As those involved in the misconstruction of the Scottish parliament building anxiously await the findings of the Fraser Inquiry, Paul Morrell of Davis Langdon, the QS on the £431m job, investigates what lessons we’ve learned from the whole sorry episode – and which old ones we should never have forgotten
After my Lords Hutton and Butler, can those awaiting the verdict of the Fraser Inquiry into the escalation of costs and delays on the Scottish parliament building expect his Lordship to go for three whitewashes in a row? Personally, I doubt it.
Through his interventions, and through the forensic questioning of John Campbell QC, counsel to the inquiry, Lord Fraser and his team have shown a preparedness to open a line of exploration that can be expected to elicit uncomfortable answers. I fully expect this attitude to be carried through into the final report.
And yet there would perhaps be more justice in concluding that failure on this scale must be accepted as collective – even if this fails to satisfy the public appetite for the pillory. Certainly, what must be collective is the recognition that lessons have to be learned. One conclusion may well be that there are no new lessons – just old ones that haven’t been understood yet.
I see a parallel between construction and the troubled state of our railways. In that industry, too, there must be many good people working as hard as they can, none of whom wants to be associated with failure. Nevertheless, the product is often late, and occasionally jumps the rails altogether. In neither industry, however, will the problem be solved by the presentation of heads on silver salvers. The weaknesses are systemic, and the solutions therefore need to be equally systemic. So what are the lessons?
There have been plenty of examples of wisdom after the event at the Fraser Inquiry, much of it self-serving, but towards the end of our evidence we were given licence to deploy the gifts of hindsight more objectively, and say what steps might have been taken to prevent the debacle. Our answers suggested a list of factors that should be in place if a major project is to stand a good prospect of success – and in the absence of which success can only be a matter of good luck. I think everyone who has been involved with a really successful project will concede that there has been an element of luck even when everything else has been right, but to rely upon luck alone (forgetting, perhaps, that it comes in both good and bad models) is reckless.
There is often a confusion of aims within project clients, with different constituencies having different priorities. This can mean one arm asking for everything it ever wanted, while the other is fixated on cost
The only antidote to bad luck is good planning; and the elements of a well-executed plan, informed by long experience but ratified again by the Holyrood story, are easy enough to set down. As they are too rarely set down, though, and are still more rarely followed, let’s have another go …
The first lesson is that clients need to organise themselves for the task ahead, and demonstrate a sense of leadership, unity of purpose, faith and commitment – in short, to act as champions for the project. Within the client team, individuals need to be openly accountable for their actions, with the limits of authority and lines of communication clearly understood. There is often a confusion of aims within project clients, with different constituencies having different priorities. This can mean one arm asking for everything it ever wanted, while the other is fixated on cost. This has to be resolved, but whose decisions are to hold dominion?
At Holyrood, the project had a diverse and multiheaded client structure, without clear lines of authority, and with the user – the parliament itself – not in existence when the brief was put together.
The second lesson is that the right people need to be put together to deliver the dream. This means selecting people with the skills and experience suited to the project, with their roles clearly defined. They must also be able to generate and operate within a realistic project culture rather than with unfeasible expectation, and encourage teamwork rather than egocentricity. There will always be tough moments in a major project, and confidence and hope must sustain the team through these times.
At Holyrood, there was an unresolved uncertainty in the respective roles and authority of the two architects, EMBT and RMJM. Early cost plans were not shared with the design team, undermining any sense of shared purpose regarding the budget.
Problems occurred against a background of political disingenuousness and unfounded media negativity. Collective morale was sapped and individuals were brought to breaking point
The third lesson is that there needs to be clarity as to the objective, communicated through a fully developed, clear and deliverable brief. This should draw lessons from successful projects of the same type, and should be worked out in dialogue between the client and its project team, giving that team the focus and sense of purpose its needs to produce its best stuff. And it avoids the frustration and expense of having to rework solutions.
This in turn means that there needs to be a realistic approach to budget and programme, so that the goals are achievable.
At Holyrood, there was a dramatic and painful increase in functional area and a revolving door of variations that continues virtually to this day. This was exacerbated by a misfit between the published assumptions of the original budget and the underlying aspiration for a building of world class; there was a lack of realism in successive programmes, all of which tried to meet the moving target of “the earliest possible date”.
The consequent haste derailed attempts at a logical plan of work, with some stages commencing before others had finished. Incredibly, the reasoning behind this was that to do otherwise would lead to manifest delay – of course this approach led to yet more waste and delay. All of the above problems took place not in a culture of co-operation, or even shared tribulation, but against a background of political disingenuousness and unfounded media negativity. Collective morale was sapped and individuals were brought to breaking point. It just couldn’t have worked.
What was lacking can be summarised in just four key words: clarity, realism, skills and commitment – and I would say that the greatest of these is clarity. These are, of course, basic and simple truths – so why do we so often set out knowing that some of these things are not in place, thereafter having to watch helplessly as the cost heads north without leaving a forwarding address? And in a world of thinking outside the box, empowerment, continuous improvement, all the other expressions that management consultants recycle until you want to kick them in the low-hanging fruit, and a disproportionate obsession with step-change innovation, isn’t it time that we searched again for the basics?
What was lacking can be summarised in just four key words: clarity, realism, skills and commitment – and I would say that the greatest of these is clarity
Shouldn’t we also accept, anticipating that the client structure at Holyrood will draw at least some fire from Lord Fraser, that equipping clients to be clients is also a supply-side problem? It is a strange industry that holds its customers accountable for its failures.
As we wait to see what the final report has to say, for us one key lesson that the Holyrood experience has already taught us is to renew our determination to advise clients of the essential conditions for success – including matters that go far beyond the boundaries of the traditional role of the cost and project manager. We must make clear that our own core promise (that a certain thing can be done for a certain cost and in a certain time) can be made good only if the project is managed within an environment that is designed for success. Only then can we build to the right quality, in the right time and for the right cost – and above all deliver a finished project that meets its long-term purpose.
There are plenty of other lessons, but the industry has, over time, developed a methodology for testing projects against a deepening level of detail as work proceeds – looking at risk and value management, procurement (and I fear construction management might get an undeserved slap from Fraser here), fitness for purpose, preparing for occupancy and much else. The lesson here, though, is concerned with those matters that have to be in place from the inception, for if things are going to run smoothly on a project, then they have to start well. And if they do not, then they can only be put right by superhuman effort or supernatural luck – both of which are in short supply.
It isn’t good when things go so publicly wrong, and whatever Fraser says, there will be no celebrations – except, I hope, for the magical qualities of the building itself. Rather, I hope there will be a resolution on the part of all of those involved in major projects that in the future they will work together to establish those conditions of success, substituting the wisdom of experience for the misery of repeating old mistakes.