Egan thought things went wrong in construction because we were all at each other’s throats. Actually, we get on fine – it’s the way we manage projects that floors us

Egan’s was a false paradise. Seems churlish to point this out 10 years late, but now that Building has pronounced the Egan revolution dead (9 May), perhaps it’s time to put the whole thing behind us.

The crucial flaw in the Egan analysis was the assertion that the main cause of the problems in construction was dysfunctional relations between the members of project teams. As anyone who has worked on a project knows, teams are amazing examples of the ability of intelligent people with widely varying personal and corporate goals to reconcile them with the aims of the larger team. Sure we have rows, and they often get into the hands of the lawyers, but just stop and think for a moment about the context in which project teams have to operate and consider the enormous achievements that these people deliver, day after day, unsung, almost as a matter of routine.

In how many other industries would an enterprise be started from scratch and be expected to be able to manage a monthly turnover of millions of pounds within a few months of inception? The crazy thing is not that we deliver about half of our projects late and overbudget, but that we actually manage to complete about half of our jobs on time and within budget.

But projects do go wrong: there really are big problems with the way construction carries them out. However, they exist and express themselves at levels below that at which the Egan analysis is conducted. It’s significant that similar problems also occur in other project-based industries – aerospace, defence and IT, for example.

The underlying problems specific to construction include:

  • The dichotomy between job-winning and project delivery functions in firms
  • The head-down-and-go-for-it approach to projects: who needs more bloody planning? Just get on with it!
  • The bizarre disregard for good data – opinions matter more than facts
  • The almost complete failure of construction firms to learn systematically from their projects; the mind-boggling waste of information involved.

Before we can even think about moving on to Egan’s higher goals, it is essential to understand and address these problems. To do otherwise is simply to build on sand.

The crazy thing is not that we deliver half of our projects late and over budget, but that we complete half of them on
time and within budget

In his appeal for greater co-operation and more effective teamworking, Egan fell back on his experience in manufacturing, where sophisticated networks and supply chains collaborate to produce complex products economically and reliably. The key thing that enables these firms to work so closely in harmony is precisely specified, real-time information about the state of production in each of their participating facilities.

No such information exists in construction. The nearest thing we have to production data is the site foreman’s daily diary. The best management information available is largely subjective assessment, estimation and guesswork. This means that discussion and communications about production have to be based largely on trust in each other’s judgment. When that judgment fails, projects fail and trust takes a hammering. (Manufacturing supply chains work on facts, not judgment, so trust is never exposed.)

A complete overhaul of the basic mechanics of project management is a necessary first step. The overall conceptual approach to projects, the management techniques and, particularly, the information systems used, all need rethinking.

I start with the data. Construction projects generate huge amounts of it. Or, at least, lots of things happen on projects that, if they were recorded in detail, would generate huge amounts of data. The interesting things that happen are events such as the erection of a steel beam, pouring of a concrete floor panel and installation of a door set. Traditionally, individual events such as these have been more or less ignored in construction – they’re just part of background noise.

But it’s not noise, it’s the raw material of a new industry. This is just the same sort of noise – a can of beans, a litre of milk, a pair of jeans – that EPOS systems harvest in the retail sector. When our industry gets to grips with this, in our case, through the systematic application of production management techniques, a transformation will ensue that will be at least as dramatic as that which followed the introduction of EPOS in retail. And then perhaps some will find Egan’s paradise. Until then, the thing to bear in mind is that construction projects don’t go wrong because people are confrontational; people are confrontational because so many projects go wrong.