You hear those corporate catchphrases every day. You may even use them. But do you really know what they mean? Make sure with our jargon-busting guide to talking the talk
Lean construction

What does it mean? Making construction more efficient by making sure that workers and machinery don't stand idle.

Where did it come from? Pioneered by Toyota in the 1960s and subsequently became standard practice in the auto industry. Lean philosophy hit construction in the 1990s.

Why does it matter? Sir John Egan spent most of his career in the car industry. So when he chaired a taskforce to make construction more efficient, he turned to lean construction. The University of Dundee now offers an MSc in Lean Construction Project Management.

What to say "Look at the losses they made on that project! If they had used lean construction they would have cut costs by one-third."

Withering put-down if rival for promotion says it first in hearing of chairman "Putting up a building is nothing like churning out cars on an assembly plant. Hardly anyone actually practices lean construction."

Corporate social responsibility

What does it mean? A catch-all term for companies behaving in an ethical way: being eco-friendly and nice to employees, children and animals, and refraining from bribery and so on.

Where did it come from? Some businesses have always emphasised ethics – firms owned by Quaker families, for example. But the idea became mainstream in the 1990s, when members of the flower-power generation were promoted to the boardroom and brought with them some 1960s idealism.

Why does it matter? An increasing proportion of asset managers practice ethical investment, and refuse to buy shares in companies that don't buy into CSR. Getting on the FTSE4Good Index affects your shareprice. Producing a report on environmental and social performance alongside your annual report and accounts is rapidly becoming de rigueur.

What to say "We consult all our stakeholders regularly, and our environmental audits show our projects have a positive net impact on the surrounding area."

Withering put-down "Hah. How many of those glossy environmental reports are printed on recycled paper?"

Risk registers

What does it mean? A risk register is a list of everything that could go wrong on a project. Every risk is given a score based on how likely it is, and how serious the consequences would be. Then they are ranked and distributed so everyone can make a friend of fear. For example, building torn down by giant fire-breathing reptile would score about the same as running out of bricks.

Where did it come from? The oil and gas industry pioneered registers to be sure it was worried enough about their oil rigs. But it's now widely used by – among others – English Heritage and the DVLA.

Why does it matter? Risk management is probably the hottest management issue around right now. At their most sophisticated, risk registers are fed into specially designed programs and subjected to Monte Carlo analysis (a technique pioneered by City types to keep investment portfolios under control).

What to say "We practice risk management to the same standards as hedge fund managers."

Withering put-down "Long Term Capital Management based its business on sophisticated risk management, and when they went bust they nearly caused the world's stock markets to implode."


What does it mean? Key performance indicators are a way of measuring performance. Evaluating KPIs – benchmarking – involves choosing indicators such as safety, productivity and defects, and rating your project's performance against the industry average. The results are displayed in a diagram resembling a spider's web and either pinned to office wall or tattooed onto the back of the site manager, depending on how successful they were.

Where did it come from? The trend was popularised by US management consultants in the late 1980s. KPIs hit the headlines in Britain in 1993, when Kenneth Clarke, the then home secretary, imposed them on prisons.

Why does it matter? Local government minister Nick Raynsford unveiled 10 KPIs for construction in 1999. Managers are under pressure to beat the industry average on their projects – reputations and careers depend on it.

What to say "KPIs on my latest project averaged 78 out of 100, so I deserve a promotion and a massive pay rise."

Withering put-down "A male-dominated industry is obsessed with measuring itself to see who's better than average – what would Freud say?"

Earned value analysis

What does it mean? A complicated way of figuring out how much your project is going over budget. There are lots of mathematical formulas involved, but essentially, you work out the difference between what you actually spent and what you had originally planned to spend.

Where did it come from? The idea was dreamed up by the US military, who were looking for a way to keep their budget-busting projects under control. It became more widespread in the 1980s when computers made it cheap and easy to do lots of complex maths. In the British construction industry, project management consultant Steve Wake has championed EVA for many years.

Why does it matter? EVA is virtually compulsory on Ministry of Defence projects, and it's finding its way into guidance issued by the Office of Government Commerce. BAA is using EVA to produce progress reports on Terminal 5. QS Currie & Brown says that it cut construction costs by 30% on its US projects by using EVA.

What to say "A great way to monitor your budget and improve margins on major projects."

Withering put-down "They used EVA on the Channel Tunnel, but that didn't stop it going 80% over budget."

Value engineering

What does it mean? Changing your business or project so that you achieve the same results for a smaller cost.

Where did it come from? The father of value engineering is Larry Miles, an American engineer who needed a cheap way to make military equipment during the Second World War. He applied the principles at General Electric in the 1950s, and they have been popular ever since.

Why does it matter? Cost-cutting is particularly popular when clients find their business is taking a downturn. A recent example is Liverpool FC's new stadium – the Reds asked Carillion to do some hasty value engineering after failure to qualify for the Champions League cost them £15m. Value engineering is also a favourite with housebuilders.

What to say "Our value engineering exercise saved our client millions."

Withering put-down "If you can do the project for so much less than you originally planned, why was your quote so high?"

Audit trail

What does it mean? A record of every transaction that's taken place in a business or on a project.

Where did it come from? Accountants have been using the term for decades to describe the paperwork that validates company accounts. But today it's increasingly used in an IT context to describe who has had access to a computer network and what they have done with it.

Why does it matter? Online project collaboration software offered by companies such as Asite and BuildOnline create a comprehensive electronic audit trail offering unprecedented amounts of information, which should reduce the scope for arguments over who had access to documents and when payments were made.

What to say "Don't tell me I didn't give you the plans on time – the audit trail shows you downloaded them at 10 o'clock on Monday morning."

Withering put-down "An audit trail doesn't stop you making mistakes, it just guarantees that you get blamed for them."

Knowledge management

What does it mean? Probably the hottest topic for the past few years in management circles, but based on a very simple idea: making sure that your employees pass on useful information to each other.

Where did it come from? Blue-chip management consultant McKinsey was an early pioneer – they set up a computer-based system to pool their in-house knowledge in 1990. The concept went mainstream in the late 1990s.

Why does it matter? The importance of knowledge management is now so widely acknowledged that no self-respecting company is complete without a fancy knowledge management strategy. Woe betide any ambitious manager who can't talk a great game on the subject.

What to say "Our knowledge management strategy facilitates organisational learning, which enables us to leverage our most important asset – our people."

Withering put-down "This was very trendy a few years ago, when dotcoms were all the rage and people called themselves knowledge workers – we're supposed to have moved on since then."