Behind the sleek skyline of Tokyo is a super-efficient construction industry that operates complex projects with military precision and flawless co-ordination. James Clegg found out how it works

The Japanese construction industry operates with the stealth, precision and control of a ninja. In a recent report, Constructing Excellence gave it a score of 100% for productivity, compared with 50% for the UK. It found that projects in Japan were always on time, logistics were super-efficient and sites were so safe that workers did not need to wear steel-toed boots.

The findings were based on two trips to Japan during which the organisation visited sites run by the country’s five largest contractors: Shimizu, Kajima, Takenaka, Taisei and Obayashi. Each has a turnover of £4.5bn and together they account for 95% of all major building works in Japan. It found the projects had integrated teams of subcontractors, high levels of prefabrication and a military approach to logistical planning. Here are the some of the approaches that stood out …

1 Training

Staff train for a full year before starting work on site. Tony Hyde, managing director of Thomas Vale, who was part of the delegation to Japan, says: “They go to a school where they are indoctrinated and trained in the business’ values.” This is perhaps why staff retention is high. Most firms have a churn rate of 2%, mostly as a result of deaths and retirement.

2 Morning briefing

Every day at 7.45am the project manager briefs everyone on site, from team leaders to labourers, before work starts at 8am. The briefing typically ends with recitation of the site motto. On some sites this takes the form of a prayer to one of the gods of Shinto, Japan’s religion.

3 Warm up

Workers do calisthenics in the morning. Adrian Blumenthal, who is special projects director at Constructing Excellence and led the investigation, says: “I don’t know if you’d be able to get UK brickies to limber-up in the morning, but work’s exercise and you need to warm up.”

4 Project board

The board is central to each project. It has a clock in its centre, includes a mission statement and health and safety information. It shows where everyone on site should be and when. Each day’s schedule is set during a planning meeting before lunchtime the previous day.

5 Vertical hoist

Rather than each subcontractor erecting its own external lift, one internal hoist in the centre of the building is used to transport workers and materials. Once the rest of the project is complete the hoist is taken down storey by storey. Filling the gap it leaves in each floor is the final step.

6 Waste control

Kajima typically segregates up to nine types of waste for recycling on each project, for instance timber, plastics and ferrous metal.

7 Health and safety

Constructing Excellence described Japanese attitudes to health and safety as “pragmatic”.

“Some thought health and safety was an issue but it’s not,” says Blumenthal. “For instance, people don’t wear steel-toed boots, but that’s because the way sites are organised means there’s hardly any debris, so there’s little chance of dropping anything on your feet.”

The effectiveness of this approach is clear – 92% of projects in Japan achieve a zero-accident rate, compared with 62% of UK schemes.

8 Customer service

There is a big emphasis on customer satisfaction. Most projects are completed on time and without defects, the report said, though no percentage was given. This was put down to the traditional concept of “honour”, as well as more prosaic reasons.

Henry Loo, another delegation member who worked as a project manager for Kajima in the UK during the nineties says: “In effect, the people on site are the marketing team. They know if they screw up this project they won’t see another.”

It is also enshrined in Japanese law that a contractor is liable for any defects in a building for up to two years after it has been delivered.

9 Profit

Despite beating the UK industry in most key performance indicators, including productivity, client satisfaction and safety, Japanese construction more or less equals it in profitability. The five biggest contractors have an average profit margin of 2.9%. Constructing Excellence reckons this could be explained by Japan’s lengthy economic downturn and a reduction in public spending on infrastructure, when compared to the eighties and nineties (in 1991 the average margin was 5.2%). It could also be because the Japanese plough more money into research.

10 Off-site building

Japanese drawings are of such good quality and detail that most components can be built off-site in a factory. Constructing Excellence found that engineering on any element could be carried out in a supplier’s workshop. High levels of prefabrication make Japanese sites more efficient and maximise the potential for good quality control.