Huw Jones - What construction can learn from car makers, part two: don't do anything without a detailed plan.
the construction industry has been challenged to adopt and perfect "build planning". This is asking a lot, but it's not impossible. What's more, it would not cost much to attain, and if it were attained, the returns would be enormous – particularly if you recognise that improvements in efficiency are what will allow the industry to deliver Sir John Egan's 10% year-on-year reductions in costs.

Let's begin with the car. Every model is a luxury item conceived and designed to compete in a very specific market sector. It competes on specification, quality, service, availability and price. The price band into which it will be offered for sale is defined early, and this price positioning has a crucial effect on how many are made. The two together dictate the production process.

The result is that a vehicle assembler knows precisely the unit cost of producing a given model. Get this wrong, and the consequences are almost irrecoverable.

If the cost of production is going to be achieved at the predicted level, the process that delivers it has to be carefully defined.

This process has to do two things:

  • It has to have a regular output of scheduled units of so many units per time period.
  • It has to achieve this output to a set quality and efficiency level.

The way in which all the resources are organised to achieve this is known in advance, and is based on a well thought-through, reliable and optimised process approach.

In summary, car production cannot cost £5000 per unit one day and £5100 the next, nor is it acceptable to produce 250 cars in a shift if the plan was to produce 300.

What appears as the vital and fundamental first step in car production hardly appears as a concern in construction

What appears as the vital and fundamental first step in car production hardly appears as a concern in construction. It is our belief however that the same level of predictability and planning could exist in construction as in the automotive industry. Some of the necessary elements have already been identified and used in Stanhope's Mid City Place project in Holborn, central London (2 February, page 48). Others need further development. They are principally as follows.

There has to be a plan. Its first version has to exist early. Each contractor has to break down its package into readily understood and logical jobs that it then shares with the other contractors. After it has been adjusted to fit in with the needs of other trades, the final plan should be total and reflect the best solution for everyone.

The plan has to exist many months before the real start on site. It should recognise the items that are on the critical path. Most (not all) of these will relate to design. The plan, however, has to be the tool that contractors use to ensure that professionals provide their input on time and early enough to order components with long lead times. This is a change of emphasis that the industry badly needs.

The plan has to be costed. Changes have to be compared with the plan. The costing has to be done at the level of the individual job. Materials and equipment need to be identified against each job. An on-site logistics structure should accommodate the plan, or its lack considered and used as the basis for plan adjustments.

Human resources planning is also done at this point. This appears to be a significant complication for construction, as some trades have no regularly employed and trained staff. This means that the trade contractor's ability to determine its output for planning purposes is limited, with the result that a spurious average is used. Until contractors take on staff to train to a common standard so that they can be used as the basis for deciding output, planning will be a difficult concept for the industry.

Finally, planning inputs will vary from trade to trade, and each will need to consider its own best approach. The frame erection will need to take into account uncertain weather conditions, whereas the washroom contractor can create a methodology of its own once the space allowed to it is known. In addition, the plan has to be monitored daily and the team should work together to respond to variations.