On the eve of the third Egan conference, construction is at the Rubicon. Over the next 10 pages, Building reflects on the report’s impact and asks whether the cult of Egan will become the industry’s official religion.
Today’s construction industry would make excellent research material for students of secular religion. Phrases such as the “spirit of Egan” have entered the its lexicon, along with a whole private language of “KPIs” and “non-adversarial relationships”. And researchers examining the evangelical-sounding Movement for Innovation would find a hierarchical system in which enlightenment,attained though “demonstration projects”, is handed down to the disciples at “cluster group meetings”.

These phenomena are the surprisingly robust aftermath of the government-backed Rethinking Construction report, the shake-up dealt to the industry nearly two years ago by Sir John Egan. The report certainly deserves to be toasted for its long after-life. But, on the eve of the third Egan conference, the question is whether it has anything more substantial to celebrate. Have all these demonstration projects, cluster groups movements and initiatives made any progress towards the report’s aim of a healthier, wealthier construction industry?

Early figures to be released at the conference certainly point to success. A survey of the key performance indicators of the demonstration projects completed so far is expected to show that most of them hit the Egan targets, such as reductions in costs, defects and increases in productivity.

Nevertheless, there is a hard core of dissenters who are dissatisfied with the apparent lack of innovation in the demonstration projects, its tardiness in publishing results and the status of the supporting cluster groups as exclusive, invitation-only clubs.

We’ve had two conferences that were evangelical; we don’t want a third. It’s got to deliver some meat

Graham Watts, Chief Executive, Construction Industry Council

On a more philosophical level, there are concerns – most recently voiced by Stuart Green of the University of Reading – that the Movement for Innovation has hijacked the debate about improving the industry and laced it into an inappropriate strait-jacket. Even among enthusiasts, there is a suspicion that Eganism is only as important as the status it has among the industry’s paymasters. “I think you have to be involved, otherwise you’re going to be left behind” is a tactful comment from Richard Evans, Mace’s project manager on a demonstration project for Wessex Water. Some make the point more bluntly, but anonymously. “The Movement for Innovation is something we want to align ourselves with, but for fairly superficial marketing reasons,” says the procurement manager of one larger contractor. On the other hand, there is little doubt that Rethinking Construction and its spin-offs are founded on a genuine desire to build up construction’s knowledge economy. Where a large section of the industry deals in repeat building types, it could provide valuable performance data and discourage project teams from reinventing the wheel. In the words of Slough Estates construction director Bernard Rimmer, the Movement for Innovation is all about “injecting innovation into the bloodstream of the industry”.

But both detractors and supporters agree that there will be a reckoning at the conference; this is the point at which the Movement for Innovation must evolve from a limited-membership talking shop into a force for change.

“We’ve had two conferences that were very evangelical; we don’t want a third. It’s got to be a conference that delivers some meat to the industry,” urges Graham Watts, the Construction Industry Council’s chief executive. Indeed, so far, only 30 projects have produced any data on innovations deemed relevant enough to publish.

The Movement for Innovation is something we want to align ourselves with, but for fairly superficial marketing reasons

Procurement manager, Major Contractor

Movement for Innovation chairman Alan Crane seems to be listening. “We’ll be issuing reports on 30 out of 84 demonstration projects. It’s the start of a broader process of dissemination, and we’ll also be announcing ways in which people not involved in demonstration projects can access the cluster groups.”

Innovation and democracy

The conclusions of the July 1998 Egan report itself were hard to refute: construction was obsessed with the idea that each building was unique, and ignored the potential for standardising the products and processes used to construct it. The solution was a culture of continuous improvement and efficiency targets, backed by rigorous monitoring and benchmark comparisons based on 10 key performance indicators. Crucially, Egan had the blessing of the government and some of the industry’s highest-spending clients.

People are frightened of change, and we desperately need evidence of the real benefits

Clive Cain, technical standards director of Defence Estates Organisation, on the need to publish demonstration project data

But the view from University of Reading senior lecturer Green is that this narrow Egan gospel could squeeze out alternative approaches. In particular, he is concerned that Eganism is based on extensive measuring and monitoring, which risk marginalising genuinely innovative ideas and their champions.

“The Egan framework is a top-down view – there’s no way it begins to represent the diversity of construction or its complex needs. Diversity should be encouraged. It is through diversity that we achieve innovation from the bottom-up,” Says Green.

Where’s the data?

It’s the start of a broader process of dissemination. We’ll also be announcing ways people can access cluster groups

Movement for Innovation chairman Alan Crane on the third Egan conference

The means to elicit a stream of new ideas and hard data for eventual dissemination to the industry are demonstration projects. About 80, with a total value of £3bn, joined the first wave. These are a glass-walled laboratory to help the entire industry emulate progress and negotiate problems. Their findings are discussed and refined in cluster group meetings for individuals involved in the projects. Hard data on each project is to be published, circulated using the Construction Best Practice Programme, and posted on the Knowledge Exchange database at ww.m4i.org.uk.

The number of projects has now swollen to 160. A glance through the official Movement for Innovation demonstration project brochure reveals plenty of what could be described as best practice: two-stage tendering, project workshops, value engineering, risk management and open-book accounting. Many are private finance initiative projects, and are led by contractors.

On the other hand, there is very little that could be described as truly groundbreaking, such as new applications of IT, or pre-manufactured components. And hardly any are consultant-led.

I think you have to be involved, otherwise you’re going to be left behind

Richard Evans, Project Manager, Mace

The experience of at least one demonstration project seems to bear out Green’s concerns about Egan’s rigidity. According to Mace’s Evans, “the lesson we’ve learned is that it is helpful if the innovations you put up are tangible and measurable. Out of the three targets we put forward – waste management, recycling and introducing environmental sustainability in value engineering – only recycling can be measured.” However, he adds that the Movement for Innovation is looking into the problem.

Although time savings are impossible to quantify before completion, and cost savings difficult to calculate before the final account, there is a feeling that the Movement for Innovation could have pushed harder to circulate preliminary data to the industry.

Clive Cain, technical standards director of the Defence Estates Organisation and a Movement for Innovation board member, agrees that he would have liked to have seen data before now. “The faster we get data, the quicker people can change the way they work. People are frightened of change, and we desperately need evidence of the real benefits.”

[It’s about] injecting innovation into the bloodstream of the industry

Bernard Rimmer, construction director, Slough Estates

Elsewhere, there is some understanding of the delay, even if several projects were completed six or even 12 months ago. The CIC’s Watts says:

“I have a degree of sympathy with the Movement for Innovation in that respect. They have to be sure the information they’re releasing is robust and valid, and they can’t put it out too early.

“If you were a demonstration project, you’d be cautious about what you publicised. I don’t blame them,” agrees Richard Sapcote, chairman of Birmingham-based contractor Sapcote.

They seem reluctant to disband – it’s a bit like Egan anonymous

John Connaughton, partner, Davis Langdon & Everest, on how his cluster group has responded to the end of its projects

Most cluster group attendees are committed fans. “They’re about knowledge sharing, and construction is a knowledge economy,” says Tom Smith, director of engineer WSP.

Some go further, continuing to hold meetings even when the projects behind them are complete. “In the cluster I’m responsible for [central and east London], people are hanging on in there because they get some value from the get-togethers. They seem reluctant to disband – it’s a bit like Egan anonymous,” jokes Movement for Innovation board member and Davis Langdon & Everest partner John Connaughton.

What’s in it for consultants?

The drawback of too many projects being contractor-led is that there is too great an emphasis on design and build

Chris Higgins, director of estates, King Alfred’s College, Winchester

But the argument raised by several consultants is that the cluster groups tend to be over-weighted with contractors and standard, repeat-building types. “We’re interested in high-quality,

design-led projects. Hearing about Asda supermarkets or major infrastructure projects is not particularly relevant,” says Jo Wright, project partner for a library extension at King Alfred’s College, Winchester. “The movement was set up to measure achievements in repeat jobs and we don’t do that kind of work.

“The drawback of too many Movement for Innovation projects being contractor-led is that there is too great an emphasis on design and build,” agrees her client, the college’s estates director Chris Higgins.

If you were a demonstration project, you’d be cautious about what you publicised. I don’t blame them

Richard Sapcote, chairman, Birmingham-based contractor Sapcote

Richard Saxon, chairman of BDP, echoes wright. “If there was a disappointment in the cluster groups, it was that they were overloaded towards the contractors and designers did not have a full role. I think it has been much more appropriate for repetitious types of project, in the public sector or retail sector. It’s not exactly about art galleries or lottery projects.”

Nevertheless, BDP and other well-regarded architects are prepared to back the venture. “We definitely want to keep in touch with Movement for Innovation. We feel you need to run it over a number of projects,” says John Robertson, director of Hurley Robertson & Associates. He cites the use of pre-construction mock-ups as one of the most valuable lessons on the project.

Alan Crane says the success of the cluster groups, attended by more than 1000 individuals, has exceeded his expectations of 18 months ago. “Invariably, the people who attend are the middle ranks of the industry, the people working at project level who are harder to get information to. It’s easier to get information to people in the boardroom or at head office.”

If there was a disappointment in the cluster groups, it was that they were overloaded towards the contractors

Richard Saxon, Chairman, BDP

He also rejects the argument that the Egan doctrine is best suited to repeat work. “You can still measure predictability against a budget, or programme, or client satisfaction.”

Extending the Egan agenda

Looking ahead, there are reservations in the industry about how the Movement for Innovation should proceed. “I’m interested in how long it has to run, and how it will be supported and funded. It needs to have its future more clearly set down,” says BDP’s Saxon. DL&E’s Connaughton argues: “Inevitably, you have to energise it, to refocus peoples’ attention, so we might have to rename it. But I think the process should continue – there is still a niche for somebody to continue the rethinking process.”

Connaughton sees the focus shifting to the movement’s web site. This is also the home of its Knowledge Exchange, currently at trial stage, which is due to be fully operational in six to nine months’ time. This will allow users to search for information on a given topic or building type, and be directed at individual web sites run by universities, organisations such as the BRE, or individual firms.

“The beauty of a web site is that it’s always up to date. With publications, you read them one day and then they’re in the bin,” agrees Rimmer.

The conference seems to be the Movement for Innovation’s chance to listen to its critics, convince them that it is not simply preaching to the converted, and start remoulding itself as more populist and relevant.

Although there are 1000 individuals actively attending cluster group meetings, it is hard to avoid the impression that Eganism is an exclusive club with a disproportionate bias towards

What the fuss is all about

Sir John Egan’s July 1998 rallying cry, Rethinking Construction, set the industry four ambitious targets: a 20% reduction in the capital cost of construction, a 20% decrease in defects and accidents, a 10% increase in productivity and a 20% increase in predictability and performance. The sweetener came five months later with the launch of the Movement for Innovation, the DETR-backed “Egan implementation body”. It decided on a strategy of inviting well-run projects to apply for “demonstration” status and open themselves up to public scrutiny. Two months later, the Housing Forum was launched to fulfil the same role for the housebuilding industry. Projects would have to show evidence of innovative thinking in one or more of the following areas: product development, project implementation, partnering with the supply chain, or the production of components. In addition, they undertook to provide the Movement for Innovation’s board with comprehensive case histories and data on how the project fared according to 10 key performance indicators. The Movement for Innovation also devised 10 cluster groups drawing together the team members on demonstration projects in different parts of the country. Each group is the responsibility of a member of the Movement for Innovation board, and meets regularly to pool ideas and information. The first round attracted 48 projects worth £1.4bn, and the second drew in a further 35 worth 1.5bn. After a third round, and an influx of projects from the local government sector, there are currently about 160 demonstration projects. The Movement for Innovation has no plans for a further general invitation to submit projects. It has also signalled that it is dissatisfied with the provision of data in a minority of cases. So far, only 30 projects have delivered data that is considered sufficiently meaningful to be published. In April, the Housing Forum produced a preliminary report on the 56 projects in its first and second rounds.

Egan two years on