Yet despite the fact that construction, maintenance and property development constitute between 8% and 12% of most countries' GDP, the number of stories that I have read over the past 15 years that revolve around building can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Why is it that this fantastic, challenging, complex, productive, creative industry gets little or no column space when it comes to talking about case studies or how to improve management techniques? What is it about our way of working that inhibits the universities from studying our management systems and using them as best-case examples? Why is it so easy for the airline industry or the computer sector or legal practices to find compelling stories to support their progressive march to ever better systems and results, but huge infrastructure projects and regular maintenance services fail to get a look in?
The answer lies in two areas. First, our projects are normally very complex. Even the smallest domestic extension will have a huge number of materials, suppliers, relationships and design and production issues. Take the bigger projects and you can be looking at 100,000 separate components, events and linkages. Trying to demonstrate that there is sufficient logic and structure in the delivery process to extrapolate to other industries is very difficult. So the tendency is not to try.
The second factor is that construction doesn't have a culture that readily lends itself to process engineering, Kaizen strategies (a Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement), or any other technique for delivering better projects.
Why doesn't this culture exist? Or does it, but it's just not formally recognised? Wait a minute, I hear you say, we are very good at working out how to get rid of wasted time or cost, and we are incredibly efficient at delivering one-off projects for exacting clients under extremely tough contractual conditions. True, but where are the process engineers and the work that they would do?
Let's face it. There is no systematic discipline in our industry that sees as its primary role the task of working out how we plan to execute the work, and then once it starts in production, spends its time measuring, reporting and improving on the process.
Of course, certain specific skills will lay claim to part of this remit. Architects will say they design efficiently. Surveyors will measure accurately. Planning managers will produce wonderful critical path charts, (before, during and after the projects). Estimators will produce excellent assessments of cost and risk. Managers will organise all manner of effective resources to deliver these complex multifunctional facilities.
But who will make sure that they work out whether the foundations were produced in the most effective way? Who will measure the speed of rooms being delivered? Who will review the roof structure to make sure next time it is quicker, cheaper and better quality?
This task is normally split between the whole team in different ways. Each part of the delivery process has its own particular part to review. Each person in the team will have their own personal aspect of the project that they like to see done properly or measured for regular improvement. But no one person or group co-ordinates and drives forward the systematic improvement in the product delivery so as to ensure that the whole thing gets delivered more efficiently next time.
There is no systematic discipline in our industry that sees as its primary role the task of working out how we plan the work, and then once in production, spends its time measuring and improving on the process
If we are lucky, we may get an enlightened client who sees this type of co-ordination as a key driver for their project delivery. Such a client will achieve giant leaps of progress on its projects. Spotlights are suddenly shone on the improvements. Wise heads will nod in collective agreement that it is both obvious and only to be expected.
Such improvements could also be led by other members of the delivery team. It is always interesting to see where the impetus for improvements originates, because as soon as that impetus (good client, enthusiastic consultant, driven contractor or passionate supplier) is taken away, the whole process tends to grind to a halt and the benefits dissipate.
The job of working out how to do things better, for the benefit of the client, the employee, the suppliers and the company, is not something that we spend enough time talking about. We don't have a structured discipline that delivers trained individuals able to do this work. But when we find them they are welcomed like the prodigal son and feted, because they can give any organisation a huge competitive benefit.
When we look at any manufacturing industry, we find that the process is being challenged and improved daily by engineers. What such individuals are able to do is tell a story about improvement and production. These stories, often simplified for the sake of brevity and impact, then find their way into management magazines where they become best practice examples.
Paul Hodgkinson is chairman and chief executive of contractor Simons Group