Did the Egan report really announce a cultural revolution in construction? As a conference prepares to mull over the changes one year on, Building analyses the response of both industry and clients.
The client’s view

Rethinking Construction’s greatest effect has been on Britain’s biggest client: the government. Although the Ministry of Defence was pioneering prime contracting before the launch of the report, it has now absorbed Egan’s proposals in their entirety.

Now the Treasury is pushing prime contracting through its guidance document, the National Heath Service has pledged to introduce prime contracting for all non-private finance initiative work, and the DETR is staging a conference on Egan on 19 July.

MOD Defence Estates Organisation quality director Clive Cain is an Egan enthusiast. “Egan captured the concerns of clients in one report and it has had an amazing influence over the past year,” he says. “Now all of us clients have one hymn sheet to sing from. Prime contracting is all about driving out waste and is just one way of meeting Egan’s targets.”

Now is the time for action, says Cain. “Not warm words – action is the message we are pushing,” he says. “The time for talking is done. We want to see contractors benchmarking their performance, reducing waste and meeting Egan’s targets.”

Cain says the major contractors have largely got the message and that this year it will start to trickle down to their suppliers.

Whereas some private sector clients, such as Railtrack, BAA and the major retailers, are Egan evangelists, others are more sceptical. One major City developer says that Egan has no place in his relationships with suppliers.

“Egan is too rigid,” he says. “We build up relationships with our suppliers and keep using them until those relationships break down. Then we look for new partners.” One-off clients stand to benefit from the Egan movement. The British Property Federation, among others, is keen to see leagues of contractors and consultants based on key performance indicators. This will give one-off clients a quantitative way of selecting contractors on performance as well as price.

The City sees the report as a way of making construction sexy. “It promotes barriers to entry, differentiation and life-cycle costing – therefore I’m all in favour,” says one banker .

The contractor’s view

We want contractors to benchmark their performance, reduce waste and meet Egan’s targets

Clive Cain, Ministry of Defence

Contractors bore the brunt of Sir John Egan’s criticism. Their training, leadership and site organisation all came under fire. How have they reacted to this slap in the face?

Major contractors

The bigger firms refuse to acknowledge that the Egan report has made any difference to their businesses. However, most are implementing Egan-like continuous improvement programmes to cut waste in production and are using performance indicators to measure how they are doing.

The view of Keith Clarke, chief executive of Kvaerner Construction, is typical. “Egan has made a considerable difference to the construction industry, but only we [Kvaerner] affect our own business,” he says, dismissing Sir John’s direct influence on the contractor. Clarke explains that Kvaerner has had a continuous improvement programme running for the past 30 months and that the board takes direct responsibility for the policy.

Although Kvaerner uses its own business-specific performance indicators, Clarke does support the Movement for Innovation’s 10 key performance indicators. “There should be generic key performance indicators so that performance can be measured and the best performers rewarded,” he says.

Construction managers such as Bovis and Mace are, arguably, further down the line in embracing Egan. Like the major contractors, construction managers claim they were implementing Egan-like measures well before Rethinking Construction was launched.

Bovis used productivity monitoring on the recently completed City of London office, Garrard House, and is updating the methods on Christ Church Court – another big City office that is on site. The firm has even gone as far as to employ a continuous improvement and best-practice manager, and is using the Movement for Innovation key performance indicators to measure its performance. Mace, too, is using methods of continuous improvement and process monitoring on work for BAA, among others.

Medium-sized contractors

These firms realise they have some catching up to do. One medium-sized south coast contractor admitted that his company was embracing Rethinking Construction wholesale to keep up with major contractors. The firm’s managing director says: “If we don’t keep up with the majors on things like supply-chain management, we will lose out on work by default. They will take our market.”

We have far greater problems dealing with skills shortages. We can’t get bricklayers to save our lives

Small Midlands Contractor

The managing director admitted that he has used the Movement for Innovation’s key performance indicators to measure the performance of his own company. “I was hoping we would come out well, but we were average,” he laments. On a positive note, he adds: “At least it has focused our minds for the coming year. This is year zero – now we know what we’re up against.”

As for the Egan targets of 10-20% efficiency improvements to be made each year, the contractor is sceptical. “I don’t think we can make those kind of improvements unless we take control of the whole construction process, including management of the design,” he says.

Nick Higgs, managing director of Bristol-based Cowlin Construction, says the Egan report has made no difference to his company. The contractor, which turns over £50m a year, is not using key performance indicators or supply-chain management. Higgs adds that Egan does not even seem to be having an effect on his clients.

“Competitive tendering is still king but with more and more two-stage bids,” he says.

Like most companies involved in housing, Rydon Construction remains largely unaffected by the Egan agenda. Colin Dixon, managing director of the £50m-a-year turnover contractor, says: “Housing associations have been tightening the screws for years now, so we have been reducing waste in our processes, and this has meant innovations.”

As well as reducing costs through close management of site waste, Rydon has been dealing with a tight band of regular subcontractors for years. And, just like the alliances being created by the major contractors for prime contracting, Rydon manages the workload so that the subcontractors do not get overloaded, and makes sure they have enough turnover to keep in good financial health.

Small contractors

Ian Davis, director-general of the Federation of Master Builders, says Egan has had a limited effect on his members over the past year. He questions how applicable it is to small builders. For instance, he says: “Concurrent engineering – running design and construction in parallel – is fine on major projects, but is it applicable to house extensions?”

Davis admits that some of the ideas are useful and that it is best for his members to start remodelling their businesses now, rather than have changes forced on them by players up the supply chain. His one piece of advice to members is: “Don’t worry if you’re not benchmarking right now, but watch the layer above, because it won’t be too long before you will be expected to do the same.”

When it [prime contracting] all blows up, we will be waiting to pick up the pieces

Partner of top QS

The managing director of one £12m-turnover Midlands contractor dismissed the Egan report as irrelevant. “Waste is a factor of complexity. Most of our jobs are so small that it is not a factor,” he says. “No one ever mentions Egan to us. We have far greater problems dealing with day-to-day issues like skills shortages. We can’t get bricklayers to save our lives.”

The consultant’s view

Large architects

Although most architects profess never to have heard of Sir John Egan, some are starting to take on the message. According to Penoyre & Prasad partner Sunand Prasad, those practices that don’t embrace the Egan movement will be left behind. “The problem is going from good intentions to making it happen,” he adds. This is a problem for Prasad’s practice. “We are very busy, so it is hard to start measuring our performance,” he says.

Small architects

Robert Sakula of Ash Sakula is waking up to the benefits of benchmarking. He is benchmarking his practice against 30 others that went on a recent business management course for architects organised by management consultant Caroline Cole.

“There were lots of business issues like finance, salaries and fees that needed to be better understood,” says Sakula. “We need to know how others work so that we can compete effectively – and so that we don’t all reinvent the business wheel.”

The practices, ranging from large commercial to small residential, are now filling in benchmarking forms, says Cole. “The information will be pooled and each architect will receive a half-day briefing to explain where they are and how they might improve.” It is understood that the RIBA is considering adopting the benchmarking methods to assess all its members.

Quantity surveyors

QSs are split into two camps: those for the Egan agenda and those against it. Sir John has warned time and again that QSs must change or die. EC Harris, Gleeds and Franklin & Andrews are hell-bent on changing their businesses from quantity surveying to management consultancy. And all are helping their clients use the Movement for Innovation’s key performance indicators or are developing business-specific performance indicators for clients. For instance, Franklin & Andrews and Gardiner & Theobald are advising Railtrack on the kind of indicators it should use to start benchmarking suppliers.

A bluffer’s guide to Egan

Alliances: relationships between contractors and suppliers, where the suppliers join the main contractor’s consortium bidding for prime contracts. Benchmarking: measuring your performance against others’. This can be between projects within a company or between companies within a sector. Or you can measure how your sector is doing compared with others. Cluster groups: Movement for Innovation talking shops for those involved in demonstration projects. Continuous improvement: monitoring performance, analysing it and introducing ways of improving it. Demonstration project: a project approved by the Movement for Innovation that demonstrates innovation. Key performance indicators: a set of 10 measures devised by the Movement for Innovation. They cover areas such as profitability, improvement in construction cost and time, and predictability of contracts. Lean construction: building with minimal waste. Movement for Innovation: the government-backed body responsible for implementing Rethinking Construction. Prime contracting: a form of contracting, similar to design and build, where there is a single point of contact between the client and the construction team. Pioneered by the Ministry of Defence and influenced by the Egan report, prime contracting usually involves a major contractor signing up a consortium comprising consultants and subcontractors. Rethinking Construction: the report launched by Sir John Egan and deputy prime minister John Prescott last July. It outlines improvement targets and promotes ways of improving process efficiency to meet them. Supply-chain management: reducing the number of suppliers and creating trust in the supply chain so information can be shared fairly. Avoids reinventing the wheel on every contract and cuts bid costs. Waste: the scourge of Egan. Driving out waste improves efficiency.

The housebuilder’s view

Does he mean us? Steve Lidgate, chief executive of Laing Homes, on the relevance of Egan to housebuilders The focus of the Egan taskforce shifted away from housing. This was partly because the two biggest issues for housebuilders fell outside its remit. The supply of land, our biggest single “raw material”, was not considered, nor was the planning system. As the taskforce’s report points out, in some cases, as much as 50% of the cost of a property is the land it is built on. The demand for new homes created by the formation of new households, together with the paucity of available land, means that there are no easy answers. The second factor affecting price is the inherent inefficiencies within the planning system. Rethinking Construction does make valuable comparisons between construction and industries such as car making, steelmaking and retailing. Of course, a responsible manufacturer of any product should look at how other leaders in other industries excel. However, in no other industry do manufacturers face the prohibitive process and supply problems that housebuilders do. Let us put this into a business context. We need to make a realistic profit of 10% on each unit we sell. If land costs 50% of the final price, only 40% of the final product can be affected by efficiency or materials savings. This means that even the most innovative initiative will have only a minor effect on the overall price of the property. Laing supports many of the taskforce’s recommendations, although I take issue with the assertion that “most innovatory housebuilding is being undertaken overseas”. Our customers would accept nothing less than the best houses at the best prices. However, I agree that establishing a secretariat to improve the delivery of projects and the performance of companies would be a positive step. Additionally, a shared knowledge centre would be of benefit, and I look forward to discovering how this has progressed at this month’s conference. That said, land and planning must come first. I have worked in this industry for 30 years and these issues have hindered housebuilders for as long as I can remember. As the demand for new homes escalates, now is the time to act. Laing, and I am sure all housebuilders in the UK, would support a debate on land supply and would urge the government to consider widening the remit of the taskforce.