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Talking Point with Jim Cook

When it comes from learning from our mistakes, the UK geotechnics industry could gain a lot from taking the approach used in the US.

The UK industry seems to be very good at staying “tight lipped” about discussing problem ground engineering projects which may or have resulted in some form of claim and the sector is missing out on learning vital lessons to avoid the same mistakes in the future.

In my experience, most claims are generally finalised and agreed on the steps of the court or even a stage earlier after several phases of negotiation and sometimes expensive legal fees. Usually, these out-of-court settlements lead to agreements that all the details are to be kept confidential.

The result is that the industry and other clients are generally unaware of the issues that led to the dispute and claim and thus there is no opportunity to pass on the lessons learnt.

“One of the initiatives developed by ASFE was a case studies programme to educate the profession on better ways of doing business”

The US takes a very different approach. In 1968 a combination of a high number of professional liability (PL) claims and ground engineering firms being unable to obtain PL in the US led to 10 companies meeting to discuss a way forward for the benefit of the industry. They decided to establish a tradeassociation for the sector.

In May 1969 Associated Soil and Foundation Engineers (ASFE) was formed and the fundamental underlying principle was to identify the causes of PL
claims and losses and develop ways of alerting the industry to avoid such issues in the future.

One of the initiatives developed by ASFE was a case studies programme to alert and educate the ground engineering profession on better ways of doing business for both themselves and their clients.

These case studies are developed when an ASFE board member is made aware of a project loss or near loss and the member then contacts the individuals involved. They work together with all parties to sanitise the facts, remove company names and make the project less identifiable.

The information is presented in a prescriptive form with the upfront information, such as things the consultant would have known as part of the proposal preparations, discussed first. The case study progresses onto a section about the scope of the engineering work before the discussion turns to the conclusions that were reached and what eventually went wrong and finally, the lessons that should be learned.

Perhaps the UK’s AGS, which has objectives not dissimilar to the ASFE, could work to develop a similar role in producing case studies? However, for this to happen other participants involved in a project would need to be persuaded to “come on board” and this is likely to be a challenge, particularly with the insurance and legal fraternities.

Currently, a UK Country Report is under preparation on the Integration of Geotechnical Risk Management in Project Risk Management by a group headed up by Halcrow CH2M’s Paul Maliphant. We must hope this report can go some way into supporting the above “lessons learnt” objectives which were the result of US “innovation” in 1968!

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