Second opinion Construction should stop trying to emulate car manufacturers and take some tips from film-makers.
“Construction should learn from manufacturing.” How many times have we heard that in the past two years? And of course it is right; the construction industry has much to learn from the way leading manufacturers measure and monitor their processes and work with suppliers to achieve continuous improvement in quality and value for customers.

“Construction should invest more in research, like manufacturing.” Now, this statement needs closer examination. The implication is that construction is lacking in innovation and losing its competitive edge, because it is spending less on research than manufacturing is.

But construction is quite a different business to manufacturing. In construction, half of the industry is concerned with repair and maintenance; it is nearer to Kwik-Fit than, say, Ford. Kwik-Fit improves customer service and competitive position not through research but through investment in equipment, staff training and a balance of price and quality that it negotiates with suppliers.

Construction repair and maintenance is, essentially, a service activity. Service industries innovate, but not through research. Direct Line revolutionised the selling of insurance; Egg is promising to do the same for banking. Neither innovation resulted from a conventional research programme; instead, the innovators realised that existing technology would enable them to meet consumers’ needs in new ways.

Of course there is “construction innovation” in the sector. New repair techniques and materials can save time and improve performance. But the innovations come through suppliers, which compete for the repair market. These suppliers can gain a competitive edge from developing an improved product, so it is not surprising that product and materials suppliers dominate industry investment in research.

Perhaps manufacturing and new, Eganised, construction are linked more closely. Certainly, there is more opportunity in new construction to work within a set of predefined processes, and both result in the creation of a new product.

But the parallels cannot be pushed too far; the relationship between creative and organisational input is quite different. New construction requires creative input throughout the design stage and into assembly, when all site-specific operational challenges have to be met. In best practice, these site-related aspects are anticipated and the design adjusted to improve “buildability”. But it is hardly a production line.

New construction is a hybrid of the service and manufacturing sectors. Because it produces a physical output, it seems similar to manufacturing, but the service element – tailoring projects to client and surroundings – is vital; it determines our quality of life.

New construction is a hybrid of service and manufacturing sectors … perhaps it can be compared with film-making

We need variety of form and finish in our surroundings; this is quite compatible with greater use of standard products in the parts of a building that are out of sight. Much innovation takes place in that tailoring process; materials and technologies are used in new ways and ideas brought in from other industries. The challenge for the design and research sectors is to ensure that the innovations are thoroughly understood so they work as efficiently as possible.

Perhaps new construction can be compared with film-making.

The long creative process, influenced heavily by consumers, technological possibilities and budget constraints, results in a script and production plan. After a complex organisational process involving many specialists and several locations, the product is finished off by further creative work in the editing studios, just as the interior designer finishes the building.

I have never heard anyone comment on the film industry’s lack of research. Do we expect Steven Spielberg to invest in film research, or just in what he needs to know for his next film? Innovation in film-making has transformed the product, but that innovation originated from the equipment suppliers, not industry services.

So what do we conclude? Construction should indeed learn from manufacturing – but it should also learn from retailing, car maintenance, film-making, and any other sector in which customer needs are met routinely through a combination of technology, organisation, skills and creativity. Construction should invest more in research where it can really help deliver a better product. But let us not equate research expenditure with the capacity to innovate.

Construction innovates through many processes, and notably through the creativity of individuals as they tackle the challenges posed by each new project.

We need new models for innovation in construction – I suggest the next construction taskforce be led by Lord Puttnam.