases, project resources continue to add on new functions or features or try to do more although their activity has finished for a particular task. This causes project schedule delays. Project management is all about delivering a defined scope, within a defined budget and schedule. Not, delivering more than the agreed scope.

Though Gold Plating may be good for the customer as he would be getting additional things for free, it costs the project more. In some cases, the customer does not like to get additional features. So, he may not be happy with the extra effort that you have made. 

The project team gold plates with good intentions, which are obviously to please the customer more. And, sometimes, the project manager adds extra features to earn credit. Or, he may want it done to divert customer's attention from defects or to prove his team's ability.  However, it may backfire. In either cases, whether the customer likes gold plated outcomes or not, you will incur more cost on the project and also face schedule delays.  

How to Mitigate Project Schedule Delays
There are three fundamental ways of mitigating project schedule delays and these are explained below.

1-) Make Project Scope Clear

If the scope is not clear, there may be mismatches between what is delivered and what customer had actually wanted. If there are mismatches, the rework activities will delay the project. So, for the scope to be clear, we should first of all make sure to collect customer’s requirements thoroughly. 

When interacting with the customer, you must make sure to ask as many questions as possible until the customer confirms that you have understood exactly what he wants. No assumptions should be made! The next step is to define a clear project scope. The scope includes the acceptance criteria, constraints, exclusions and the detail of the deliverables needed. It also includes description of the work needed to produce the required deliverables. Hence, defining a perfect scope, which is also clear, unambiguous and detailed is very important. It not only helps stay on the schedule, it also helps you run the project smoothly. 

2-) Acquire Competent Resources
Competent project resources would make realistic project estimation and complete the activities on time. These resources will focus on goals and they will be more productive and resilient to stressful situation. Such resources will show creativity and their work and resolve any problems quickly.. Furthermore, with basic project management knowledge that they may possess, they would have the ability to organize their work and work under the plans. 
Hence, having competent resources will ensure the project work is completed as planned and that there will be no hindrances on the way. Thus, the project manager must know the level of competency required on the project activities and acquire the resources accordingly. Competent project resources will be very helpful in meeting deadlines and preventing project schedule delays

3-) Effective Change Management
An effective change management is necessary to ensure a consistent, measurable and structured environment to deal with the change requests. Your organization should have a document that defines the procedure and the work flow for effective change management. And, the PM should ensure that every change request should go through a proper change management.

Once the scope has been made clear, every new requirement must be managed through change management. During project execution, there is often need to make changes. And the changes may be requested by the project resources, the project manager, sponsor or the customer itself. The project manager, along with other key stakeholders should assess the change requests. He should evaluate the effect of the changes and also understand the effect if the changes are not made. Any change that is not properly assessed and which is not beneficial must not be authorized. If these are authorized, their implementation will unnecessarily consume project time and cause project schedule delays. 

Once the project manager has assessed the change request, he must inform the sponsor and the customer how the change will affect the project budget and the schedule. He must also take the approval of the sponsor and the customer before allowing the team to work on the change. If effective change management is not implemented in the organization, there may be problems in the project and there could be project schedule delays as well

4-) Accommodate Risks' Schedule Effect
When a risk occurs in a project, there will be two effects to the project immediately. It will require a budget and also time will be needed to overcome the effect. Therefore, risk management must ensure that schedule buffers exists for the probable risks that can affect the project schedule.

During the project planning phase, the project manager should determine the right amount of buffers to include in the project schedule. The buffers required should be based on the thorough risk assessment and not assumptions. And, during the execution phase, if a risk does occur and an activity delays, only the buffer should be consumed. The time which is consumed outside project buffer will delay the project and so this should be prevented.

Summary

Project schedule delays have a very negative effect on clients, consultants and the contractors. They lose trust on you and they do not look at you with confidence in terms of future relationship and business growth. Not just this, even the resources of the project may lose their morale. It is because when they see the project going off the track, they think putting full effort to it wouldn't be worth it as the project will be considered failed anyway.


According to a survey conducted in 2018 by PMI Pulse of the Profession, just 52% of the projects worldwide could complete on time. This is a shocking figure indeed. But, it is actually the bitter truth that most of the project face delays. Whether it is an IT project, Civil, Mechanical or any other project, schedule delays will be there.


So, it is ultimately responsibility of the project manager to try to avoid the delays or mitigate the effect. And for him to do so, he should ensure that he has competent resources, his activity estimation is correct, he has effective risk management in place. Moreover, he should give special attention to the scope that it should be clear. Effective reserve management will also contribute a lot in preventing project delays. 


So, in order to avoid project delays, which also causes cost overruns, every effort should be made to avoid the delays. One delayed project may be acceptable but several projects start to delay, there will be unacceptable or irreversible consequences.

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