Many projects go wrong because the way they’re set up means they have no chance of going right. But what has that got to do with the Zen of marine engine repair?

Back in 1991 I was sailing down the coast of Japan when I developed engine trouble. We made it to shore and after making enquiries found a local mechanic to come out and take a look at the problem. We were expecting him to turn up in a grease-spattered boiler suit, suck his teeth and ask what idiot worked on it last, before producing a bag of spanners and banging random bits of machinery.

This is not what happened.

In fact, the first thing the man did after coming aboard was to produce a pair of bright white gloves, place them on his hands and unpack a meticulously ordered toolkit. He then set about examining the engine like a naturalist scrutinising a previously unknown animal – measuring and making detailed notes. After that he removed his gloves, meticulously repacked his toolkit and notebook and left, promising to return the next day.

When he did, he seemed to be carrying even more more kit than the day before. The reason quickly became clear when he unpacked and constructed a portable shower; complete with rail and curtain. He then put on his freshly laundered work uniform, unpacked five pairs of bright white gloves (which he lined up in a neat row) and then set about unpacking his toolkit again.

Four changes of gloves later, and after some precise replacement of component parts, he repacked his toolkit, had a shower, put his clean, pressed clothes back on and placed his dirty gloves in a sealed bag – and the job was done.

I often think what a wonderful example of forward planning that was, and how thinking things through before starting really pays off. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if construction teams could work in this way?

As specialist stonework contractors, we all too often turn up on site to lay a floor at the appointed hour, only to find a pallet or scaffolding from another trade lying in the middle of the room. This usually means that we have to start improvising the second we begin the job.

When he came back the next day, he seemed to be carrying even more kit than the day before. The reason quickly became clear when he unpacked and constructed a portable shower

This is especially critical when working on, say, large shopping centre developments when there are many occupiers involved, all waiting to start trading and all ready to start making a loss as soon as they don’t. These considerations alone mean that everyone on site should be working towards the same goal: finishing on time.

But if one subcontractor falls behind schedule, it creates the domino effect and results in the whole project being delayed. In most cases the flooring is laid down well after the main construction work has taken place. But the decision on whether to install the roof or flooring first is a big factor in the planning stage as only one can be done at a time. If the roofing contractors need heavy machinery, for instance to install glass panels, then the floor cannot go down until this has been completed, as the weight of heavy machinery and lifting equipment can cause damage to a floor surface, and no shopping centre owner wants to open a mall with cracks and chips in the entrance hall.

Laying flooring is a lengthy process: it takes 22 to 26 weeks from the time the order is placed to delivering the stone flooring on site, which is, of course, a huge logistical task. Unloading high quality and large quantities of stone from a lorry, then storing it safely, in a place that is not going to interfere with or delay other trades, is a challenge in itself.

The key to avoiding delays is to get the client, architects and subcontractors together many months before work starts, to agree a co-ordinated construction programme that takes into account the logistics of specialist trades moving onto site, and their deadlines.

Forward planning can mean that we finish three weeks before a shopping centre is due to open, thereby providing valuable time and higher profit margins. We’ll never be able to do it as well as our Japanese mechanic, at least not until we’re allowed to construct portable site showers and get a price on white gloves, but we can at least plan the work so it isn’t in trouble from the start.