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Civil Engineer blog

12 common causes of low productivity in construction

24 August 2022

A new ICE paper looks at causes of poor productivity in some of the UK’s largest recent construction programmes and shows how better procurement practices can address these.

12 common causes of low productivity in construction
Engineers involved in the procurement process are urged to use the guidance as a starting point. Image credit: Panchenko V/Shutterstock

With the ongoing climate emergency, tightly squeezed public finances, and high levels of inflation, civil engineering productivity has never been more important.

There are many ways to increase productivity and improving the industry’s procurement practices represents a major opportunity.

For this reason, the ICE has produced a new paper that gives guidance on how to improve procurement practices and raise productivity.

But what are the common causes of low productivity in construction in the UK? And how many of these are you familiar with?

1. Design development

In the design development phase of a project, failure to engage contractors and the supply chain at an early stage of design and planning is a major issue.

Without an integrated approach between the designer and supply chain at the right time, the design development can miss opportunities for innovation and building efficiency into planning.

2. Design responsibility

When it comes to design responsibility, there can be problems when there’s a transfer of responsibility at design handover stages.

Designers being overcautious in relation to design liability can lead to over-design.

3. Specifications

If clients don’t provide sufficiently flexible specifications, this can cause low productivity. Ideally, specifications should be flexible enough to support innovation, improved buildability and the delivery of zero-carbon targets.

4. Inefficient procurement procedures

Having the right procurement procedures can play a major part in improving productivity.

Inefficiencies include requiring significant amounts of detailed design to be undertaken as part of tender submissions, which unnecessarily consumes scarce design resources.

5. Project leadership

Project leaders are central to driving productivity improvements across projects.

Here, issues can arise by leaders not recognising the importance of their role in establishing a culture that supports collaboration and increased productivity.

6. Integrated and collaborative working

Integrated and collaborative working is key to improving the productivity of any project.

Issues here include clients not having integrated project structures that support collaborative working, so that all parties can share knowledge, experience and ideas.

7. Resource and skills planning

A number of causes of low productivity have been linked to inadequate resource and skills planning.

Examples include the failure to apply production line planning and programming techniques to optimise the use of available construction resources.

8. Logistics

With logistics, poor productivity can result from a failure to identify at an early stage the materials and products requirements.

Supply-chain arrangements and contingency plans also need to be identified early to ensure a smooth and reliable supply of materials throughout the project.

9. Health, safety and welfare

Failure to establish a project culture that has a strong focus on safety and welfare can affect productivity.

Focus is needed here to minimise the adverse impacts of accidents, injuries and fatalities on the works programme, worker morale and productivity.

10. Productivity data

To tackle productivity, it’s important to have reliable baseline productivity rates.

Where performance measures are used, often they’re inappropriate and do not adequately cover the efficient use of labour, plant and materials.

11. Commercial incentivisation

Creating the right commercial incentives is important to productivity.

Issues here can include the failure to ensure that simple and practical incentives and performance measures are built into the contract to motivate the contractor and its supply chain to deliver best value.

12. Project and contract management

The last common cause of low productivity that has been identified concerns project and contract management.

Here, the contract managers may lack the training and skills to identify improved productivity opportunities.

The ICE paper sets out suggested approaches to procurement that are aimed at addressing the common causes of low productivity. The guidance to help raise productivity is presented in nine groups:

A. Clarity and reliability of requirements

B. Efficient procurement procedures

C. Procurement of design development

D. Procurement strategy to address productivity improvements

E. Pre-procurement market engagement

F. Pre-qualification and tenderer selection procedures

G. Contract award criteria

H. Procurement governance and assurance procedures

I. Contract scope and specifications

Suggested approaches range from streamlining the procurement process to creating a team focus on improving productivity from the outset.

This includes supplier productivity proposals forming part of the contract award criteria and being carried forward into delivery.

Engineers involved in the civil engineering procurement process are urged to use the guidance as a starting point for addressing common issues and ensuring that procurement supports high productivity.

Read the guidance note

In case you missed it...

  • Gary Wright, director at Rowsell Wright