As if she hadn't come under enough fire, Zara Lamont braved four days with the army to find out what it could teach construction about getting on in a rough world
With just a few weeks left at the Construction Best Practice Programme, I certainly hadn't been planning any trips away, or at least that's what I thought before I was invited to visit Kosovo at the end of June. So why, I hear you ask, did I choose to embark on a four-day trip to a war-torn territory accompanied by, among others, representatives from Costain and Mowlem? Obviously, the opportunity to drive a tank was particularly appealing … but, joking aside, this was my chance to see first hand the extent to which the army is learning to cope with problems similar to those prevalent in the UK construction industry.

Let's start with the issue of recruitment and retention of staff. This has long been a bugbear for our industry and nobody doubts that projects have been delayed as a result. But for the army, delay is just not acceptable. You can imagine what the response would be to: "I know we said we'd be there today, but we had to send the troops to another job so we won't be able to save you until next week."

We have all seen the extensive advertising campaigns that the armed forces have undertaken in an effort to encourage new recruits. But this on its own was not enough and has been accompanied by significant internal change. The army has had to broaden its appeal to women and ethnic minorities and address how it could best incorporate the Territorial Army and reservists into its operations. Part-timers, once viewed as no more than a "Dad's Army", now typically make up 6% of personnel on deployment and are viewed as an essential and fully-integrated part of army operations. Deployments can be anything from a few weeks – for example, a TA squad going out to sort out the IT system in Kosovo – to six months working on infrastructure projects or retraining ex-Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers in civil defence. The benefits to the army are obvious, but what about these part-timers' day-job employers back in the UK? Well, they get people with excellent training and experience of teamworking, leadership, man-management and planning skills.

With regards to staff retention, the army has been working hard to improve welfare conditions and communications. The accommodation is all in standardised units that were surprisingly comfortable – even if the communal washing facilities took a little getting used to.

In the armed forces, extensive advertising campaigns were accompanied by significant internal change

Everyone has 20 minutes of free phone calls per week, along with email facilities so they can keep in contact with home. The army also ensures that everyone arrives home on the day their leave starts so they don't have to waste precious time travelling. Simple measures like these have helped the army to retain its personnel. On discussing these issues with a senior officer, he explained that the days of "bark and bollock" in the army are over. Officers are now fully aware that the further they progress through the ranks, the more essential it is to develop their communication and interpersonal skills.

The army is also using partnering with other forces to reduce costs and avoid duplication. In Kosovo, the Norwegians supply transport, the UK supplies heavy plant and machinery and there is a joint Norwegian, Finnish and British military police force.

There are lessons to be learned here. If the army can use standard business improvement tools like the business excellence model to drive through change, so can construction. Partnering is helping the army to reduce costs – our taxes – and it can save us money on our projects, too. These are all in addition to the Respect for People mentality it has also had to take on board.