A subcontractor that feels ripped off by the main contractor will hardly sing the praises of partnering. But as long as the whole team is involved, it really can work

partnering doesn’t work.” That is something I hear quite often. What the speaker actually means is: “I am a subcontractor and it didn’t work for me.

I still got selected on lowest price, was paid late and not as much as I asked for, and I still haven’t had my retention money back.” Very few main contractors, especially larger companies, have complained about partnering, assuming they had been chosen by the client on a partnering basis and both parties have worked properly to deliver the project in a collaborative spirit.

So, what went wrong? The first question is, why were the specialist contractors chosen on a lowest-price basis? That brought them to the site in an adversarial mode, looking for claims and variations to recover the margin that was not in their tender, and they probably had a hidden contingency in their price to cover late payment or unforeseen deductions by their main contractor.

Some subcontractors do not want to partner. They do not trust the main contractor and think they will always be ripped off. Others, however, are one of a large firm’s strategic partners. They know they will get plenty of work and be properly paid for what they have done, and in return will put in a best price. They will not be complaining, because they are true partners, appointed on an open-book basis, as was the main contractor, so that everyone knows the true figures for overheads, preliminaries and margin, and there is contractual provision for gain and pain share.

You cannot go to bed on Friday night as an adversarial client and appear on site on Monday morning as a partnering firm

The Strategic Forum for Construction and Constructing Excellence have long advocated fully integrated teams, though their targets for integration have not been met, as they have conceded. One of the strengths of integration – which does happen successfully, particularly where it is driven by fully involved clients – is that it enables detailed specialist design, and especially mechanical and electrical work, to be taken into account at an early stage by the architect or engineer, and also by the project manager, who may either be working directly for the client or else be the main contractor. Detailed specialist design is actually dealt with by the specialist contractor and it is far better if the firm can say at the earliest stage that the conceptual M&E design by the consulting engineer will not fit in with the building pattern, or could be more cost effectively addressed in a different way. This will save a great deal of time and rework.

It is about stripping out costs that add no value. Anybody can reduce the specification or buy cheaper kit. But that may add to maintenance costs later and is an “economy” for which the client will pay in years to come. But effective involvement to get best practice at the design stage is what real partnering is all about. There have been plenty of award-winning schemes where the project has been delivered by a fully integrated team who are committed to the whole project, not just their part of it, and were led by an involved client who was determined to achieve best practice and to share risks in a collaborative way.

When I was researching and writing my report in 1993/4, some words were unknown in the construction industry. One was “partnering”, which has since spread, but there is still a long way to go. Another was “benchmarking”. Every project was seen as bespoke, one-off, and there was thought to be no point in trying to compare construction with factory-based manufacturing. Then Sir John Egan showed that things could be done differently, and now benchmarking clubs are quite normal. A third unknown expression was “supply chain management”, because most of the people on the site were not in contract with each other, and were working in their own silos, usually in an adversarial spirit. Now, effective management of the supply chain is an essential part of best practice, and is linked to full integration of the whole project team.

So, does partnering work? Yes, provided that people are properly trained for it, and the whole team is involved. You cannot go to bed on Friday night as an adversarial client or contractor and appear on site on Monday morning as a partnering firm. Some try, but usually fail. That is why some people think it doesn’t work. The truth is they never properly tried.