Huw Jones kicks off a new series on what construction can learn from the motor industry
eighteen months ago, developer stanhope and construction manager Bovis Lend Lease invited automotive supply-chain specialists Unipart and FX Coughlin to become consultants to the construction process on the Mid City Place office project in London. Within two days, we at Unipart were convinced that not only could construction learn much from the motor industry – it had to learn.

We are now more convinced of this than ever, but before we could start applying lessons from the car industry, we had to learn more about construction. Working with Bovis Lend Lease, Stanhope and all the trade contractors on Mid City Place has been useful for testing lean construction methods. Some worked well, others didn't; but by learning from our mistakes we have been able to come up with remedies and hopefully solid solutions for future projects.

Why cars aren't so different from offices
One obvious comparison between the two industries is that both take a large number of pre-defined components and put them together to a specific design. People say the comparison stops there, arguing that building a car is a repetitive event, whereas each construction project is a unique operation; or that the guys assembling a car do the same job every day, whereas the building worker has to move from location to location and do different things, or that the car is assembled in a warm regular environment, whereas the construction industry is exposed to wind, rain and snow and is therefore totally unpredictable.

None of these statements are wrong, but they miss the important point: the focus of the industrial processes is identical. The big process delivers a car or a building to the new owner to an exact specification, quality, price and date. But there is a second process: to ensure that the person making this possible – the worker on the production line or construction site – can add their value to the best of their capabilities and that their output is exactly what it should be. The second process is driven by the first but the right result, a quality product, is conditioned by it.

What lessons can construction learn?
The main message from the automotive industry is that paying attention to effective quality processes is key to improving performance. For half a century, the car industry has slowly evolved to reorganise its structures and processes. The concept of best practice is now understood and practised in similar ways, albeit to varying standards, by all the vehicle assemblers.

The component assembler and suppliers have to co-operate from the moment of conception of a new car model

The lessons construction could learn from the car industry are:

  • The component assembler and the component suppliers have to co-operate from the moment of conception of a new car model, which means that all the involved parties understand and comply with the entire process. As such, the success of the product is wholly dependent on team effort around a single process method that is defined in advance. For a construction project, it is left to the individual skill of the trade contractor to establish the process – there is no defined construction procedure.

  • The design process is a definitive statement of the end product with its method of production established well before it starts.

    A detail is never left until after production begins. The designer and the marketing department have to make their input well before commitments to fixed investment are finalised. This contrasts strongly with the way this is handled in construction.

  • Even though processes are laid down early, improvements in methods are continual. Efficiency gains are sought and product quality issues are addressed throughout the life of the product. A labour force able to contribute to this process is now essential and ensures that efficiency and quality gains are achieved – with the resulting benefits of cost reduction. This could equally apply to construction measurement, which is as unceasing as production is regular. True measurement hardly exists in construction.