The construction industry should learn from other sectors, says Building's graduate panellist
I have often wondered what attempt the construction industry makes to learn from other, more profitable industries.
I expect that most students of project management have been pointed in the direction of The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu Goldratt and Jeff Cox. Having re-read this book since entering the workplace, I realise how relevant it is and why other industries have tried to adopt its principles. How often do managers attempt to find out how to resolve issues by gathering information from those actually carrying out the work? How often do managers consider that the targets they are setting their workforce are counterproductive to the main aim of making money? Although the book is aimed at manufacturing, there are many parallels to be drawn with the construction industry.
Besides asking your workforce straight out, another way of collating profitable information is the "back to the floor" initiative, where a manager takes on the responsibilities of one of their team for a short period. By doing the employee's job, the initiative aims to make the manager understand the pressures and parameters of the role so they can recognise and lead any changes that need to be made.
It may be that the person is overworked, is continuously given things to do at the last minute or needs help to become more organised. I am not aware of this exercise being carried out in any of the jobs I have had since graduating and entering the construction industry.
Similarly, the practice of sitting in on another teacher's class is common in the teaching profession. Can this be adopted in our industry? Can it be made a requirement of our reviews and appraisals to spend a certain amount of time witnessing each other chair a meeting, visit site, prepare for a shift and then be asked to give morale boosting and constructive feedback?
There are many changes the construction industry should make to keep up with other industries but the one that sticks out the most is IT. I have been surprised by the lack of willingness to embrace technology in construction company offices.
I was astonished to discover that the practice of writing out a letter by hand and asking a secretary to type it up still exists. What are senior people doing to stamp out this practice? If people are our greatest cost, surely it is not cost-effective to employ two to write a letter.
I have been surprised by the lack of willingness to embrace new technology in construction company offices
As well as learning from other industries, I am also continually learning from my friends. Working life is often discussed and compared. One shameful issue is that the construction industry does not seem to be taking the aim of a paperless office as seriously as others. I have a friend in the manufacturing industry whose director has cut the number of printers in the building from something like 20 to two and everyone's printing is monitored to see who prints the most. Those that exceed the acceptable quantity are questioned. This may seem like an excessive controlling measure but I can't help but think this director has identified that there are significant savings to be made: less paper, less machines, less machine breakdowns, less paper disposal, less archiving, less people walking to and chatting at the printer!
Maybe he is concerned for our trees or perhaps he hopes his policy will force those who have been on the IT courses but do not use the technology available to them at work to change their working practices. Has anyone else come across people printing emails instead of reading them on the screen?
Further information from friends shows that many forward thinking, high-profit companies are also embracing hot desking and flexible working. To achieve this, a workplace not be reliant on pieces of paper which only exist in one filing cabinet, but the company must also keep up to speed with the technical tools which help to make this change successful. What plan does the construction industry have to supply its workforce with Blackberries - the ability to work everywhere and anywhere? What are the one, five and 10-year plans to ensure the industry keeps up with the inevitable technological advancements?
To increase the profit margins in the construction industry, we need to observe and learn from each other and other industries. Industry publications are a great opportunity to communicate the latest thinking to each other. Please can someone tell me what their company is doing to outsmart the rest - or is that confidential because you're not doing anything?
Katherine Bailey is an assistant project manager for Emcor and chair of G4C - Generation for Collaboration - the young people's board of Constructing Excellence in the Built Environment. She is also one of the 10 young professionals on Building's Graduate Advisory Panel