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Let's not repeat past mistakes and just get on with it

Even in the middle of the worst economic crisis in memory you can count on the construction industry to find something positive to say.

According to this week’s report by Constructing Excellence − snappily entitled Never Waste A Good Crisis − this is the perfect moment for the industry to once again reinvent itself.

Now, it says, is the moment to “abandon our existing business models that reward short term thinking”. Instead, the industry should embrace quality and sustainability and offer the whole supply chain “a stake in the long term performance of a built asset”.

I say “once again” reinvent itself with a degree of caution because, as the report points out, in the 11 years since Sir John Egan’s landmark Rethinking Construction report, few in and around the industry would really admit to noticing the original reinvention.

There has been a great deal of talk, but in reality the commercial pressures of business have generally over-ridden the aspiration.

The Egan Report in 1998 was New Labour’s attempt to overhaul the costly and dispute ridden industry of the 1980s and 1990s. It was intended to set the agenda for real change in the construction industry as the blueprint for improving efficiency, quality and profitability.

It introduced radical ideas gleaned from manufacturing such as leadership culture, customer focus, right first time thinking and commitment to people. It was a bold plan and one that few could say, then or now, wasn’t rooted in common sense.

But as this week’s report by Constructing Excellence points out, the positive results from this radical agenda for change have been pretty thin on the ground. Improvement, it says, has been “nowhere near enough” with few of the Egan targets met in full while “most have fallen considerably short”. Commitment to Egan principles is, it says, too often just “skin deep”.

Whether in water, rail, roads or airports, clients will continue to lead and will continue to demand innovation whether or not they have any money.

The problem has been down to the inability of the industry to embrace collaborative working. There has been a great deal of talk about partnering, single teams, open book, but in reality the commercial pressures of business have generally over-ridden the aspiration.

So what to do now? Certainly we need to continue to beat the drum around investment in quality people and continue to bang on about the need for investment in innovation.

But if we have learnt one thing from the whole Egan process it is that infrastructure projects succeed when clients understand the value of investment in quality.

The era of client-led change is not over. Whether in water, rail, roads or airports, clients will continue to lead and will continue to demand innovation whether or not they have any money. When has rewarding short term thinking ever been sensible?

Instead, as we move through the recession, what has to end is the era of supply chain underperformance. To survive, firms must simply get on and work with clients to meet their needs from the bottom up.

As report author Andrew Wolstenholme puts it: “Our industry needs ‘a little less conversation and lot more action please’”.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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