Can tech help construction get the work done right the first time?

The construction industry is notorious for cost overruns and delays. Construction News assembled a team of experts to discuss how the use of technology could reduce both. Paul Thompson reports

On the panel

  1. Lydia Walpole, digital operations director, Costain
  2. Cliff Smith, executive director, Get It Right Initiative
  3. Nick Leach, head of digital construction, Sir Robert McAlpine
  4. Jon Walker, digital lead, Mott MacDonald
  5. Steffan Speer, technical director, Morgan Sindall
  6. Paul Newby, technical director, Wates Integrated Construction Services
  7. Ashley Murray, digital programme lead, McLaren Construction
  8. Rob Bradley, chief executive, Bouygues UK
  9. John Brearton, professional services industry director, Hitachi Solutions

In an industry that functions on some of the tightest margins imaginable, the fiscal impact of project delays and cost overruns can be catastrophic. According to a study by industry group Get It Right Initiative (GIRI), the cost of avoidable errors in construction can amount to 21 per cent of a project’s overall value. Applied across the whole of the UK construction sector, this equates to £21bn per year spent on simply fixing mistakes.

That level of loss would be unimaginable in the manufacturing or automotive sector, so why does the construction industry continue to tolerate such high levels of waste? And, more importantly, what can be done to drive change for the better?

These questions form the focus of a Construction News roundtable discussion, chaired by deputy editor Ian Weinfass and sponsored by Hitachi Solutions ­– a Microsoft partner that helps organisations employ technology to improve performance.

Identify the greatest potential for error

Cliff Smith, Get It Right Initiative

Construction projects are complex, and mistakes can be trigged by errors or omissions in design, project management, collaboration or execution. The first step towards improvement must be to identify exactly where in the construction process the greatest potential for error is being introduced, says Cliff Smith, executive director at GIRI. Without this critical first step, subsequent efforts to mitigate errors could be misdirected, he suggests.

“Interestingly, a lot of the root causes of error we found were mostly at the early part of the construction process – during the design and planning, and also the setting up of the project, and developing its culture around teamwork and collaboration,” Smith says. “Errors are occurring on site, but their root cause is much further up the project chain,” he says.

Improve co-ordination across teams

Lydia Walpole, Costain

This is a point that Lydia Walpole, digital operations director at contractor Costain, underlines. She highlights the interfaces between different design layers as a key cause of error and miscommunication.

“People aren’t deliberately going out and making these mistakes on site,” she says. “I’ve found that the biggest source of error is the interface between the civils and the fit-out stages. You’re crossing from an architectural design into a very detailed fit-out [design].”

Improving the co-ordination between different parts of a complex team involves both cultural and behavioural change, but can also be eased by technology that captures and shares specification changes as soon as they are made. But embedding this approach throughout projects requires digital expertise across different disciplines, Walpole suggests.

“People need all the help they can get. It’s not their fault that mistakes are made on site if they don’t have all the digital tools available to them. From a behavioural point of view, those at a senior level must make sure they do [have the skills and the tools].”

Walpole is an advocate of the ‘digital twin’ approach as a means to ensure information from a project’s earliest stages flows through into the delivery and operation of the final scheme, and that changes along the way are captured. She underlines the importance of embracing the digital twin for the full lifecycle of a project, from inception to construction to handover and beyond.

Take a digital-twin approach

Rob Bradley, Bouygues UK

Bouygues UK chief executive Rob Bradley agrees that a digital-twin approach can help to reduce errors. “We are fortunate enough to be a developer as well as a contractor,” he says. “We took the decision a few years ago to trial the digital-twin approach [on a self-developed project] where we have been able to have full control over the design, site, product – and even manufactured the products in a factory that we built specifically. It has been a real learning experience.”

But he cautions that digital twins aren’t suitable for all situations: “To get real value from a digital twin you have to have complete control from day one. If the project is set up so that [responsibility] is being passed from the client design team to a novated contractor and then to a supply chain that may not be fully versed, it’s not going to work. There will be a lot of cost associated with not a lot of value. There are so many interactions throughout the supply chain that make it a huge challenge. But if we are talking about alliance contracts, early contractor engagement or real collaborative working, then absolutely, it is the right answer.”

The Bouygues team has already embarked on its second digital-twin project, with the goal of improving on the savings, quality improvement and waste reductions of the first. Bradley says he is convinced improvements will be significant.

Make eradicating error a habit

Ashley Murray, McLaren Construction

Ashley Murray, digital construction lead at McLaren Construction, also says a right-first-time outcome will depend on behavioural change, and that eradicating error must become an ingrained habit. She compares the challenge to the huge strides made in health, safety and welfare as proof that the industry can accomplish dramatic improvements.

“If you compare the way we, as an industry, look at health and safety, the way we record near misses, to the way we record quality – we don’t treat them the same way,” Murray observes. “We would never say, we’ve got a 20 per cent accident frequency rate at the end of a job. That would be unacceptable. Health, safety and accidents are rightly proactively monitored during the construction process. But with quality, we still measure defects and snagging at the end. We need to make sure we get it right first time – and the challenge is to get everyone involved in the project on board with that.”

Anticipate and prevent risk

Jon Walker, Mott MacDonald

The comparison with safety is taken up by Jon Walker, digital lead at engineering firm Mott MacDonald. He notes that today’s health and safety agenda is strongly focused on anticipating and preventing risk before it materialises, including stepping in promptly when risky behaviour is spotted, not simply learning from mistakes.

“Where safety is going now is not so much about the near misses and accidents, but about what can be changed to prevent those happening,” Walker explains. “We have now started applying that to quality. We encourage everyone in the supply chain to submit ‘quality and commercial’ positive interventions that relate to things they see on site or during the design. Those interventions are now digitised and have really helped to drive that culture of responsibility throughout,” he says.

There is broad agreement that sharing data about how to prevent error could be beneficial, with some panellists supporting the notion of a standardised industry repository of lessons learned.

Share the lessons learned

Steffan Speer, Morgan Sindall

Morgan Sindall technical director Steffan Speer joins this idea to the importance of collaboration, pointing out that lessons learned must be shared, not just at contractor level but up and down the supply chain, including client, architect, consultant, contractor, subcontractor and supplier.

“Planning for quality is key. Frustratingly, we seem to have the time to put things right, but never to get things right,” Speer says. “When we talk about the culture of quality, it works from the client through to the procurement and delivery.”

Costain’s Walpole highlights the importance of setting quality as a priority at the earliest opportunity, through “performance-readiness reviews with the supplier, client and supply chain”. She adds that “detailed involvement in those reviews” is essential, “so that they are not just a tick-box exercise but thorough examinations of the project before we start on site”, and that this approach can reap benefits whatever the project size. “It’s not just about industrywide practice but also at a more local level,” she says.

GIRI’s Smith also raises practical issues around the standardised materials used in construction, and how specifications relate to error and waste. “As an industry, we are starting to challenge our designers to reduce waste,” he says, explaining that reducing a ceiling height from 2.5 metres to 2.4 metres would let it match the dimensions of plasterboard, reducing the need for cutting and joining. “But really, we need [digital] tools and technology to help address the quantification of materials more efficiently,” he adds.

Learn from other industries

John Brearton, Hitachi Solutions

John Brearton, professional services industry director at Hitachi Solutions, suggests that the construction industry could learn from other industry sectors when it comes to designing out error. But he notes that design or digitisation alone cannot create quality in the absence of cultural change.

“Twenty or thirty years ago, the manufacturing sector had all sorts of initiatives – total quality management; just in time; get it right first time. The way the sector fixed its issues wasn’t by introducing new systems and digitising everything, but by behavioural change and then demanding system changes to support that.”

In construction what is needed are tools that unlock better outcomes by supporting improved behaviours, Brearton argues. “I am more interested in knowing exactly where Hitachi Solutions should be addressing its efforts, rather than saying: ‘Here’s a solution – can you find a problem it solves?’” he adds.

Construction firms have already adopted many different digital systems and the sector has no shortage of data. The difficulties lie in gathering consistent information, and finding people able to analyse it and forecast where errors will crop up. Sharing data across company boundaries is also fraught with difficulties, including issues of competitive advantage.

Have consistent and centralised data

Nick Leach, Sir Robert McAlpine

These are goals that Sir Robert McAlpine has focused on over the past few years, says the contractor’s head of digital construction, Nick Leach.

“We realised that we had no consistency over the data we were producing,” he explains. “Our projects had lots of bespoke [digital] tools, but often we had similar [systems] already available within the business. We created a digital handbook to help guide staff. Once we got over that hurdle, and people were consistently using core tools, we created a central data depository.”

The next step, says Leach, is to mine the pooled data to gather useful intelligence. “Now we are working with some of our vendors to automate [access to] that hub, so that individuals can create different sorts of dashboards from consistent data. It enables us to amalgamate different dashboards – planning with commercial, for instance – and then suddenly you are into the powerful stuff of how you operate as a business.”

But Leach cautions that the end goal of improved outcomes may take time to work through. “Ultimately, you have to start at the foundations,” he says. “It’s going to be a long journey. The blocker at the moment is the commercial side, [where] people are reluctant to share.”

Digitally enable the supply chain

Paul Newby, Wates

The need to develop realistic routes to net-zero carbon might provide the impetus for improved collaboration, argues Paul Newby,  technical director at Wates Integrated Construction Services. He points out that for the industry to achieve its decarbonisation goals over the coming decades it will have to work together across traditional boundaries.

“To meet these net-zero targets, we’re going to have to utilise a supply chain that is fully digitally enabled,” Newby says. “The way we procure as contractors, and the way we are procured [by clients], will fundamentally have to change. We will not be looking at lowest cost. To become zero-carbon, you need real data and digitisation throughout.”

He adds that 65 per cent of construction’s carbon emissions arise within the supply chain. “Unless we decarbonise our projects and businesses, then the outcome [of supply-chain emissions] will rest on our balance sheet. That will drive a change in behaviour.”

Rework creates waste

Carbon reduction goals are closely intertwined with the need to get things right first time, because rework inevitably consumes resources and creates waste. As a result, measuring error ought to form part of the industry’s metrics on sustainability, suggests GIRI’s Smith.

“With avoidable costs in construction running into tens of billions each year, there is plenty to be gained by closer scrutiny of the causes of error ”

He returns to the parallel with health and safety: “The ‘accident frequency ratio’ has been accepted by all,” Smith says. “It allows the safety side of things to be factored into the procurement and appointment of a project, and it runs throughout the supply chain. In quality there is no such industrywide metric. We are trying to encourage its introduction. It needs to be a very simple metric that everyone can manage – the ‘error frequency ratio’. But trying to draw that consistency of data together and being prepared to publish it is a big step for this industry,” he says.

With avoidable costs in construction running into tens of billions each year, there is plenty to be gained by closer scrutiny of the causes of error, and the adoption of technology that can underpin better practices or sharing data that might prevent mistakes being made.

Most importantly, investing in the prevention of error could help contractors achieve the thing they need most – healthier margins from the incredibly complex work they undertake.

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