The Lyncinerator on… Failure

Don’t get me started.  Stuck on an interminably delayed flight, I leafed through the airline magazine.  An article on a new Museum of Failure in Sweden caught my eye.  “Only in Scandinavia” I thought, cynically.  But it made interesting reading.  The curator is a psychologist and innovation researcher who got fed up with hearing people talk only about success and not the failures that lay behind it, his view is that development only comes through learning from failure.  The fact that the museum is partly funded by the Swedish governmental department that supports industrial R&D suggests that he is not the only one to think this way.   The museum demonstrates products and services that did not take off, and explains some of the reasons why.  It was a thought provoking and informative article.

This blog was written by Lynne Ceeney, Technical Director at BSRIA

I talked to some colleagues about the museum and the article, and laughingly said I would write a blog titled “BSRIA is good at failure”.   I’m sure you can imagine the raised eyebrows, and concerns that this could be misconstrued.  And in a world of short tweets and clickbait headlines this is a justified concern.  But for an industry like ours, understanding and learning from failure is really important, and maybe we don’t talk about failure enough.

In-use failure of safety critical components and elements simply should not happen.  That’s what testing and inspection are for, although we know that sadly, these are not fail-safe.  But talking about those failures is imperative.  The causes of these failures are shared openly and quickly, so that future incidents can be prevented.  Public enquiries are one route, but for less public failures, as an industry we need to look at the “no blame” culture that the aviation industry has introduced.  (More correctly perhaps, it’s a “just” culture – where people are rewarded for providing safely related failure information.  Deliberately unsafe actions or decisions are still penalised).  If this type of safety critical failure is declared and investigated, it can and should prevent future incidents.  It seems that litigation and insurance may get in the way of the necessary “no blame / just” culture, and there is a definite need for an industry-wide approach to investigate and remedy this.

But what about failures that only interrupt occupant functioning and are inconvenient?  There is a tendency to patch or fix, or to simply replace, and to move on without capturing learning.  This is one of the points where BSRIA comes into its own.  Our Problem Investigation team get to see multiple failures in different buildings, delivered and managed by different teams.  This has two consequences: (1) we are quick at spotting the cause of problems which cannot be simply identified by front line repair teams because we know where to look with our analytics, so front line teams can fix the problem efficiently, and (2) we are able to upcycle our learning into publications, guidance and training to pass preventative knowledge to the industry.  A good example of this is our work on pipework corrosion, which we have been able to investigate in some depth and include our learnings in guidance for water commissioning.  This helps optimise the performance of existing buildings, but importantly we can also influence the design of the next generation of components and buildings.  To increase our impact, we need to encourage more failures to be reported and investigated so that we can better understand trends and problems, and report back to the industry as to how to remedy them.  This too requires an industry culture that recognises the value of learning from failure.

And of course innovation doesn’t happen without failure.   There are of course degrees of failure (the Museum features frozen pizza marketed under the brand of a toothpaste company, I would have loved to have listened to the strategy meeting for that!).  Controlled failure is useful – in our test laboratories we help establish parameters for new products through testing prototypes, and then we test the end product on behalf of the manufacturer.   We move beyond labs though, and we monitor technologies in the real world, in occupied buildings, to see what happens when expert and non-expert users are let loose on equipment and to see how it performs and what doesn’t work so well.  All useful data for the next iteration of designs, products and systems.

So BSRIA is pretty good at failure – investigation, remedy and recommendation for prevention.  And the industry clearly benefits from reporting, investigating and talking about failure.  So we need to think about how we can encourage this culturally, and how to process and use what we find.

The flight, incidentally, was very delayed.  I read the whole magazine.  And I couldn’t blame the pilot, it was a weather issue.  But the failure to deliver on board food because they had sold out – well that was a failure too far, don’t get me started…

 

The Lyncinerator, September 2017.

 

 

 

Is construction still a losing game for most women?

Julia Evans, BSRIA Chief Executive

Julia Evans, BSRIA Chief Executive

Politics is all about attempting to second-guess the mind of the electorate. Although cynics might cast a sceptical eye at the timing of the Cabinet reshuffle, the fact that women are more prominent in politics is a cause for celebration. After all, women make up 52% of Britain’s population, so increasing female ministers to around a quarter of the Cabinet (6 out of 17) is a belated step in the right direction1. But when there are so many talented women, why is it that more of them don’t achieve high office?

Before we cast too may stones, we in the construction industry need to have a good look in the mirror. Women make up just 11% of the workforce and our industry’s lack of progress towards equality is shameful. Aside from the lack of diversity, from a practical perspective, with one in five workers soon to reach retirement the industry needs to increase its skilled workforce. It needs to thus start attracting and retaining talented professionals regardless of gender, age or ethnicity (needless to say, ethnic minorities are also under-represented in construction2).

Women have struggled to get an equal footing in construction, but the representation of women in our industry has waxed and waned in recent history, demonstrating that, left to chance, both government leadership and the fluctuating demands for skilled labour can be persuasive. Perhaps Nicky Morgan, the new Minister for Women and Equalities ought to have something to say about this too.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of women who work as roofers, bricklayers and glaziers is currently so low as to be essentially unmeasurable. It hasn’t always been like this. In the 18th century, women in Britain worked as apprentices “in a host of construction occupations, including as bricklayers, carpenters, joiners and shipwrights”. However, by the early 19th century, with changes in legislation and new divisions of skilled/unskilled labour, women became increasingly excluded. By 1861 trades including that of carpenter, plumber, painter, and mason, were subsequently largely ‘male’3.

The First World War led to a marked increase in women in the building trades through a government agreement with the trade unions which “allowed women into skilled male jobs as long as wages were kept low and they were released at the end of the war”. During the second world war, there was similarly an estimated shortage of 50, 000 building workers, so the National Joint Council for the Building Industry agreed that employers should identify whether any men were available first before a role was filled by a woman (who earned, on average, 40% less their male counterparts—and it’s still not perfect now, with women earning c10% less4). The bias of the apprenticeship systems and trade unions were largely responsible for the fact that women in the building industry declined once more from the 1950’s to ‘70s3.

We’re currently back to the issue of a lack of available skilled labour. The government recognises this, and I welcome the recently announced BIS funding call specifically designed to help women progress as engineers. The funding will support employer-led training to encourage career conversions and progression in the industry. This call is in response to a recent report identifying that “substantially increasing the number of engineers would help the UK economy […] and the potential to significantly increase the stock of engineers by improving the proportion of women working in engineering jobs”5.

Carbon Comfort event 14th March-lowFunding new training opportunities is a great step forward, but to see real change we need industry leaders to be proactive in embedding a more diverse and inclusive work culture. The majority of women aged 25-45 find that attitudes, behaviours and perceptions are the greatest barriers3.

If you feel there is nothing new in the story, then the words ‘ostrich’ and ‘sand’ come to mind. It is about you. It’s about you and how you and your business behave now, not just when we have the time given that the recession is over and it’s a ‘nice to do’.

So, inspirational leadership—and not just policy—will foster a more inclusive and skilled workforce. Look around you. How many women are in senior management roles? What is your office culture really like? Is your organisation progressive or part of the problem? And, most importantly, what are you going to pledge to do about it?

1 Reshuffle 2014: Women control one in four pounds of government spending. Huffington Post, 15 July 2014

Inquiry into Race Discrimination in the Construction Industry, Action Plan. Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2010

3 Building the future: women in construction, The Smith Institute, 2014

Gender pay gaps 2012. David Perfect, Equality and Human Rights Commission Briefing Paper 6.

 Employer ownership: developing women engineers,BIS, 23 June 2014

Why do women leave architecture? Ann de Graft-Johnson et al., 2003.

If you are interested in careers at BSRIA then please check out our website. We also have an extensive training programme covering topics like BIM and the Building Regulations. 

Best & Worst Practices Please!

Julia Evans, BSRIA Chief Executive

Julia Evans, BSRIA Chief Executive

BSRIA recently held a workshop on behalf of DECC identifying priorities to promote low carbon heating and cooling in non-domestic buildings as part of the development of its low carbon heat strategy.  Attendees were drawn from both the Young Engineers and Energy and Sustainability BSRIA networks.  Personal thanks to AECOM’s Ant Wilson for chairing the event.

It was a busy day.  It recognised that both new and existing buildings have a pivotal role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and by 2050 one of the key requirements will continue to be how we provide heating and cooling.

BSRIA’s Peter Tse and Ian Orme both gave excellent presentations which drew on both good and poor practices identified from more than 50 independently assessed case studies.  These, I felt, answered the questions “what does good practice look like”, as well as “what are the consequences when its not followed”.

The workshop session resulted in many suggestions as to priorities for the future.  There were a couple which caught my eye.

In response to the suggestion that one of the priorities for DECC should be identifying independently assessed best practice and developing exemplars of new technologies, a number of delegates felt that instances of “bad practice” were even more helpful.  It seemed to me that a priority for at least a part of the audience was to know what to avoid doing.  Perhaps this reflects the industry’s receptiveness to messages about risk, and that we often learn most when we make mistakes.  The emphasis on “independent assessment” also resonated.  Many have become sceptical about instances of self-identified “best practice”, and BSRIA’s independent guidance on what works, and what does not, is there to assist the industry do things better.

Another of the workshop themes was on “skills shortages”.  After many years of recession, construction companies have euphemistically “right sized”, and this means that we have lost a lot of great talent from the industry.  Now that there are green shoots of recovery in construction, there is already talk of an exacerbated “skills gap”.  This gap makes it even more challenging for the industry to deliver buildings which meet the needs of their occupiers and where innovation is required to help tackle climate change, and meet the UK’s commitment to “zero carbon” and “very low energy” buildings. This reminded me of another of BSRIA’s strengths – training provision.

BSRIA's 2014/15 Training Brochure

BSRIA’s 2014/15 Training Brochure

Finally there was an astute observation that our recent quest for low carbon buildings has meant that we have worried less about the efficient use of energy, with the net outcome that we can end up with an EPC A rating for carbon design, but a DEC G rating for energy in use.  The move to policies that move us to buildings which are both zero carbon and nearly zero energy use will hopefully remedy this, although I suspect this particular journey may contain further unintended consequences before we reach that goal.

The workshop identified many requirements if we are to create environmentally conscious buildings that meet user needs, and importantly maintain these elements over the life of the building.

BSRIA’s mission remains to “make buildings better”.  As part of my role, I’m listening to our members and the industry what they expect from BSRIA.  I’d like to extend this offer to you, so if you have ideas about BSRIA’s future role, please send them to me: Julia.evans@bsria.co.uk.

To learn more about the BSRIA workshop you can download all the presentations from our website. 

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