A Common Sense Approach to Lifting Construction Productivity

Thursday, May 14th, 2015
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I gave a couple of talks recently at DesignBUILD Expo in Sydney.

One of them discussed the steps needed to get the most from Building Information Modelling (BIM). As I prepared the paper, it struck me that the seemingly endless research into – and debates and arguments over – productivity too often obscure the simple things we need to do to lift productivity.

The high level position of the Australian Construction Industry Forum (ACIF) and its government counterpart the Australasian Procurement and Construction Council (APCC) on BIM is pretty straightforward. BIM is a wonderful tool that has the potential to unlock significant productivity improvements, but its full power can’t be utilised unless the conventional industry approach to appointing and managing project teams is changed.

The changes are not rocket science. They are all about involving the people who must build and manage the assets we design and build as early in the asset delivery process as possible.

The builders, trade contractors and facility managers all have the capacity to make substantial contributions to the end result of the process. The builders can anticipate issues with buildability and materials handling and coordination as the designs are developed in the form of a model. Tradespeople can provide experience on material selection, siting of plant and penetrations, and they can anticipate coordination issues as well.

The end result of having all of them around the table with architects, engineers and cost consultants at the early stages of translating client needs to a model should be to eliminate many sources of wasted effort, and causes of disagreements and disputes.

Here are some of the benefits of greater, earlier, involvement by the people who will build the asset:

  • Operator input optimises functionality and whole of life performance
  • Information flow during concept design is streamlined
  • The model is prepared to meet the client’s budget, rather than  having to cost to meet the final design
  • ‘Silos’ between consultants and contractors are eliminated
  • Zero tolerance for defects caused by management, design, or construction issues can become an early priority
  • Manufacturer design can be incorporated  into architecture and engineering design
  • Production control rigour between trades and material handling is built into the model
  • Detail planning and handover is designed into the model
  • Continuity of work can be planned
  • Variations can be minimised or eliminated
  • Design iterations are rapid, real time, and far more efficient and cost effective.

In addition to those benefits, which should be obvious to anyone who knows how the industry works conventionally, is an equally important outcome – maybe even the most important: the quality of relationships that are developed from the beginning of each project and generally remain the same till the project is complete. Remember that old saw “the project that starts badly generally ends badly”?

The relationships amongst members of the project team, including designers and the client’s representatives, are critical to the likely outcomes of the process. Having the builder and trades involved early and working on the model encourages understanding between team members. It also generates respect from one to the other for the contribution they each make to the early stages of the process. Involvement in the development of the model should create ownership of it and the work methods inherent in it.

With that should also come agreed approaches to dealing with risks that can be anticipated and recorded in a risk register with strategies to deal with them – the chances of dealing with risk events in a collaborative “best for job” way are maximised.

All of that reminded me of the challenge that is at the front of the Guide to Leading Practice for Dispute Avoidance and Resolution published by the Cooperative Research Centre for Construction Innovation in 2009. Whilst the guide is focused on dispute avoidance, it recognises that strategies and actions to avoid disputes are often the same as those that need to be planned for to achieve a successful project. It also clearly recognises that it’s the culture of the project team that determines whether the project is a success or not.

Here’s the challenge: to avoid and resolve disputes, a cultural change is required within the construction industry.

Research undertaken for this project showed that there are several factors critical to minimisation and avoidance of disputes.  They are:

  • Recognition that each construction project involves the creation of a new group of people with diverse interests. There is thus the need to create a culture within the group which is project oriented but which recognises the financial and social requirements of each participant, and facilitates the building of trust between them.
  • In selecting project participants, significant weight should be given to the attitude of a participant, as well as its capacity and pricing.
  • The early involvement of head contractors, specialist subcontractors and designers with the client and other project sponsors.
  • Sensible risk allocation.
  • Appropriate delegation of authority, including financial authority, to problem solve rapidly.
  • Selecting a project delivery mechanism and contractual framework that reflects the matters above.

Without the cultural change inherent in adopting the concepts above, the Australian economy will continue to suffer wastage from disputes in the construction industry estimated at approximately $7 billion per annum.

If we get that right, productivity will look after itself.

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