Honda’s construction team has taken inspiration from the company’s car production lines to keep its projects purring smoothly

At first glance, there is little to set the control room at Honda’s Wiltshire car plant apart from any other: green office chairs, coffee machines, whiteboards. But those aren’t bog-standard whiteboards – they are “smartboards” with the power to magically shrink paperwork, resolve conflicts and liven up dull meetings.

It’s fair to say the smartboard is a more high-tech bit of kit than most construction firms are used to, but it’s a well-established project tool at Honda. Paul Roberts, the firm’s senior facilities manager, demonstrates by drawing a doodle on the nearest smartboard. He presses a button and a paper copy shoots out of a slot at the bottom. Meanwhile, at the other end of the room, a Word document of a recent meeting’s minutes is projected on to another board. Roberts makes an amendment, signs it and saves the document. Seconds later, he is holding a print-out of the page with the change clearly marked.

“We use the smartboard for contractor meetings,” he says. “We try not to take private notes – we make visible notes on the smartboard as we go along and all agree on them. Minutes of the meeting are signed by all present and emailed around at the end of the meeting. In terms of reducing management time, they’re phenomenal. Before, I could spend a day writing emails and minutes, then I’d have to go over them at the next meeting.”

It is unusual for such a secretive Japanese firm to open its doors to the public, but the Swindon branch of Constructing Excellence has prevailed upon Honda, the area’s largest employer, to demonstrate how it uses car manufacturing processes to manage its construction projects. The site covers 370 acres and, since 1985, Honda has invested £1.3bn in facilities to make the Honda Civic and CR-V, as well as engines for export to its factory in Turkey. This year, the UK plant will employ 4,900 people to make more than 250,000 cars.

Honda is not one of UK construction’s biggest clients, but it is an efficient one. It’s spending varies from year to year, but averages about £20-30m on extensions, modifications and the installation of new equipment. Its last big project was the £130m construction of a second car plant in 2001, which was held up as an exemplar project by the DTI. Roberts’ construction team built the 50,000m2 plant for £701/m2 – below estimates from UK and Japanese companies and 40% lower than the first plant a decade before.

Roberts puts the improvement down to project management – just as Sir John Egan recommended adapting car manufacturing principles to the construction process, so too does Roberts’ eight-strong project staff use the car industry’s Total Quality Management system. As in a car production line, every supplier in the chain is expected to treat the contractor that follows as a customer. Progress is planned openly with a system of “early warnings” – claims from any part of the supply chain constitute inefficiency. Programmes are developed as the team goes along and the gap between what should be happening and reality is analysed.

Automotive teams use the “5 Why” technique – asking the question five times to get to the root of the problem. “They spend time interrogating things in more depth than the construction industry would traditionally do,” says Richard Bayfield, an external consultant who has worked with Honda for 12 years. “In a production environment, where you make over £10m worth of goods a day, to lose just a few minutes’ production is very significant.”

This philosophy of challenging every assumption was demonstrated on a project to build a press pit – used for stamping sheet metal into the shape of cars. “Normally you’d complete the groundworks and put the steel frame and cladding up after that,” says Bayfield. “In this case, we put up the structure and constructed the 10m deep press pit later on, with services being built in the roof space at the same time as deep pit construction immediately below – just to speed up the programme.”

But the simplest and most radical change Honda made was using the smartboard. The usual shady method of writing up minutes after the meeting – and the inevitable squabbles over them at the next – can create an air of suspicion and hidden agendas. Roberts believes that doing away with it helps foster a spirit of genuine collaboration.

“We’ve got a no-blame culture,” he says. “If a contractor’s got a problem we remind him it’s his problem but we will help by moving things around in the programme to control costs. There are huge benefits if you have good communications with the supply chain – they will perform well if they know they are being treated fairly and don’t think they will be misled.” Indeed, disputes are rare – Roberts recalls “a very small one” four years ago, but nothing since.

Bayfield is as evangelical about the technology as Roberts. “Construction is habitually full of confusion,” he says. “People often go away from meetings with things left in a haze of uncertainty. This eliminates that. You go away with definitive agreements.”

Honda UK is reliant on its Japanese headquarters for instruction on plant design, and the construction department often has to hit tight deadlines for building facilities.

“We’re driven by customers who demand equipment,” says Roberts. “We use construction management so we get close to the supply chain. Being late and over budget are not even on the agenda.”