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talkingpoint

Some argue the industry is suffering from 'initiative overload'. They're missing the point, says Ron Williams.

We should not underestimate the major changes sweeping our industry. The lead given by the Latham Report in 1994 and followed up by Sir John Egan in Rethinking Construction last year has been referred to by Jason le Masurier in a recent Talking Point (Ground Engineering, March 1999). But not all are convinced. Chris Wise, a leading structural engineer, was reported by New Civil Engineer in May as resenting 'having people preach to me about how to design something'.

This seems to miss the point, namely that our industry needs to improve continuously both our products and the means by which we deliver them to our customers. For too long we have been 'product' focused, and the need for a two-pronged attack was supported by Professor Tony Ridley in his recent keynote lecture at the ICE on taking engineering into the third millennium.

By now the buzzwords will be familiar: benchmarking, partnering, supply chain management. But, in practical terms, the changes initiated by the Latham Report are having a profound effect. Procurements is one example. Many major contractors now report a substantial proportion of their business being achieved on a 'partnered' approach. While the cynic may view partnering as synchronised swimming with sharks, it is here to stay and the benefits to all parties are manifest. The effectiveness of the single team approach was clearly demonstrated on the Heathrow Express project post-collapse and showed that, by clear alignment of the objectives of all parties to the contract, exceptional achievements are possible.

The A34 Newbury Bypass is another example of a new attitude. Here the partnered approach was introduced for the first time on a major UK highways project. All parties now agree that partnering was a critical factor in achieving a successful outcome on a project surrounded with difficulties. A direct result of partnering was the introduction of value engineering, which led to substantial cost and time savings. Many of these savings were ground related, particularly the use of marginal materials, which resulted in substantial environmental benefits including the reduction in off-site lorry movements.

The partnering approach at Newbury also led to the agreement of the final account just four months after the road's opening in November. The lengthy period usually required to resolve final accounts on highway projects is a blight on our industry. Effective means of improving this position is clearly very welcome.

The Construction Best Practice programme launched last November is the main focus for taking the Egan report forward and this is where some confusion starts. Much publicity has recently been attached to the demonstration projects and key performance indicators (KPIs) being organised by the Movement for Innovation (M4I). And where does the Construction Industry Board come in? Undoubtedly, some rationalisation is required but the promotion of innovation by M4I is a laudable initiative and does include a number of geotechnical projects including the London Underground Limited Earth Structures project submitted by Kvaerner Construction. This project has a solid track record of innovation both in regard to the end product - stabilised embankments and cuttings - but also in the non-adversarial relationships and the proactive approach to supply chain management that has been adopted.

CIRIA is undertaking a DETR sponsored project entitled the Promotion of the Benefits of Innovation. An assessment panel is considering projects representing three themes:

supply chain management/partnering

technical innovation

value management, risk management/ integrating design and construction.

Geotechnics features strongly in a number of projects under consideration, hardly surprising as the geotechnical community has a solid track record in innovation. These new government initiatives provide an excellent opportunity to publicise this work and, hopefully, will encourage others to participate.

Demonstrating performance improvement through benchmarking by setting and monitoring clear targets is a significant challenge to our industry. A series of key performance indicators was launched recently under the Construction Best Practice banner, although these may not be entirely appropriate for geotechnics. Tackling the problem from another standpoint, CIRIA is considering appropriate KPIs for design organisations and as part of the study has commissioned a review of best practice in other industries. In addition, CIRIA is sponsoring frequent debates on this challenge through its Construction Productivity Network.

The danger of being swamped by these initiatives is clear, but the geotechnical community would be unwise to bury its head in the sand. For each of us there is a clear need to be focused on specific initiatives if we are to avoid disillusionment both within our individual organisations and our industry as a whole.

Ron Williams is managing director of civil & transportation at Mott MacDonald and chairman of council at CIRIA.

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