Team GB’s glittering success in Rio was the result of a brilliantly executed campaign. Surely there must be lessons for construction?

Simon Rawlinson

The UK’s sustained success at the Olympics is the result of a long-term commitment to a credible plan. So what can construction take from Team GB’s success story?

Few undertakings are more focused on short-term performance and opportunity than competitive sport. Competitors have to be able to respond to their event as it unfolds, and success breeds further success, greater rewards and more funding. However, an injury or failure in competition is just as likely to result in a demotion and return to obscurity. While we all bask in the reflected glory of another brilliantly executed Olympic campaign by Team GB, are there any lessons for construction – an industry that also recognises the need to improve performance and that is repeatedly singled out for short-term thinking?

Writing in the FT last week, journalist Janan Ganesh suggested that the roots of Team GB’s current success could be traced back to the decision by John Major’s government to establish the National Lottery in 1994. Not only was access to substantial and sustained funding an important enabler, but also the discipline taken by funding bodies to focus selectively on sports such as cycling and rowing, which are able to demonstrate continuing, measured excellence.

The reality is that the changes that lead to these great outcomes didn’t occur overnight.

The scale of support required has been immense – GB cycling received over £30m to support its Rio campaign and overall, each Team GB medal cost around £5m. Furthermore, by “picking winners” and focusing effort on successful programmes, other sports, such as basketball, have lost access to elite sport funding altogether. The defining characteristics of the programme – long-term certainty, access to the best resources and ruthless selectivity – seem at odds to the way in which our industry does its business. But still there remains a common focus on the project, a reliance on a team effort, the team’s need to be able to respond quickly to changing circumstances and the ability, on occasions, to deliver world class performance.

The scale of support required has been immense – GB cycling received over £30m to support its Rio campaign and overall, each Team GB medal cost around £5m

However, as we look back at the success of Rio and forward to the challenges of post-Brexit Britain, it doesn’t feel as if UK construction is in a place to be able to take on board proven insights as to what it takes to create the conditions for success. Many retired athletes make a great career as business consultants – sharing their experiences about the teamwork, preparation and sacrifice necessary to get to the top. But the focus on the athlete at the top of the tree misses out the efforts of the supply-chain pyramid on which the success is built. What other lessons could construction take from Rio and how could they be applied?

The first is the potential for marginal gains. The concepts of marginal gains are now so commonplace that it would be reasonable to assume that most industries had embedded re-engineered processes and lean thinking into business as usual. This is patently not so in construction, given for example the intermittent use of digital technologies, the duplication of roles on projects and the varying levels of skill available within the industry to assure quality of delivery. Given that productivity in construction has barely improved in 20 years, there is plenty of headroom for performance improvement. Yet for as long as the industry and clients continue to work in silos, which generate waste and inefficiency, then finding the route to accessing these gains will prove elusive. Collaborative projects and alliances provide a platform to go for these gains. The industry needs steady progressive improvement as well as big bang change and the marginal gains approach could enable this.

The second is the exploitation of data. One of the first people that cyclist Laura Trott acknowledged after winning her fourth gold medal was her power analyst. Data is not just used to hone performance and develop technology but also to benchmark value and assure outcomes. Construction continues to be challenged with data exchange and transparency – an issue that goes way beyond the implementation of BIM to how we design, contract, pay and operate assets. While outcomes data in sport has gone viral with applications like Strava for runners and cyclists, construction maintains a data blind spot that is as much cultural as it is technological. Construction’s future has to be digital, whether we like it or not.

The third lesson is the power of challenging (but accepted) programme-wide performance targets. Construction set its targets in the 2025 Industrial Strategy – to reduce cost and carbon, to improve programme cycles and increase exports but they are still not embedded.

The issue is not that construction’s people and businesses don’t have targets, but that they aren’t necessarily aligned with an ultimate goal of delivering better business performance through improved industry performance.

The legacy of the Rio games will last for a long time. Team GB’s success may even give us confidence that a post-Brexit Britain can punch above its weight on the world stage.

For industries such as construction that instinctively recognise that there is a need and opportunity to improve, the example set by our athletes is sobering. However, the foundation of the success has been a 20-year journey, not an overnight sensation. Construction not only needs its plan, but also the discipline to stick to it.

Simon Rawlinson is head of strategic research and insight at Arcadis UK