There are many ways to solve the productivity challenge and they need not be mutually exclusive, says RLB partner Paul Beeston

RLB Paul Beeston Nov 23

UK plc’s productivity in general (and for the country’s construction “division” in particular) has been a conundrum for decades. The Bank of England’s February 2024 monetary policy report contained the stark view that “growth in potential productivity in 2025 and 2026 is expected to be… much lower than in the decade prior to the global financial crisis”.

Industry initiatives have come and gone and yet we seem unable to make the necessary change.

I would firstly like to declare my own hand. I want to see productivity improvements. I love the innovation and continuous improvement initiatives. But I remain frustrated as to why we are unable to collectively shift the dial. 

I am also mindful that a focus on productivity misses the point that we need better outcomes (including more sustainable ones) and not just more efficient delivery.

I therefore approach the potential solutions with a degree of optimistic scepticism. So, let us consider the productivity evangelists and their tribes – how does their reasoning measure up, given that measurement of such things is key?

The modernisers (or die)

Lining up under the “modernise or die” banner are proponents of modern methods of construction (MMC) and design for manufacturing and assembly (DfMA). The arguments are compelling: design for pipelines, embrace offsite manufacturing and seek efficiencies in the supply chain.

>> Also read: Has MMC gone from an industry salvation to a pseudo-solution?

But the sector has hit challenges particularly in the last 18 months as residential pipelines have slowed and supply chains had their fragility exposed. Late last year the House of Lords built environment committee heard evidence on the MMC sector and wrote to the government at the end of January 2024 admitting that it found some of the contradictions “baffling”:

“The committee heard contradictory evidence about whether MMC homes were more or less expensive to construct than traditionally built homes. Given the scale of public investment being made, the government should ensure it is achieving value for money.”

Hardly a ringing endorsement for getting construction productivity out of the doldrums!

The digitisers

Next come the digital evangelists. The last part of 2023 was subsumed with AI – it is apparently a veritable tsunami coming to solve all of our problems soon.

The power of data is of course a powerful thing, something that as a business founded from cost management principles, we cannot deny. There is value in data, but only the right data (with good integrity) interpreted with intelligence and respect for context.

We need to ensure that our productivity does not get bogged down by data overload, and that we manage our data with expert guidance to bring real value.

The collaborators

The tribe of collaborators may feel like an older demographic (although some would argue that the roots of MMC lie in the 1950s or even before then). Latham’s “Constructing the Team” does after all celebrate its 30th anniversary this year.

But the collaborators have some pedigree behind them – the Construction Act, best practice group Constructing Excellence and even, to an extent, the Construction Playbook all see their roots in the Latham report.

The waste and productivity drained by adversarial contracting can genuinely be seen as unnecessary. Collaboration is generally an enjoyable pursuit and with win-win outcomes, so what’s not to love? Yet, with more collaborative endeavours embedded, the prize that Latham anticipated for us all seems somewhat illusive:

“The prize is enhanced performance in a healthier atmosphere. It will involve deeper satisfaction for clients. It will lead to a brighter image and better rewards for a great industry.”

Will it really? 

The policy purveyors

2024 is expected to be the year when more people around the world vote in an election than in any year previously. So, it would be remiss not to expect that the final tribe of productivity enthusiasts will be either lobbying their politicians or hijacking manifestos in pursuit of the role of government to drive productivity improvements. For maximum effect, they tend to shout loudly.

In the early warm-up to an election cycle, the current government has bemoaned and cancelled HS2’s northern leg in favour of more “local” investments and promised planning reform. The opposition has dangled and then eased back on £28bn of green investment. Both sides are pedalling productivity improvements in their rhetoric – it has almost become that mainstream.

And 2024 will no doubt see a productivity focus in the election news cycles. It may not be construction focused, but manifestos will surely have impacts on future policy, some of which may be focused on rebooting the productivity of our sector.

Embrace diversity

So, with a four-way battle set to unfold in pursuit of solving the industry’s productivity challenge, which tribe will come out on top? Our industry is diverse. Our projects and our clients are diverse. The interests of the people in our industry are diverse. Given this diversity of our industry, let’s start by recognising the power of each tribe and learning from each of them.

The greatest asset that the collective industry has is its curiosity. We can all be curious about how to make our projects and our industry more productive: be curious about  change and see what may be transferable, then embrace it.

Time and energy are valuable resources, so use your chosen tribe’s compass to put some of your own time and energy into shifting things in the correct direction. You don’t need to get bogged down on the destination; just contributing incrementally to “better” (in the right direction) is enough.

Ultimately, each tribe has the same destination in mind. I look forward to seeing how quickly we can get there.