Jason Le Masurier says the challenges laid down in the Egan report provide an ideal opportunity to put the observational method and geotechnics at the top of the agenda.
Delivering the value of geotechnics in construction is not just a technical challenge: it can offer a path to cultural change. Last year the Construction Task Force, chaired by Sir John Egan, issued a challenge to the industry in its report Rethinking Construction. The challenge is to improve quality and efficiency through radical changes to the processes and culture of construction. It is timely to consider the opportunities this presents for the geotechnical community.
In last month's GE, Ralph Peck and Alan Powderham championed the observational method. But despite well documented case histories of its successes, this design approach is rarely considered at the start of a project. The Egan report offers a stepping stone to putting the observational method and geotechnics at the top of the agenda of those who are the focus of construction: the clients and the customers.
Rethinking Construction gave a view of how the industry might look and suggested that this could be achieved through techniques such as value management, lean construction, partnering and benchmarking. The industry's willingness to improve is demonstrated by the interest in and increasing adoption of such ideas. However, among the jargon there is a danger of missing the objective, which is to change the way the industry thinks.
The observational method, with its inherent ability to resolve complexity, offers a solution. As Peck and Powderham point out, it is a natural, straightforward approach. It includes much of what the Egan report propounds. For example: value management is about eliminating waste and improving teamworking; benchmarking is about measuring performance and continuous improvement; lean construction includes these, along with focusing on the customer's needs, communicating effectively and integrating processes.
Egan says increased efficiency will only be achieved by integrated processes and teams rather than the prevailing sequential and separate processes carried out by individual organisations. Integrated processes and teams are a prerequisite for an observational method design approach, which is implemented iteratively, not sequentially.
This approach depends upon teamwork, trust and risk sharing. It poses challenges beyond those normally encountered in construction and does not work if, for example, you only pay lip service to a partnering agreement.
Evidence from the recent trial concerning the tunnel collapse on the Heathrow Express emphasised the need for the processes in flexible design approaches to be integrated and robust. In a collaborative project between 12 industrial partners and the University of Bristol, systems have been developed to demonstrate robustness in the processes and provide operational support for the observational method and similar design approaches.
Many of the ideas contained in Rethinking Construction come from other successful industries. The observational method has a long pedigree in successful construction practice. Many people in the industry will understand the principles or have direct experience of the observational method; far fewer will be familiar with lean thinking. The industry's push for cultural change is a chance for those with observational method abilities to demonstrate the benefits of rethinking construction principles and say to customers, to the Construction Task Force and to other champions of change, 'We are doing this already and can show you.'
If we are to focus on the customer and deliver good value the observational method must be promoted, along with suitable harmonious relationships, contractual or otherwise. If considered at the earliest stages of a project it has the potential to deliver great value and assist in the development of a co-operative culture. We should not wait for a project crisis to get the observational method onto the agenda.
Geotechnical engineers are experienced in synthesising qualitative information and measuring performance for the management of uncertainty and continuous improvement. Similar skills may be applicable to managing the biggest uncertainties in construction - those associated with human behaviour. When applying an observational method to the management of uncertainty in ground settlement, for example, why not apply similar principles to the management of the uncertainties associated with co-operation in the team or customer satisfaction?
Jason Le Masurier is research associate in the department of civil engineering at the University of Bristol. He has just completed a two year project developing systems to support teams using the observational method.