Transitions in construction

Transitions in construction

Whatever you thought, think again.

From project to product

IndustryPosted by Dan Engström Sun, October 07, 2012 01:21:18

My colleagues at Luleå university of technology have worked for a decade and a half with improving timber-based housing productivity by a systems approach. We (yes, I get to be in on this!) are now developing to also include general contractors and system-owners. The long-term aim is to be the first choice in this area of expertise as well as in our traditional area. The general direction of the industries is the same: increased control of the product and production process. Paradoxically it is also diametrically different: the timber-based housing companies generally want to widen their scope to reach larger markets, and the more general systems-owners want to lower costs and increase their margins by limiting their product scopes where better control is possible.

From left to right

At the far left of the spectrum we find the traditional contractor, who asks the client to write a wish-list. We work there with technology for each project. In the middle, we find the system-owner who works with a building-system adaptable for each client but with purchasing and key details standardised. We work there with technology for a process. At the far right, we find the product developer who is in complete control over the product and the processes involved (including the business, contracts, production, product qualities and so on). There, the market prediction is the king and the product the crown-prince in an almost take-it-or-leave it approach towards every unique client. We work there with technology for process and product. The general direction of the construction industry is from left to right. We even came up with a succinct description of this ongoing step-change. We call it going From Project to Product.

From project to product. Sketch October 4th 2012 by Susanne Engström, PhD.

This move to the right is indeed a step-change. It involves new methods of doing business, designing products, logistics, production and what have you. As businesses, in order to make informed choices on where to establish ourselves, the whole sector needs to be able to understand our new environment. In many respects, even though practical experiments have been made, this is virgin, un-researched territory. There is the need for research and for innovation. And we’re in luck.

Europe and the technology platforms

Let me first take a short detour over the years 2004 to 2007. Before writing the seventh framework programme, the European Commission asked all industries to come together in technology platforms. Each platform should write a vision, a strategic research agenda and an implementation plan for what needed to be done in the industry in question. The construction plans from the European Construction Technology Platform (ECTP) are here. After having received the plans from a number of industries the commission then promptly asked the industries to finance most of the work themselves, because they had pinpointed what was important to them. A bit of smart Divide and conquer there by the commission. Well, it worked for construction, which was back in the seventh programme after having been almost completely left out of the sixth.

Sweden and the agendas

It is now 2012 and our step-change is well under way. Under the heading of Strategic Research and Innovation Agendas, Vinnova (Sweden’s Innovation Agency), have asked (in Swedish) for a similar document. These documents are due in March 2013. Vinnova are working actively to create an open environment for this, aiming for as much collaboration as possible between the industries involved. They are aiming for as much knowledge as possible should cross demarcations and be put to use in other sectors.

The plan is for all the agendas to be the compass for the industries for them to sustain and develop their competitiveness. Vinnova have been gives substantial resources from the Swedish government to support this line of development, where competitiveness is based on companies working with limited business scope but at the cutting edge of knowledge and ability. It is logical that Vinnova's goal is to increase national competitiveness by increasing the rate of innovation and increasing exports.

A handful of the agendas that are low-hanging fruit for that goal will likely be offered a major research and innovation programme. This is of course the big prize for the people developing the agendas. Such financial support is the one thing that would guarantee action within their sector. At Luleå university of technology, we’re developing the agenda for systems building in construction.

Based on our experience with the Lean Wood Engineering programme (supported by Vinnova and the companies involved), is that such support will only be useful for the industry if the industry is willing to act without it. Anything that is free you tend to accept but not really value. There is the risk that the national funding goes into the black hole of research reports gathering dust. But if you decide to invest in your future, the support from a national agency is very welcome indeed and can be the difference between success and failure of your investment. Protecting an investment is a terrific driver for projects to be successful. A vague possibility of a slightly brighter future is not.

Luleå and Swedish construction

Vinnova have realised this. They are therefore eager for all agendas to be based on contents that have the potential to have a sector-wide uptake and relevance to business. Like with the ECTP vision for 2030 the goals need to be formulated generically. From our viewpoint, systems building needs to be expressed as a means to an end, not the end per se. We need to focus on a more competitive national construction and property sector. Save jobs and increase margins, rather than eliminating the housing shortage.

The aim is to create the leading research and innovation platform in Europe in systems building. In our opinion, the integration of the value chain between the client (customer), industrial builders (manufacturers) and material suppliers is the key for improving the efficiency of construction. We must stop subject ourselves to lowest-price tendering in each project. The industrial housing approach contains features of both materials supplier process and build the project alignment. The goal of the project is to create an agenda that connects players in the value chain in common knowledge management where business, technology and processes are addressed in an integrated way.

This proposed approach challenges the existing structures of the whole construction industry. Therefore, the agenda aims to pave the way for better integration between small and large construction companies and suppliers in order to drive innovation through increased mobility. The participants are targeted persons from business and academic partners in LWE reinforced with new players in big construction companies, property owners and material suppliers. In short, we’re going to talk to everyone, from clients to the construction union and ask if they’re happy with how things stand and ask if they’re willing to give this a go. They might or might not agree, but we believe this is a matter of survival for many companies. I hope they say yes.

Images: Sketch by Dan Engström, Creative Commons, LWE logo Copyright LWE.

Scrap the report

ReflectionsPosted by Dan Engström Sun, June 10, 2012 23:59:04

We’re on to something here. Images. Moving pictures. Let’s say I want to tell you about a new development in virtual reality that we’ve come up with. I could tell you about it. Or I could show you a film clip of what the technology can do, say … eh .. this one. Go ahead, check it out. It’s only twelve seconds long. Your paatience can deal with that.

Right. Have you seen it? That little clip is more likely to get you more interested in the technology involved than me sending you a pdf by email, am I right? It would be even better if you had the chance to fiddle about with it on your own. That’s why they’ve made an app for the iPhone,, thast’s why it’s free and that’s why it’s amazingly easy to use. By the way, the name of the app is ”Action Movie FX”. Apparently, even my old idols Marillion are using it.

I’ll switch to being a consumer. Bear with me. By now we’re basically hooked to this thing. We want to check it out. We want to make a car smash into us or an Indiana Jones-sized rock land in our back yard, and upload it to Youtube. The people behind the technology will get the most out of this effort if they hand it to us and let us try it. We don’t need the full version, we just need to be able to play around, and get kudos from our peers for the cool clips we make. I ahve become a prosumer; a consumer and producer in one. The people behind the technology no longer need to come up with the coolest clips, we’ll all do that for them. And this little app made it happen.

It’s working too. The Internet is full of people making these little clips and commenting on them. People probably are buying more special effects (power outage, jet crash, you name it) as you read this.

But. And this is the brilliant part.

As it turns out, the main aim of this app is not to sell the full version. The app is there for one reason, and one reason only: to build up market pull for the film Mission: Impossible 4. Ghost Protocol, released in December 2011. We get to play around with special effects – childhood dreams stuff –and even get egoboo from it. At the same time, the app connects the film to the pleasure the app gave us. So, the film becomes a good force in our universe. Better go see it. Better buy the DVD. And the mug.

It’s working.

Now back to construction research and development. As in-house researchers, we too have technology we want to share with our colleagues. We too have innovations that could change people’s way of working. What do we do? We send emails with pdf documents in the feeble hope that they will get downloaded, printed, collected, read and acted upon.

I see you waving at the back. You have a comment. Yes? No, that’s correct, our technology does nothing as fancy as blowing dogs up. That’s just because we do not think along those lines. Because they could. Maybe not blow dogs up, but connect the market and our offer through technology that makes our clients feel good. Let’s say we provide technology so users can build 3D-models from our product line and paste on to a real view, so that they can see their future housing options through the smartphone where in real life there is only a field. They should be able to upload that view as a clip to youtube.

That kind of thing. You get the general idea. But we usually (usually, mind you) don’t do that because it costs money. Our little group decided to do it anyway. We are learning from project to project how we can communicate our findings in a more attractive way. We have started to use webcasts to complement the written report. These clips capture the main ideas. There is always the report if you’re interested later.

Here are a few examples. They’re in Swedish because our stakeholders prefer it that way.

· Demo on modelling reinforcement in 3D

· Final results from our project on cost effective housing plans

· Reference group meeting presentation in the above project

· The results from a PhD thesis on how clients receive innovations

All our presentations are licensed creative commons, as are images and music. Feel free to use in any way you like. I know they are not really interactive. We’re learning as we go here, OK? Far to go still, but we're definitely on to something.

One last example. A friend of mine was a key player in the development of a robot for 6-axes material testing. This machine tests small specimen of any material, in any combination of stresses, dynamic or static, automatically. An awesome machine. In order to create interest in materials research groups, all they need to do is show this. Though I dare say, with a machine that can dance, the clip really should have had a musical soundtrack.

So scrap the report as primary carrier of information. Who needs words when they could get a rocket launcher.

Images, Flickr Creative Commons: Action movie by Horia Varlan and Camera Obscura by tonyhall.

Is Lean a dead end for Construction?

IndustryPosted by Dan Engström Wed, April 25, 2012 16:39:05

Lean is great. We identify what activities provide client value and improve them. We then identify what activities do not provide client value and eliminate them. We then start over. Piece of cake? Well. It sounds easy, but the actual implementation is hard because for construction it requires a new mind-set. People tend to adopt new ideas easily but abandon their old ones reluctantly. It is a long haul to make Lean happen, a long haul that requires determination and patience on all levels of the company.

The last few days I’ve spent with Karin Gustafsson, a doctoral candidate I work with, discussing the focus for the first phase of her work. She brought to my attention a couple of classic papers in this field. Let’s combine them and see what happens. The first one was written by Michael Porter in 1996. Porter indicates the long-term effects of such focus on management methods. Porter points to the risk of allowing methods take the place of strategy.

The very first mind-map of Karin's research field is mostly useful for Karin. :)

The hard focus needed to successfully implement management tools for operational efficiency makes it hard to keep our eyes on the ball; our long-term strategy for providing client value better than our competitors. Our business plan is not to cut costs, it is to create value. Cutting costs is good but the reason people buy a house is not that it is cheap. The reason is because it gives them somewhere to live. That’s our business. That’s what we do. What is our long-term strategy for providing that value better than our competitors? Partnering, Last Planner, benchmarking, outsourcing and what have you are tools in this. Porter argues that these methods do not provide sustainable profitability because they are so easy to imitate. This goes for Lean too. According to Porter, we cannot allow these tools to replace that we choose a unique position based on our activities. That is much more difficult to copy.

The other paper that Karin pointed out was written by DiMaggio and Powell in 1983 and points to how institutions mimic each other into a homogenous organizational structure. If a handful of us start doing something and look successful, the ones that are left are likely to follow suit. The authors build on isomorphism; the “constraining process that forces one unit in a population to resemble other units that face the same set of environmental conditions”. DiMaggio and Powell point to ten predictors of the extent and speed of isomorphism, and arguably construction falls under seven of them. Check them out and see if you agree. My conclusion (and experience) is that in construction, we are likely to try to keep up with the Joneses.

So, what are the Joneses doing? Right now, one ubiquitous buzz word in construction is … drumroll … Lean. There are Lean Institutes, Lean consultants and DIY Lean articles cropping up pretty much everywhere. Will most of us jump on the Lean bandwagon? We fall under seven out of ten predictors, so DiMaggio and Powell say Yes. Will it provide us with sustainable profit? We focus hard on implementation of Lean, so Porter says No. And here’s the really scary thing. Porter also states that such development leads to a stagnating sector, to a situation where the competitive edge is price rather than value-creation. Porter tracks the development to quick-fixes and consolidation – to when larger companies buy slightly smaller companies in order to increase their market share, which is the only option left to significantly improve profits. Now that wiser people have pointed this out to me, I can see this happening in construction.

I don’t know about you, but I’m scared stiff. Again. Construction researchers of the world, unite.


Porter, M. E. (1996) What is a strategy? Harvard Business Review (November-December): 61-78.

DiMaggio, P.J. & Powell , W. (1983). The iron cage revisited. Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields, American Sociological Review, 48 (1983), 147-60.

Image: The very first research field mind-map for Karin (photo by Dan).

Student contributions

EducationPosted by Dan Engström Fri, March 09, 2012 01:02:37

If you have not read the earlier blog entry (scroll down) on this, it might be a good idea to do that first. It gives the background to what this blog entry is all about. If you have, then you get to dive right into our students’ suggestions for improving systems building in construction. With my comments.

Guaranteed quality of procurement documents

The first group of students have talked to the municipality of Luleå and decided to address the issue of quality in documents in procurement. Their business idea is to provide a thorough review of the documents before they are put out for offering, based on experience feedback from earlier project. The key issue is what the processes are to take advantages of the experiences from earlier project.

This group, who named their company embryo STAAB, would benefit from reading literature on knowledge management. The idea of an independent company supporting the key processes is a recurring theme from the students in this course. Like for the suggestions from most student groups, apart from the issue of getting access to clients’ internal processes, developing concrete metrics of success seems to be vital. In terms of systems building, this idea would be a real improvement.

Ergonomics and time efficiency

If you merge the words Innovation and Installation, you get Innovstallation. Nice one, I like it. Kind of catchy. The second group have analysed the mounting of gypsum boards. Say 65 screws in each board, and how many boards per apartment? They’ve got a point here. In fact, they’ve got a point to the extent that the sector already has tested other methods. The technology for gluing gypsum boards is now available. Not common or even used to any major extent, just available. Not to worry though. The approach to concentrating on something very concrete and limited in scope is a good thing for a first business idea. An inspiring piece too. This idea is valid for both traditional construction and systems building.

3D models for maintenance of the home

When you buy a car, the manual is 223 pages long. When you buy an apartment, at ten times the price, you are for all practical purposes abandoned by the producer of the product. The third group addresses the poor communication between landlords and their tenants. By utilizing the opportunity for meta information in 3D-models of buildings, the HEMsidan group would produce 3D models of the home to simplify maintenance. HEMsidan would develop a portal for these models, for the clients/potential tenants.

This group brings one trend and one feature of construction to bear on their business idea. First, the increasing use of information and communication technology (in both private life and in construction). Second, the lack of services pinpointing the needs of the tenants. This idea is very relevant for systems building. It is only a matter of time before it happens.

Knowledge management and feedback

The fourth group points to the poor state of constant improvements and knowledge management in construction as their field of business. They are looking to support contractors in the experience feedback, by the use of a database of issues and the availability of statistics.

This group has understood the key to modern industrial construction; it builds on improving recurrent processes more than standardized technology. That makes this business idea feasible. The lack of drivers for handing feedback to others makes it hard. That is the knot to solve where you find business. In a project-based setting, how do you get colleagues to debrief after projects? This idea is very relevant to systems building.

Cold weather smart utility clothes

One reason for sites closing down in cold weather is workers being too cold to work safely and to make good decisions. The final group of students decided to develop smart utility clothes, because there are no clothes today that meet modern requirements of flexibility and thermal insulation. Most clothes apparently are thin and cold, or thick and hard to move in. Tricky task to pull off. Nothing in the post tells us why these students are the ones to solve this riddle but maybe, just maybe, modern materials make the time ripe for this business case. The students are juxtaposing the minor cost increase for their clothes against the costs for involuntary breaks in production due to cold weather. That’s smart. That in itself makes this idea relevant to systems building.

This concludes this year's student contributions to systems building. It is now time for them to develop their ideas, practice their presentation skills and then defend their ideas before a jury of business people. If I were at Univeristy still, that would scare me out of my pants. But these kids normally excel in those circumstances. Bravo.

Meet your future

EducationPosted by Dan Engström Thu, February 23, 2012 10:32:02
Let me tell you about an educational experiment we’re doing. It might help us meet our future so read on. You know how professionals sometimes looking for future developments and markets talk to kids to see what makes them tick? At Luleå University of Technology where I hold an adjunct professorship we thought we’d test that. The Department of Civil, Environmental and Natural Resources Engineering is currently giving a course in Lean construction (syllabus here) which includes a unit where students are expected to develop their own business plan for an innovation they come up with.
At 65°37′05″N, this is a welcome sight to the university students and staff every winter morning.

Here’s the thing. We’ve given them lectures on project-based construction for close to four years and are now teaching them how the parts fit together in lean construction and systems building. We’ve learned over the years that this combination sets their creativity off. They see the voids in our transition from project-logic to product-logic and get ideas on how to fill that need. The business ideas are by necessity often a bit naive, but the analyses of the weaknesses of our sector are usually spot-on.

This is where the curriculum steps in and we ask them to develop their plan as a part of their education. They get to develop an idea into a business plan for a need they consider representing a market. They are then put in front of some of our industry colleagues who assess their ideas. Would we support it, even finance it? The students go up against people like an industry researcher, a CEO of a prefab housing company, a government financer of innovation, a professor of economics, the university lawyer and so on. The real-world people that assess them make the students do their very, very best. And because our students can expect some scary moments in that workshop they are well prepared and thus leave a good bit wiser, considerably more confident and well relieved. The teachers and the assessing jury get insight into what some of our soon-to-be professionals react to in our sector. That’s something that makes us tick too, so we’ve been thinking how we can share those insights with you.

Professionals at all levels need to be able to quickly make the essence of complex information come across to someone.

We thought we’d simply build on your curiosity and that teachers take every opportunity to teach. In this exercise our students will learn to analyse a situation, bring out the key features of it and then make their point logically in a short text. Normally they only go through the motions of doing this. Reason? They are writing for a teacher’s drawer, likely second from the bottom on the right hand. Next to the dustbin, if not in it. Starting around March 1st, we’re doing away with that and using this blog as the platform.

As you are reading this, our students are busy articulating the need they’ve decided to work with. We’d like to share with you their thoughts. See what you think, you know? Maybe we’ll all learn something from this open approach. We did something similar in Swedish in 2010, where the students were asked to define some words relevant to the curriculum and upload them to Wikipedia. You’ll find the links to their efforts here. This time around, you’ll get tailored guest blog posts from five groups of students, each group describing a perceived weakness in the construction industry. If you agree with something, pick it up and run with it. If you see something you disagree with, feel free to comment!

You won’t be alone, since this is the first blog post of mine to be written specifically for both my own blog and the new site, the new exhibition of innovation at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm. That’s where I grew up; in their mine, by their miniature railway, and in the various machines they exhibit. I’ll wager that’s where I once decided to become an engineer. I think listening to kids and students talk about my profession is not only necessary for the development of the sector It is also useful, challenging and good fun.

Readers, may I present our students? Students? Readers. Now behave yourselves. Not.

Images: Dan Engström, Creative Commons by-nc-sa

I can't see the hills anymore

ReflectionsPosted by Dan Engström Thu, February 16, 2012 01:50:29
I took this photo today, after having run (well, climbed) to the top of one of the local hills here on Gran Canaria. According to the leaflets, this island is a miniature continent, declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNSECO. My photo, though lacking the ubiquitous fishing village, is the traditional typical view of this place. But most people are not here to climb hills or meet the local fishermen and their families, are they? They are here to sunbathe, swim in pools that for some reason need to be situated right next to the ocean, play miniature golf, drink beer and take in tacky entertainment. The modern lifeblood of Gran Canaria is tourism.

And so the typical view has changed. If the image above is the old typical view from a coastal hill towards the sea, this is today’s typical view from the sea towards the same rugged, beautiful hill.
Real estate here is either left to decay or completely exploited for the good of the paying guests. The only real estate worth having starts with a key card gate fifty metres from the shoreline and ends with rusty barbed wire three metres from it. The shoreline itself is rocky and nowhere you’d want to launch granddad when he’s going for a swim. If you want to swim in the ocean, you do it on the beach that was transported here from Africa. I shit you not. Apart from that beach, if you walk on the three metres between the sea and the hotels, all you see is sea, rocks and walls with gates. Behind the walls, anything can be had as long as it you’re not looking for the real thing. Our hotel’s own miniature golf course was built on a manufactured peninsula to include a promenade, so you can take your walks without ever being out of reach from somewhere to spend your money.
The reason to spend your vacation in a gated community is of course that you ostensibly are safe and that you can get your every need looked after as long as you have the money to pay for it with. The drawback is obvious. There is ownership of everything. Communality is non-existant. There is no place for the locals except as waiters, bus drivers and what have you. By providing havens for the people that can afford it, gated communities inherently keep other people out.

Places like this are pivotal for the economic development of Gran Canaria. In fact, they are so vital that I dare say that the economic development easily takes precedence over the social and ecological sustainability of the island, and of many more places like it. The Nueva Estocolmo hotels of the world are not always minor developments that can be ignored or tolerated. Gran Canaria builds its entire future on them. This gated community luxury hotel (we have a bleedin’ Jacuzzi in our bedroom for crying out loud) IS the current and future Gran Canaria. It builds on flying people in here from northern Europe to consume resources in order to get a tan and a few stories to tell back home. That’s the only way there is going to be any economic development of Gran Canaria. Anyone that has anything to do with this kind of resort needs to deal with that.

The UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is reduced to words on a leaflet advertising scuba diving, because for example the hotels form a very efficient barrier between the inlands and the sea, and the beach was flown in and manufactured. I’ve spent this week not only wondering why I accepted going in the first place, but even more so thinking about the designers and construction companies that made this environment. What is their responsibility in all this? I can only assume that the commercial reality makes their responsibility to be keeping their stock-holders happy and following the orders of the developers. But I cannot help thinking that our work has social consequences that we need to make ourselves aware of. As we participate in building up a new business that completely transforms our local environment, we have the responsibility as professionals to point these consequences out. But the commercial reality prevents us from doing anything but paying lip service to the greater good.

We know that the world cannot sustain the current levels of consumption. But our economic systems are built on ever increasing consumption. The clash is inevitable. We can expect the collapse of our economy as formulated today, or the collapse of ecology and social structures first and then of the economy. Either way, the economic system will be changed, by choice or by force. The west is already not living on products we make but serviced we do for each other (except the audiovisual industry that seems to think it’s still 1970). Let’s take this change to its logical conclusion and come up with new metrics. Or rather, let’s listen to the researchers that very likely already have done that homework. Robert Kennedy once said that we can measure anything by the growth of our gross national product, except the things that matter. Even though economic growth currently holds its position as standard metric for all activities, the sun is going down on the system that created it.

When The Revolution Comes, Everything Will Be Beautiful

IndustryPosted by Dan Engström Thu, February 09, 2012 00:02:26
I just wrote a guest post for the lovely blog "Starting up an Engine[er]"; A Structural Engineering Blog on how to become a business owner and not to lose your mind doing it. Glen is really on to something in modern engineering consultancy business. Keep an out of for his progress, good people. Anyways, here is my post. You'll find it here, too.

When The Revolution Comes, Everything Will Be Beautiful

Change agents of the World, unite! We need to restructure our industry.

Looking around in our sector, it becomes clear to me that we are in trouble. We are not too far off the situation that the struggling – dying – traditional audiovisual industry is in. They are facing a paradigm shift in technology and client habits with existing business models. They are marketing products (discs) when clients increasingly are asking for services (streaming). The old business and organizational models in our industry are also put under such strain that we need to rethink the way we do business. I am not suggesting we throw everything out as if our mature industry were a greenfield to build a brave new world on. But I am arguing (as strenuously as I am able) that we need to develop and implement a new logic to our work. Sooner rather than later, we need to fundamentally change. Let’s call it our own version of Perestroika, the effort to restructuring of the stagnating Soviet Union. One major difference though. We need to succeed.

Let me motivate this rather startling call-to-arms with a look at my own hunting grounds – the Swedish housing industry. If the number of apartments built is the main indicator of the success of national and local politics in my country, the cost development of multi-storey housing has become the main indicator of the success of our construction industry. And maybe you’re already seeing where this is going.

Since the mid-80s, the number of apartments in one/two-family dwellings and in multi-storey buildings respectively has developed surprisingly similarly (reference). This development seems to be changing. Now, roughly speaking, 7 out of 10 newly started apartments are located in multi-storey housing (reference). According to Statistics Sweden, during the first nine months of 2011, construction of a total of 16,046 apartments were started in Sweden. This is down from the 18,570 apartments during the same time in 2010.

When it comes to the key metric, the cost development, how are we doing? It is not too far-fetched to use the Retailer Price Index (RPI) as an indicator of the purchasing power of our clients. Let’s map that against the Construction Price Index (CPI) of multi-storey housing over time (reference). Let’s start in 1968, i.e. the early days of the major housing projects. A graph of these cost statistics is certainly not a pretty sight. Since the mid-90s, production costs have sky-rocketed compared to the purchasing power of our clients.
Part of the explanation is of course that the building codes require us to build with increasingly technical quality, so the graph in a way compares apples and pears. For example, during the time period in question, we have moved costs from the service-life (say heating) to the investment in production (better building envelopes). But having an explanation for the disparity does not help us. What matters is the gap between the the one graph, the one that indicates the funds available to clients, and the other one, the one that indicates what they can expect to pay for their apartment. Sometime soon, people will not be able to afford to buy apartments in the houses we build. Even the dip during the mid-90s had very little to do with our own development; it was due to a major recession when the government switched from subsidizing the housing market to making it their cash cow.

The striking graphical impact of the graph stands. We. Are. Failing. That is why we need Construction Perestroika. Sweden too has had our share of Latham Reports and Rethinking Construction reports. I now call for action, of the implementing of the findings in real business. The one main change that we need to make is simple to describe but very hard to pull off: changing from project-based logic to product-based logic. In my book, that’s our Perestroika in a nutshell.

We need to stop giving clients wish-lists for every project and start preparing clients offers where that is possible. Develop systems-building. Learn from manufacturing, with concepts like Lean (focusing completely on client value), Mass customization (combining volume with client choice) and incremental improvement (articulating our methods and processes and letting hands-on workers decide how they should be improved). This involves keeping our value-chain together, built on interactive business trust, and making substantial investments in work between projects, which is something we normally just do not do.

We’ve developed building products in the small scale (like the sports hall we’ve developed at my company) but we have a whole sector to change; from the brief and contracts of clients to the design, production and supply-chain. It will be a very long haul to bring our existing structures to bear on these new ideas and new business. Imagine for example that we reengineer the revenue streams for professional services so that they reflect the value created for the clients. Clients seriously do not care how many hours we put in.

Substituting metrics for real value for the time-sheet is logical, doable and necessary. But it affects our business to the core. Are we up to it? Arguably, the Perestroika of the Soviet Union brought out the hidden conflicts between the republics and made the union impossible to hold together. Like the audiovisual industry, clients will soon push on to Construction Perestroika – строительство перестройка for the flavour of it. When it takes off it will soon separate the early adopters that will survive and the hard-of-hearing ones that will not. If the old structures cannot adapt to new client requirements (read: “we’ve had it”) then new players will enter that can.

When The Revolution Comes, Everything Will Be Beautiful.

Note: When The Revolution Comes, Everything Will Be Beautiful is a powerful album by the United Sons of Toil from Madison, Wisconsin, available for the price you are willing to pay at

Expect the unexpected

Step-changePosted by Dan Engström Fri, February 03, 2012 00:46:08
You know how I’ve blogged about visualising texts in order to better communicate the message? I know – it’s something architects have been doing with spaces for ages and ages. My point here is that I want to communicate R&D results to colleagues that aren’t trained to bring out the gist of a long text. Visualising my long text – showing and explaining images in person – will give them a sporting chance to understand my point. They certainly don’t have to agree with it, but if we are to discuss the research we’re doing, my colleagues need to understand what I’m doing. From understanding we can work with the results, give and take comments and opinions and make them happen on site. This should be important for any industrial researcher. Is our job mainly about writing reports or are we actually making a difference?
The main concepts of this blog in Wordle format.

Together with some other nerdy types at work, I have started learning. It’s fascinating stuff and good fun. We’re basically testing tools that are readily available and seeing what comes out of them. Getting the hang of it is a learning process that I’ve only just begun, but the basics are easy to grasp. Here’s a test or two.

Let’s assume that I want to describe to you the contents of this blog without you having to read it all. Well, we could visit and enter the URL. After playing around with the layout and colours, we would end up with something like the image above the (better resolution here). You'll note that the sizes of the words are directly linked to how often they appear in the blog. Even without me explaining it in person, with a glance you'll see what the blog is all about.

We could also copy the whole text of the blog, stroll over to and paste it. Wordsift shows us the main contents of the blog, lets us zoom into whatever word we like and investigate its meaning, and even suggests multimedia for it. Try it for yourself. Copy-paste this blog post into Wordsift.

Or maybe I want to summarize a great book I’ve just read: Measure What Matters To Customers – Using Key Predictive Indicators by Ronald J. Baker (Wiley and Sons, 2006). It would probably take me a while to bring that message home to someone who hasn't read the book. Writing a summary would certainly take me quite some time, and you would probably not read it anyway. But by writing down the key words while reading and then pasting them into Wordle, I got this (better resolution here).
A whole book in one image. My take on Ronald J. Baker's Measure What Matters To Customers.

That took me less than ten minutes to do. By showing that while talking about the book, I can easily give you a basic understanding of the author is trying to tell us. And how extensive the description of the book will be up is up to you. We’d talk very briefly or for as long as you want. As opposed to a written text, where I decide how long time you will spend on my summary, this image makes the time you spend on the message your call, based on your available time and your level of interest.

Even creating multimedia by the use of web 2.0 tools is not that hard. There are plenty of resources out there too. Try this for starters. So let me give you a final example of contents in unexpected format. As content, I used my poem Up and Down the Piano (available on page 4 in this document).

Up and Down the Piano
My fingers walk left on the piano keys
They sail the breeze on the Chinese seas
To where notes are really low
To a place I like to go
To the far left is where my granny’s house is at
I fight some scary notes on my way there,
take that, D flat!

On to the other end, far up top, almost out of sight
From the deeps of left to the very right
After a climb towards the mountain sky
A walk where notes are silver fountain high
To my other granny’s house,
there’s no one finer I wager
And to get there, I walk a C minor
and then G major

According to, if you can type, you can make films. So I did. This is an xtranormal rendition of the same poem: Text in video format. Quite cool and unpredictable, way easy, available and completely free. I have as yet no idea what to use that particular tool for, but hey – I’m just learning so far. Even as an industry researcher I have been in the business of writing reports, but am now heading into unknown territory - making a difference. Expect the unexpected.

Images: the main concepts of this blog and Ronald Baker's book, illustrated in Wordle formats, made by yours truly.

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