The best way to reduce waste to to prevent it being created in the first place. Reducing waste on site therefore requires early and meaningful intervention

Andrew Kinsey

There’s an old Chinese proverb which says “Give a man a fish, and you have fed him once. Teach him how to fish and you have fed him for a lifetime.”

This proverb seems quite appropriate when considering what the construction industry usually does to try and change behaviours. Mostly we seem to keep giving people more fish.

It’s often said that behaviour and culture change in the construction industry is essential to improving our performance. This is certainly as true when it comes to reducing waste and other environmental impacts as it is in other important aspects like health and safety.

Usually the response to this challenge is to try and address it through delivering some kind of training. Measures of success are often attributed to the numbers of people trained. But a “bums on seats” measure doesn’t necessarily mean you are really engaging or connecting with people, or indeed actually getting any better.

Properly engaging with people to take action on site can be tricky, and may be seen by some as a diversion from getting the job done. To be successful, communications need to be timely and appropriate. If the message is wrong, inappropriate, overly-long, boring or doesn’t seem relevant, then it is likely to be ignored and therefore unsuccessful.

“A ‘bums on seats’ measure doesn’t necessarily mean you are really engaging or connecting with people, or indeed actually getting any better.”

Often “doom and gloom” messages are used to convey a particular message, especially when it comes to environmental and sustainability matters. Some of the issues, such as climate change, may seem intangible and difficult for us to do anything about, which can turn people off and stop them from engaging with making improvements.

Aside from the inductions that everyone receives, on-site training is usually delivered through on-going “toolbox talks” or other short briefings delivered by supervisors to operatives on specific subjects. The format of these is often to tell the people being trained about things they need to know rather than asking them what they can do about it.Whilst this kind of training can be helpful in communicating important messages or acting as a reminder, reading out the site rules and telling people to “do this”, “don’t do that” and “sign here!” isn’t necessarily an engaging way of doing it and therefore doesn’t always impact upon changing people’s behaviour.

For waste, the ideal outcome is to not produce it in the first place. So to be successful and change behaviour in waste management it’s important to get people to think and take action, rather than just tell them what to do. Techniques that show people what “good” looks like and coach people on site can be  much more effective as they  help to develop a sense of ownership regarding the issues and problems that may exist.

This is an approach Mace is adopting, building on the lessons learned from major programmes such as the London 2012 Olympics. For example, there is the use of visual standards which show exactly what we’re aiming for. There is also training, based on lean manufacturing principles, originally developed by the automotive industry, that supplements this by encouraging people to identify problems to solutions. They can then take and maintain their own improvement actions.

By using examples and showing a visual of a particular problem, we can better relate to how it might occur on site, and using techniques like the “5 Whys” to drill down to the root causes can help with the creation of action plans and ultimately eliminate and avoid the waste. Visuals are helpful in educating people on site and ensuring that they are engaged with what is being taught as they “paint a thousand words” and help overcome any language barriers that may exist. Instead of feeding people the answers, a better way is to go fishing for the solutions!

Andrew Kinsey is an operations director and head of sustainability for construction at Mace