SIR NEVILLE Simms this week stood up in front of an audience of the industry's leading clients, his fiercest competitors and the Deputy Prime Minister and admitted his firm 'practised' on its customers' time and money.
The Tarmac chief executive told how embarrassed he was when BAA boss Sir John Egan spotted that the contractor's work rate had accelerated markedly throughout the early weeks of the Heathrow Express project. Why, Egan reasonably argued, could not Tarmac hit the ground running at the same pace it achieved a few weeks into the project? Simms had no answer and he knew no other contractor in the same situation would have had one either - which is why he told the story.
If Egan (the initiative, rather than the man) can have the same effect on the rest of the industry, the possibility of it making a real difference will be greatly enhanced. A willingness to admit the failings of your firm - not just those of the industry as a whole - and not offer excuses is the first step to making the kind of step change that Egan is demanding. When Egan faced down Simms over HEX, the Tarmac chief could have quite easily claimed his firm still worked faster than competitors. But he saw the problem through his clients eyes, which provided the impetus to improve something he now recognised as a shortfall.
It will be this client focus which should be the real test of the Egan initiative's demonstration projects (see News). A way must be found to measure client delight - not an easy thing if you're dealing with a one- off client. How do they know what they're missing?
Imagine how powerful such a tool would be? A readily understandable measure of construction quality as perceived by clients. Poor construction firms would be forced to improve in months or begin to see workload leak away.
Simms' brand of honesty must also be a stipulation for all those involved in demonstration projects. Much of the industry is, perhaps understandably, cynical about such high-powered initiatives. 'What will we learn after all the mistakes, second thoughts and problems have been airbrushed out', they will ask.
Egan himself said there would be failures among the demonstration projects. There had better be for the sake of the scheme's credibility.
For this to happen the projects need to take place in a no-blame culture. Which means clients seeing things through the industry's eyes.