Richard O'Connor is out to slimline the construction industry's waste. Applying the lessons of the automotive industry, he says he can save builders time and money. Victoria Madine finds out just what a professional streamliner has to offer.
It's hard to find a window in Richard O'Connor's diary. He's a well-respected expert in the car manufacturing industry – but it's actually construction that's keeping him so busy.

O'Connor is the lynchpin in the Construction Best Practice Programme's new initiative to introduce leaner working practices in the industry. The Construction Lean Improvement Programme (CLIP) is a pilot scheme that aims to cut out the chronic waste that was so bemoaned in Latham's Constructing the Team report (published in 1994) and Egan's Rethinking Construction (1998). The idea is that CLIP will provide the practical tools and techniques for companies to actually make changes – rather than just talking about them.

O'Connor is the master engineer who is helping to deliver the goods. Since the scheme was launched in January this year, the softly spoken Brummie has already worked with three contractors to point out where improvements could be made, both on site and in managerial style. And he's made a big impression already.

A participant in the scheme, contractor Thomas Vale, says it managed to save around 33% on the time taken to finish a refurbishment job on a social housing project in Kidderminster after completing the CLIP pilot programme. Bill Munn, director of best practice at Thomas Vale, says the company learned "invaluable" lessons from the experience. He says, "We're still realising the benefits that the scheme brought us; we're already committed to working in more depth with CLIP. I'd urge other companies to get involved."

So just what is the secret of O'Connor's success so far – and is it anything to do with cars?

What's your role in the Construction Lean Improvement Programme?
I'm there to help companies improve their productivity using "invasive" lean production techniques. The techniques are invasive in the sense that I actually give "hands-on" guidance to a multidisciplinary team from the company I'm helping for a 15-day period. Hopefully, by the time I leave, this team will be able to continue applying the lessons they've learned throughout the rest of their employer's business. I don't spend much time with the executives – apart from some prep work at the beginning. I focus on the people who actually work on site.

So what are your first steps when you go to a company?
CLIP has a very structured approach. First I meet the key players of the company and we establish what kind of areas and problems the firm would like me to tackle. This could be to do with improving productivity, logistics on site, mechanical systems, improved planning, team working or adapting partnering as the form of procurement. It really depends on the company. Sometimes the company won't know what the problem is – but the managers may have a sense that there is too much waste in the business.

In this circumstance, I'm there to help identify what is blocking the firm's efficiency. Diagnosing which areas of the business we need to improve takes two days or so, then we get down to brass tacks and look to see what we can actually do to implement change – and then we do it. The whole process lasts 15 days.

What would be an example of a specific occurrence of waste you have helped manage to alleviate?
I worked with NG Bailey earlier this year to improve work effectiveness on a mechanical and electrical fit-out job the company did for Wolverhampton University. One of the ways in which we tried to identify where productivity was being lost was to simply observe people at work on site. We soon realised that there was a "bottleneck", whereby too many people were trying to use one resource at the same time – in this instance a pipe cutter. Two groups of two workers were using the machine. We needed to balance the input of the machine against the output, so we dedicated one of the workers to operating the machine and as a result the number of pipes fitted each day increased by 40%. Savings like these can have a dramatic impact on a project.

What kind of reaction do you get from the construction professionals you work with?
I do meet with scepticism. People who've worked at their company for a number of years would say, "Oh, you won't manage those changes here". But I've found that people soon become enthusiastic after I've taken them out on site and pointed out a few basic things to help someone do their job quicker. People then realise that there's a lot of scope for change – it's just that you need to look at your work with fresh eyes.

It's the process that inspires people.

From the insight you have gained so far, what do you think are the main factors causing waste in construction businesses?
A lot of the companies I've worked with don't tend to measure waste – or if they do, they don't use the information to try and make improvements, or the measurements are made in an unstructured way. By measuring waste I mean, for example, recording the amount of time spent waiting for materials to be delivered. In my time with Thomas Vale, we measured waste in this way on a refurbishment project and discovered that over 10 hours had been lost because a skip was delivered late on site, and incomplete works also led to time being lost. By re-sequencing the activity that took place in the project, we were able to reduce the work phase for the next refurbishment the company undertook by at least 17% – and possibly as much as 33%.

What other industries have you worked in – and how do they compare with construction?
I've been involved with projects to improve efficiency in a wide range of industries – shipbuilding, ceramics, rubber manufacturing and aerospace. I think the parallels between aerospace and construction are particularly strong. Though planes may all look the same from the outside, a lot will have been tailored to suit particular specifications.

So do you actually use your knowledge of the automotive industry to help construction companies cut waste?
The CLIP approach is both managerial and technical – it's definitely not just about applying techniques from the automotive industry to construction. I'm being used for my knowledge and understanding of lean processes – my technical know-how means I can apply them as well. A great deal of what I do is about using common sense, or looking for the most logical solution to a problem. A lot of the time I'll be looking at how people can maximise their productivity.

Has anything about the construction industry frustrated you?
I wouldn't say I've experienced frustration as such. Sometimes I feel that people on site could do with more support from management.

Other times I think it is more about getting staff to look at the way they manage their time. There is so much untapped potential in the people who work in construction – they need to be able to step outside their daily job from time to time and have the opportunity to come up with new ideas that can create sustainable improvement.

How much do you cost, and do you think a regular management consultant could provide the same service?
Around £5000. It's a rate subsidised by the Rethinking Construction programme, so it's cheaper than bringing in a management consultant. Potentially, someone from a management consultancy could do my job, but we do more than just give advice.

Where do you see CLIP in the future?
I'd like to see the scheme get much bigger.

There are currently two master engineers on the scheme, and by the end of the year, we will have worked with six companies. So, hopefully we'll be taking on more master engineers as the pilot programme has been so successful – as long as we get the government funding we need.