Learning Lessons in Construction

28 February 2013 | By Catherine Wheatcroft

Given the complex nature, multi-faceted elements and tight controls within construction projects, it would be right to assume that lessons learnt are ‘standard practice’.

When mistakes potentially cost £millions in more materials, repeating effort and throwing more resources at the problem, it would be critical to reduce the likelihood of this happening. Most projects are time and deadline dependant, like a school development that must be ready for pupils returning after the summer holidays, or a public amenity whose opening date has been widely publicised. Although in reality it will be the client driving the deadline and the construction company that has agreed to meet it in the first place!

So the process of bidding, winning, planning, managing, creating and handing over the project is immense, we appreciate that. We also know that this is any construction company’s bread and butter; it is what they do and have done for years. The methods are similar, practices and processes finely tuned, contractor relations developed and legal aspects prepared for. We accept that there will always be unforeseen areas where things transpire only when work has commenced, the site cleared or construction starts. Construction companies mitigate for this and have finely tuned governance and risk assessment procedures in place to identify and plan for such eventualities.

So why do projects appear to still overrun and cost more than they should? With such in depth processes and procedures in place, the combined experiences and of course, learning from previous lessons, are their still widely reported issues and failures?

The method for getting work in is usually based on a bid or tender process, certainly when we are looking at multi £million contracts. The client releases the tender with their spend requirements, deadlines and vision. For a construction company to be considered, there is some work involved to not only pull together a suitable bid but to decide as a business if it can be done within the financial and time limitations. As the client usually drives these factors, the construction company will need, to an extent, to work within them.

It can take anywhere from two to eight weeks to pull the bid together, which involves knowledge of previous similar projects, talking to contractors, suppliers, estimators and a large dose of assumption making at this stage. Business directors will rigorously check the bid before being approved for submission. And then, assuming they were successful, the project will be passed to an experienced project manger to ‘make it happen’.

Now that is a brief resume of the process, which sounds plausible and it is now in the hands of an experienced team of professionals to implement.

It is at this point that things can go wrong. Take some obvious examples:

• The project manager takes the project so far but then leaves and someone else has to pick up the reins.
• Internal politics or power games between individuals mean that project managers and site managers are not always working together.
• Communication and workflow between contractors and business functions is weak with no flow between them.
• The project manager has concerns about overrun but the site manager dismisses them until it is too late.
• It is seen as not the ‘done thing’ to involve higher levels of authority in the business, when answers are not forthcoming.
• There is a blame culture so individuals spend more time covering themselves than working towards the clients end goal.
• There is a weak change request process, so alterations are made to the plan but not communicated throughout the managers and team.

These issues are not specific to the construction industry; they are fairly basic organisational areas that can be rectified easily. But somehow they need to be got out in the open, aired, acknowledged and something done about them. It makes no sense in an extremely competitive market where margins are being squeezed and there is a need for everything to be done yesterday, to make costly mistakes that are simple to fix.

I have no doubt that the project managers and all involved in the project are aware of the issues, the ‘workers’ in all organisations usually are. And there needs to be a culture of wanting to do something about them, to effect change that will make everyone’s lives easier, whilst adding more money to the bottom line.

May be reviewing a project, identifying lessons and learning from them will not solve the unforeseen that are specific to a particular site or situation, but it will stop mistakes being repeated over and again. Mistakes that cost money, duplicate effort and result in more resource being thrown at delayed projects. Mistakes that the businesses wider environment needs to take ownership for, rather than trying to find someone to point the finger of blame towards, when ultimately it is the client that looses out the most.

Learning lessons should not be about finding individuals to blame. Read about the processes involved in project review and you will find that the actions that arise are down to simple organisational workflows, refinements or documentation requirements.

Just as businesses need to think about how to capture lessons and filter them through multi-functioning teams, they also need to think about how to instil the learning lessons approach into the culture of the business, employees and contractors. It is accepted within project management as a required and important stage, yet so many companies appear to be paying lip service to it.

Perhaps there is a lack of time, inherent blame culture, enough profits and client good will to get through, but any industry providing any service… can do better than that!