Ray Crotty takes the c-word off its pedestal.
In 2008, Sir John Egan said: “I’d probably only give the industry about four out of 10, and that’s basically for trying, having its demonstration projects, still being in the game, and still having enough there to actually, perhaps with another big heave, get it done the next time around.” The following year Andrew Wolstenholme reported largely the same lack of achievement as Sir John had done, but seemed to suggest that more of the same – something like his predecessor’s “another big heave” – would bring the breakthrough.
Unfortunately, there is still absolutely no evidence that the “Egan agenda” has delivered even the slightest improvement in industry performance, apart from areas where changes to the law and regulations have compelled it to happen. (The modest success of the demonstration projects is probably attributable to some sort of Hawthorne effect rather than any real improvement.)
So, 15 years on from the original report, the question needs to be asked: did construction fail Sir John, or did Sir John fail construction? It’s important to get this right, otherwise we could spend the next 10 years repeating the earnest but futile efforts of the past 15.
The thrust of the Egan proposals for improving the industry centred around the idea of integrated team working, in a – big C – collaborative commercial environment: partnering, frameworks and other forms of “non-confrontational” ways of working. The idea was that by assembling teams which put aside the apparently innate mistrust and antagonism that pervades traditional contractual relations, one might improve project performance.
Confrontational attitudes per se are seen as being the cause of project failure: projects fail because the people who work in construction are in some way inherently defensive and confrontational. Reduce defensive, confrontational attitudes and you will reduce project failure. A no brainer, you’d think. You’d probably be wrong.
"The reality is not that projects fail because people are confrontational. People are confrontational because projects fail and because they spend most of their time grappling with rubbish information."
Anyone who has ever worked for a living actually delivering construction projects knows that you can hardly make a move in this business without – little c – collaborating with other people. And you don’t do it grudgingly, measuring and keeping account; you do it spontaneously and optimistically, because that’s just how projects work in the real world. Sure, you take care, you check what the other guy says, and you keep track of events.
But you know that there are very few things in life that are more exciting and rewarding than a good construction project. We all know that, we know that’s really why we came into this industry in the first place. And crucially, we know that, without all the other people on the job, that would simply never happen. The sort of collaboration that makes construction possible is not the sort of thing that comes out of contracts, “frameworks”, or “protocols” – if you have to resort to these you’ve lost. It comes from a crazy willingness to trust other people and an equal determination to live up to the trust that others place in you.
So what the heck is really going on?
I think that Sir John and his colleagues got it wrong, they misread construction and misread the key lesson that manufacturing has to offer this industry.
The underlying phenomenon that transformed manufacturing was not collaboration or supply chain management, or any of the other management fads, it was computer systems: CAD/CAM systems, numerical control machine systems, electronic data interchange systems, computer integrated manufacturing systems, enterprise resource planning systems… systems, systems, and more IT systems. And the key thing about all these systems is that they generate information that is, for all practical purposes, effectively perfect, perfectly transparent, never needs to be checked, completely trustworthy and inherently computable.
Without computer systems of this type and, specifically, without perfect information, none of the business transformations that revolutionised manufacturing would have been possible. It was dazzling stuff, but the systems and the “perfect” information came first, all the management innovation followed on behind.
The problem is that the sort of information we have to work with in construction is not like that. It’s not consistent, complete, correct or in any sense trustworthy – it’s rubbish. Actually, given the scale, speed of construction and the complexity of modern buildings, it’s far, far worse than that.
Sir John and his people got things the wrong way around. The reality is not that projects fail because people are confrontational. People are confrontational because projects fail and because they spend most of their time grappling with rubbish information, projects fail more often than they succeed. To suggest that people and firms should put aside the devices and behaviours that protect them from their own failures and the failures of others in this context is naïve and unhelpful.
Projects fail, above all else, because the information we try to work with is rubbish. Which is why BIM – our version of effectively perfect information – is so important. The order of priorities is perfect information first, then Collaboration and all the stuff that Building columnist Tony Bingham calls “buzz-word bumph” can follow. We cannot afford to be distracted at this time by a mirage that has failed so convincingly over the past 15 years.
Ray Crotty is managing director of C3 Systems