Why the industry needs to be uncomfortable with current ways of working

This blog was written by Richard Ogden, Chairman of Buildoffsite

This blog was written by Richard Ogden, Chairman of BuildOffsite

I am delighted to have this opportunity to contribute a blog – particularly at a time when a hugely influential industry like BSRIA is exploring the need for the industry to change its processes.

I have worked in the construction industry for more than 40 years – as client, contractor and property manager. In all that time there has been an almost constant call from voices drawn from right across the industry, from Government and from the media for the industry at large to change its processes and ways of working. To do things differently – to work collaboratively – to partner – to adopt innovative processes – to invest in and adopt new technologies and project management practices and so on. The reason for this clamour is always the same – the need to improve performance and productivity, the need to be less wasteful and more sustainable, to improve the image of the industry, to deliver better value assets, and to make the industry a better and safer place in which to work.

All good and well intentioned stuff but it does seem to be a peculiar feature of the construction industry. I don’t for example hear anything similar coming out of the automotive or consumer products sectors. Industries where investing in change/innovation is constantly being driven by the unforgiving hard edge of competition. OK- I hear (but do not accept) the mantra that construction is in some way different from other industries and frankly I recognise that there is still a whole lot of life left in this view of the industry. I am certainly not going to beat myself up in challenging this position when there is so much more constructive work to be done.

The case for change within construction often comes wrapped up within the covers of a report from an industry or Government appointed committee together with recommendations for action plus of course a set of targets. Inevitably before long yet another report will come delivered by yet another committee having chewed over an almost identical bone which will have come up with broadly similar proposals and another set of targets. All seamless and without any sense of continuity of message or indeed continuity of action.

Don’t get me wrong I am not against this approach as a mechanism to stimulate discussion and debate and indeed I was a member of the Movement for Innovation. However, it’s just that I don’t see much in the way of connection between broad based calls for change and the practical decision taking that goes on day in day out within individual construction businesses looking to win work and improve profitability and competitiveness. Close coupled to this is the reality that the status quo is for many a very comfortable place in which to operate. Unless there is a pressing need for a company to do things differently the chances are that sticking to the knitting will be an attractive option. Why break step if your competitors are operating in much the same way and if business is good.

In my experience it is only when individuals decide that they are uncomfortable with or no longer willing to simply go along with the way things are that meaningful change is likely to happen. If enough individual businesses decide to do things differently then there is the prospect that a sizeable part of the industry will change how it works – not because a report has made recommendations but because they are convinced of the need. Encouraging more decision takers within the industry to be uncomfortable and then encouraging the uncomfortable to take decisive action is how substantive change can happen.

Sometimes change becomes necessary if a business is to survive and prosper. When I worked for a client the cost of construction delivered traditionally became more and more expensive until the point was reached where the business could no longer afford to invest in new construction projects because the cost was not justified by the revenue that the investment would deliver. Think about that for a minute we were a serial client wanting to invest in new construction to help grow our business and to create jobs but the harsh reality was that we had been priced out of the UK market. I suspect that it will not be long before this phenomenon reappears in some sectors of the UK market.

Our decision was quick in coming – if the traditional industry was not able or willing to provide us with the built assets at a price we could afford and to deliver within the timescale in which we needed the assets then we would change our construction model and our supply chains and take on board the challenge of stripping out a significant amount of the waste that we knew to exist within the traditional industry in order to deliver the projects at a price that worked for us and within a timeframe that was acceptable to us. Working in close collaboration with our project partners we demonstrated that it was possible to simplify processes, strip out waste, adopt standardisation as much as possible and most importantly take that essential step of maximising the use of factory made offsite solutions to minimise the need for construction work to be carried out on site. Constructing on site from a set of commodity materials and products is inevitably going to be uncertain and potentially challenging involving low levels of site based productivity, indifferent quality and uncertainty of build programme.

The results we achieved were powerfully impressive in terms of the cash savings made, the additional value we gained and the much faster build times that we achieved. All this – including protecting the margins of our suppliers – was achieved by minimising all forms of waste. That was just fine as far as I was concerned because as a client given the choice I would not want to pay for waste and inefficient processes. I would want to pay for right first time quality, build programmes that are realistic and cost in use that is meaningful.

The learning acquired as a result of this forced change stood my company in good stead and became our standard construction practice. Our approach was also taken up by many other leading clients.

We were not talking about rocket science. The steps we followed involved a relatively simple approach including: giving clear leadership; being sure about what we wanted to achieve; listening to our suppliers and encouraging their advice; being collectively prepared to rethink every aspect of construction – absolutely no sacred cows; not being prepared to accept the message that this or that couldn’t be done – it usually can; be open minded; recognising that there will always be scope to do things even better next time around.

This approach and in particular a recognition that other than for site specific elements it is almost always better to assemble building and civil engineering structures on site is fundamental to the work programme that Buildoffsite has been advocating for more than 10 years. Together with our Membership we will continue to make the case for the increased use of offsite solutions based on sharing information on the innovative projects that our Members have delivered, working together to develop new innovative solutions, promoting new technologies and encouraging the take up of information modelling and the application of lean principles to identify opportunities for introducing more efficient processes.

I am delighted that our Membership continues to grow bringing together leading clients, suppliers, investors, skills and research organisations and so on. The common denominator is that our Membership and those organisations we work with to partner knowledge transfer are all committed to do things better – at a practical level to make change happen and to support continuous improvement.

Front cover imageThe case for offsite solutions will be proven to the satisfaction of clients and suppliers by the tangible project benefits delivered by projects that incorporate offsite methods. This applies just as much to the delivery of building services as it does to all other construction elements. However, there will be no free lunch. An approach based on the use of offsite solutions will need to deserve to be commercially successful. If offsite solutions fail to be competitive with traditional methods on whatever basis the customer deems appropriate then they will not be adopted.  That is precisely how markets should operate. However, I hope that in comparing the performance of offsite solutions with traditional solutions the assessment will include all relevant factors that impact on value including time, cost, quality and cost in use. For example it can still be the case that the precise cost of a potential offsite solution will be compared with the theoretical and highly uncertain predicted cost of traditional construction. As construction inflation increases this simplistic method of assessing project value is likely to become increasingly unreliable. We are working closely with the industry’s professional institutions to improve the understanding of offsite construction and to support the development of new skills.

I have no doubt that the case for offsite solutions will continue to grow and the market will expand rapidly across all sectors. I also have no doubt that we have only just started to scratch the surface in terms of our understanding of what can be achieved in reducing cost, improving client value and improving the performance of the industry. Remaining open minded and being committed to challenge the status quo will continue to drive innovation and to effect the changes that we are called on to support.

If I can pass on one final suggestion it would be to encourage everyone in the industry to be uncomfortable with current ways of working. If we could achieve this we would be well positioned to move on to effecting change.

If anyone wants to learn more about Buildoffsite check out our web site www.buildoffsite.com

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