Dennis Lenard caused a furore when he said construction was backward, but the resulting debate was long on indignation and short on analysis – so here are some facts
My interview with the Financial Times has really sparked some productive debate about the progress of the UK construction industry over the past 20 years. I certainly don't believe that the whole industry is frozen in time. Parts of the UK construction industry have made some fantastic achievements on a national and global level. In partnering and relationship contracting, frameworks and PPPs, the UK is leading the world. UK design consultants and product manufacturers are world-class leaders, with exports at their highest level in two decades. The companies responsible for driving this development have to be commended for their dedication to performance improvement.

But this was not my issue. My comments, in the main, were directed to our "laboratory" – the construction site, the only place where the general contractor can try out ideas. Innovation in the actual construction process is the most important task facing the industry, and although some firms have made significant investments, pockets of the industry have not shown the same commitment. This is what we have to change.

Site production processes, although changing at the highest levels, are not making the most of the fabricating, machining and assembly technologies that already exist. Automated material handling systems that allow for reductions in in-process inventory and for improved safety have been used in manufacturing since the 1980s, yet they are only just starting to infiltrate our sites – and this is due to client encouragement. Communication and control technologies to improve processing and procedural efficiencies are starting to be considered by some contractors.

Admittedly, a few large companies are investing heavily in these technologies, but the whole industry needs to be involved. Manufacturing resource planning, which gives stable production rates and balanced capacity, is only now being considered on sites, yet it has existed in factories for at least two decades.

The contractors in the change movement are more than 65% more productive than the industry average

In contrast, other parts of the industry, most notably demonstration companies, are really driving us forward. These organisations are committed to culture change and investment in on-site innovation. The fact that demonstrations are 2.7 times safer than the rest of the industry clearly enforces the view that safety can be improved by using the right technology.

We have, in my estimation, 60 exemplar companies working in the change movement and it is little wonder that they achieve twice the industry average on crucial benchmarks and receive the bulk of framework agreements. This year's Constructing Excellence key performance indicator results are testament to this. Demonstration companies:

  • Have more than 40% better environmental performance.
  • Score more than twice the industry average in employee satisfaction.
  • Are more than 65% more productive than the industry average.

These organisations must show the rest of the industry that innovation is a business reality. It is their leadership and drive to advance the construction process and technology that will push the rest of the industry out of its comfort zone. The message to the hundreds of large companies that are not investing in technology now is that, as the global construction industry becomes a reality, competitive advantage depends on the ability to initiate process innovations at site level. The message is clear – join in or lose out.