Transitions in construction

Transitions in construction

Whatever you thought, think again.


Predicting the future, revisited

ResearchPosted by Dan Engström Sat, January 14, 2012 23:50:54
Yesterday, a younger colleague (thank FSM for people not yet stuck in old habits) pointed out to me that there might be a serious flaw in my logic in my last post. She politely pointed out that I think the ECTP vision for 2030 we wrote in 2005 in part already is old news. That will likely happen to your strategy too, she said and smiled.

Now, that is two cents worth thinking about. The ECTP vision is fairly abstract, because it covers the whole Euopean construction sector, and so builds on needs and trends that are farily stable. But this new strategy we're writing is for a single research group and will necessarily be more concrete. Predictions for the future need to be fairly general. The concrete substance of the trends we build the LTU strategy on, how long will they hold?

Is it possible for us to lay a track that we want to stay on for a s long as it takes?

The ECTP vision looked 25 years ahead but the LTU strategy only looks ten years ahead, with is a mitigating circumstance that will help. But the problem remains; a business strategy can include the flexibility to adopt to quick changes in the market, but research is a long-term activity. For how long should we expect a research strategy based on extrapolation of current trends to be useful? Ten years? Five? Three? It is my experience that construction research in a new (-ish) field needs to be developed for three to five years before it has useful substance. We need a strategy that'll work as a compass, on a concrete level, for at least five to seven years.

Or is it possible to work out a strategy that includes flexibility? Yes and no. Mode II research (yeppur, that's what we do - you should read the text I linked to) communicates with the context which the research studies. In Mode II research (also explained here) knowledge is co-created between stakeholders and researchers. So, this research is easier to adopt to changes in the context than Mode I research is. But that is valid on the level of a single project or a group of parallel projects. For a research group to develop critical mass and credible research, there needs to be stability in the focus over a longer period of time than a doctoral project.

We want to write a strategy that guides our work as to what we should do in order to support the positive development of the construction industry (you know, the product logic and coherent value-chain I keep going on about). Since we work with customer pull for our resaerch results (an absolute necesity in Mode II research) we need to be needed by the industry. In order for our resaerch unit to be a significant player, we need to be able to guess rather accurately where the development will lead the industry.

Can we get a sufficient hit-rate in predictions of a future scenario seven years from now?

Image: Derail by Jinx! Flickr Creative Commons.

Building efficiency in 2022

ResearchPosted by Dan Engström Wed, January 11, 2012 17:02:24
I just came back from Brändön, north of Luleå which on the latitude 65.6 degrees North. Fantastic. When people up here say "Winter, ", they're not kidding. Luleå is where my second workplace is, Luleå University of Technology (aka LTU). For almost fifteen years, the researchers in timber structures at LTU have developed their group and their research from structures and engineering details to the processes of the timber housing manufacturing industry. The research subjects now span from client decision-making to efficiency in design. The common denominator in all work is Mode II research on efficiency in systems building.

Brändön looked like this in January 2012. Eight degrees below freezing, overcast, snowfall, no wind, no sound. Beautiful.


At LTU, apart from structural engineering, the main strength areas are production, systems building and supply chain management. The main ability of this group of researchers is to be able to identify problems and propose solutions for the companies, and use the empiric material gathered to address gaps in the academic literature.

All work is done in close collaboration with the industry. The plan has been set in motion to move from housing manufacturing to general systems building, based on other types of platforms and systems. My regular workplace NCC is one of a handful of companies that spearhead this development in general construction. Hence my position as adjunct professor at LTU. My job is to connect the two.

At the meeting we just concluded, we agreed that it is time we decided on what our image is for the future of the sector. The contemporary trends in the construction sector are beginning to be sufficiently established so we can extrapolate them into a scenario for the future. Trends where the LTU research would be relevant include increased demands on commercialization of research (innovation) and on reduction of production costs. They also include the current struggle with value chain integration, the emerging renovation sector and the rules and regulations for construction being emerging fields of focus, the ageing and increasing individualism of the clients, and the climate issue substituting energy as focal point. We are going to pool our resources and write these trends form the viewpoint of what we should be doing in 2022, and in the years leading up to 2022.

If we can agree on such a scenario, we could deconstruct it into tasks that our research group should focus on. What is our role in this development? What can we contribute to the sector? Which projects are needed? Who should we connect with, work with and learn more from? The scenario would in effect function as our strategic – and maybe even operative – compass.

Personally, I think that LTU timber structures are a research group unparalleled in Sweden when it comes to giving research-based practical advice on systems building for the construction industry. We should be more outspoken with what our thoughts on the current developments are. I am honoured to head the work on our scenario for the future. Maybe me having been the main author of the ECTP Vision for 2030 (pdf) had something to do with it. Anyways, we decided that a decade is a suitable time-frame, so the future scenario will look to 2022. We’re going to flesh out a draft and then discuss it with colleagues in the sector. Reality-check alert.


We are looking to create a situation where our work is pulled from the needs of the recipients even more than it is now. We’re also widening the scope by including the general construction supply chain and its clients. In the past, we have tended to polarize between systems building (which we called industrial construction and everybody seemed to misunderstand) and traditional, project-based construction. The latter is still the overwhelming majority of all construction and evolves only slowly. Putting it down because it is not radical enough only alienates people. Our plan for the future is radical, but the first step towards it is likely not. So, we’re increasingly focussing on the slow evolution of traditional logic to a situation where construction has a coherent supply-chain, the habit of small recurrent improvements, and all the other traits of systems-based building. Maybe our niche is to give advice to companies on how to take each step to get to that 2022 future. We might even be able to push a few companies over the the crest of that hill. We’ll see. The work on the scenario is a start.

Anyone else out there doing anything similar? I’d love to hear from you.

¡Viva La Evolución!

Images by Dan Engström, Creative Commons.





Industry research and the hole in the wall

ResearchPosted by Dan Engström Thu, November 24, 2011 00:22:17

Industry research. It’s not the same as your regular research. You have a wall to overcome here.

You see, today I attended a meeting where we discussed the basic set-up of a project in support of industrial development for the manufacturing and engineering industry. Construction is fringe to say the least, but that’s actually the point. With our project-based logic, we have much to learn from taking a seat among the companies that make the products we use. The manufacturer of sinks and windows are very different from the contractor that puts them in. They’ve already made the transition into product-based logic, long ago. In terms of development of production, they have challenges in increasing efficiency and productivity, finding ways to prioritise both production and the development of production, and so on. Not us. We need to learn more on how to work with products, they need to learn how to improve their production. But we’re in the same project, dedicated to meeting the financer’s overall goal of increasing the rate of innovation in Swedish production.

Let me put this another way. We’re in a project that is financed with tax money because it supports a general aim relating to the industry as a whole, with manufacturing money because it will increase efficiency and with construction money because it will help us develop our product logic. It is run by researchers who need funding for learning the mechanisms of innovation so they can help other companies better. Yes, I am bantering. Trying to make a point here, OK? Bear with me. I’m saying that the different drivers in the project are not really compatible. So, are we doomed to fail at the wall?

I think not. Much like Douglas Adam’s knack to flying (learning how to fall to the ground and miss) there is a knack to designing these projects. They’re industry research projects. I’ll wager that that’s not what most researchers are used to.

They’re not our projects. Read that again. Feel free to say it out loud as many times as it takes. They’re not ours. They. Are Not. Ours. We are not the point. In industrial research projects, the industry is the key. Researchers run it, but it is what the industry does that counts. Might as well face it guys, we researchers are Santa’s Little Helper here. Yeah yeah, we do our usual research bit: we observe, document, analyse, understand and describe the mechanisms of what went on. That's fine and dandy. But it’s only part of our job. Just as important is our job to design the project so that the industry is motivated to use it. Help them get inspired by the project and use project resources to do that little development that they’ve been talking about for a while. If they do, you have concrete actions thanks to the project and don’t even have to make up the demonstrators that financers are so keen to require nowadays. All you have to do then is document and lay the jigsaw puzzle the industry has handed you.

So what’s the knack? You’ve got that big grant from a government agency. They want you to save the jobs in your country, or something like it, something very generic. In order to get the grant, you promised you would achieve the impossible. You collected a handful of lose commitments of in-kind support from companies that are busy making money. They’re not interested in saving the national industry, they’re in it for the concrete, hands-on improvement of their business. So. You’re in charge, what do you do now?

You let them do their thing, that’s what you do. You ignore for now the task the financers gave you (the save the jobs bit) and support in any way you can the industry in your project. Be concrete. You know a trick or two on how their business can be improved. Talk to your industry partners, get to know their issues and suggest something very limited you believe would support them. They will change your suggestion. Great. That’s why you put it to them. Don’t ask, you won’t get any useful answers. Suggest and let them revise. Just make sure the task is limited so that they have a chance of pulling the improvement off.

There is a brick wall separating your current position from innovation, sustainability or whatever generic improvement the government want you to achieve. Instead of trying to tear down the wall – and fail – drill a hole in it. That’s easy. Drill a small hole so you can show there is a way through to the other side. If your project is into innovation, work with every company on a given innovation of theirs. Do not call this hole in the wall the generic term – “increased rate of innovation” will not get you the commitment and inspiration from the industry partners – call it something more concrete. Call it what they are working with: identifying manufacturing bottle-necks, active design, merging purchasing and logistics in their supply-chain. They can all be innovations, we’ll just not speak about innovations that much. It is not the concept of innovation that makes money. Let’s call a spade a spade here.

In order to not get fifteen individual projects, find clusters of companies in your project with similar challenges and design the project and the meetings so that they support each other. Offer them support in thematic areas where they can drill their holes together: business models, energy efficiency, partnering in public procurement, manufacturing, purchasing. Anything goes that the companies want to work with. Accept that they will ignore the other clusters you have in the project. The European Commission loves to designate these thematic clusters as work packages. But you won’t. You’ll talk about them in terms of what each hole in the wall is going to achieve. You will not talk about the work but of the goal, the reason why the company in question is drilling that hole.

While the industry partners do their development and money-making, you do your research thing. Case studies, action research, fly on the wall. Whatever. If you’ve guided the clusters with one eye on the project goals in the contract with the public financer you’re in the perfect position. You take a good look from above on all the developments that have taken place and you describe what you see. You will not only see a pattern of development that you can publish as research results that also addres the overall aim of the project (see, we ended up there after all), you will also see things that actually happened in real life. It’s likely that the government or commission is less interested in the new knowledge we’ve gained than they are in the developments that actually took place. These small steps are their metrics for the improvements across the whole industry; for a common European construction market, for production to stay in Europe and so on. Your project will have not only have produced new papers and theses, it will have been the catalyst for these changes.

And guess what? It’s you that made it happen.

Images, Flickr Creative Commons: Brick wall by theArtGuy (top), Power Drill by vvvracer (middle), Hole in the wall by Gravityx9 (bottom).

Credit: the Hole in the wall concept was originally conceived by Magnus Widfeldt, Swerea IVF.

Clients and supplier-led innovation

ResearchPosted by Dan Engström Fri, November 18, 2011 23:24:33

Way back when I still referred to systems-building as industrial thinking, ie about three weeks ago, I had the fairly daft idea that working internally (Department of the Interior if you will) would be sufficient. I thought that if we look at the market needs in general, we could successfully develop processes and products to suit that market. The idea was that though it would be innovative and a paradigm shift from market-pull to supplier-push but it would work. Well, deconstructing the concept of systems building changed all that. Those of you that read my post on systems building might remember the tentative three building-blocks of systems building: Processes, Products and Procurement. I called it Business model in the earlier post but it is really about procurement. Procurement. Pro-Cure-Ment. That’s Foreign Office stuff. It hit me like a ton of bricks: Our innovations will mean nothing if procurement does not allow for innovations devised by suppliers like my Department of the Interior buddies. It’s not rocket science this, I know. It's fairly obvious stuff, but as an industry researcher I do have some food for thought here.

It turns out that we’re not alone in being frustrated over briefs that won’t allow us to bring out the best of our company’s creativity and experience. Empirical evidence makes a strong case (ie it’s happening all the time) for the project logic being ill suited for clients to take decisions that allow for supplier-led innovation. And guess what? In March, I can prove it. Or at least, I know who can.

First let me state that what I am not saying. I am not saying that we do not innovate in our line of business. Because we do. All the time. Anyone who has used the Molly wall plug above (the one to the right) which requires three tools will appreciate the Driva plug (left), which requires only one tool; your power screwdriver. No drilling, no pliers, no screwing that long screw out only to then immediately screw it all the way back in. That is indeed an innovation. But it is in the small scale. What we’re looking for in this discussion is the capability of clients to implement innovations that affect the brief, on a systems scale. What can we expect when we enter the new paradigm of systems building and offer a product? What happens when the client is to take decisions concerning that? Before today, I couldn’t really tell you.

Well, we’re in luck. Let me tell you about my day and I’ll walk you through what I mean. At Luleå University of Technology, there is a tradition which I find very useful: the pie seminar. Most academic institutions probably have something similar. At a pie seminar, a group of peers and supervisors throw academic pies (comments, criticism, praise) at a doctoral candidate a few months before he/she defends their thesis. What you do is, you read the draft thesis and the papers and find the strengths and weaknesses and put them up for assessment and discussion in a seminar. The candidate gets a good assessment of the draft and the group gets to calibrate what type of material we consider constitutes good research.

Today, I had the privilege of being main pie thrower at the brilliant theoretician Susanne Engström. Her area of research is the construction clients’ role as decision-makers when it comes to implementing supplier-led innovation. Yeppur, the area I realised I need to learn more about. What a coincidence. In short, Susanne has looked at the mechanisms behind decisions for or against products that contractors offer. Like the sports facility I wrote about in an earlier post.

Susanne has worked with the theory of information processing and interpretation. She added interviews and case studies from systems building projects and is now in the process of documenting the work and the conclusions she has drawn. That’s where the pie seminar comes in. It provides her with a compass for the final few months.

Susanne points to a whole set of mechanisms by which we can understand clients decision-making for supplier-led innovation. For example, she explains and distingushes between lacking information (uncertainty) and interpreting information wrong (equivocality). I will not precede Susanne’s conclusions, but it will come as no surprise to anyone that in the project-based logic, new ideas have a hard time of it. For one thing, innovations can be expected to be valued in the old mindset. Research Susanne points to shows that this is what happens when you lack information; you use rules of thumb, which in this case are not applicable. That’s one reason for the status quo bias. Another reason that Susanne points to is the concept of anticipated regret. The consequences perceived from failing with an innovation are seen as more serious than the ones from failing with a proven solution. No IT manager will expect to get fired for choosing to invest in buying proprietary software with licenses, over adapting existing Open Source software – irrespective of the merits of the two choices. Again, empirical evidence supports this. I've been there, and it's likely that so have you. I picture how the discussion went.

“OK, so this tender suggests we … eh … hang on … here it is … that we buy their product which is half the expected price but with … erm … the following limitations to the brief … eh … Listen, John, I’m not sure I am confortable with contractors discussing the brief in their tenders.”

Right about now is when Better safe than sorry kicks in and spoils your day.

Let me give you one final brief glimpse of Susanne’s material, namely her description of the client she is studying. A simple sketch on a piece of paper made it all clear to me. Most of us will recognize this. Because clients are just like the rest of us. Really. On the level.

Above is the sketch that Susanne drew today from her own understanding of her material. Don’t hold it against her, it’s only a rough sketch she drew as we were talking, after I asked her to describe the client. I find the thoughts behind this sketch fascinating whatever Susanne decides to do with it. Bear with me here and I’ll explain why.

In this matrix, the horizontal axis is divided into individuals and organizations. The vertical axis is divided into project logic and systems building, aka process logic. This matrix shows four distinct positions, with clear demarcations between them. If you work at a big company, you will see the pattern. It’s all to do with the way we deal with information. Let me just give you two examples of the use of this mind-map to explain our reality. Individuals innovate in projects (bottom left) but the company has a hard time transferring the knowledge into the organization position (bottom right) to turn the individuals’ learning into organizational learning. The process thinking of a company (top right) may promote innovation but have a hard time reaching the local offices where projects are run (bottom right). Managers have a hard time reaching operative staff. There is no reason to suppose that this structure would not work just as well to explain the mechanisms for your clients as it does for your company. Or mine.

Susanne will defend her thesis at Luleå University of Technology in March 2012.

Images: Top: the Molly and the Driva wall plugs. Bottom: sketch pad. Both by Dan Engström, Creative Commons by-nc-sa. Middle: pie at Rackspace Q4 2007 Kickoff by picado photography, Flickr Creative Commons.

Systems building

ResearchPosted by Dan Engström Mon, November 07, 2011 12:27:54
Systems building. I don't call it industrial construction anymore, because it'll make you think of prefabrication. Sure, prefabrication is an important tool in this type of thinking, but not the key feature. Like off-site build; important but not pivotal. The key feature of industrial thinking is recurrent, incremental improvements. Yes, I made it bold. It is bold. It has even become a buzz word: Kaizen. The paradox is that implementing a strategy of continually making incremental improvements is a step-change in construction. It really is no small matter, because we have nothing to improve from. We cannot set a personal best in the high-jump without a bar to aim for. What vehicles we use is secondary. They are tools, not goals. Prefabrication is a tool.
Incremental changes is a new paradigm. I mean it. Most companies in construction, except for our good friends in the prefabrication industry (marketing timber-based housing, concrete-based systems for offices, steel-based roof truss systems and so on) have no set policies or standards for how they do things. Experience, rules of thumb, a good network of suppliers are all necessary for safeguarding the quality they create. But with a strategy of incremental improvements you have to write these things down. You have to measure if improvements actually are improvements or just changes. And you have to agree to use these new, revised activities. Finally, you have to tell everybody what the new process is. Then you start over. Otherwise, only the people involed will (might) remember the improvements next time. But if you do, everyone will be aware of how you communicate, what activities are to be performed and what should be delivered when, to whom. Your processes are the first building-block of systems-building. In fact, it would be interesting to illustrate what else systems-building consists of. I mean, if it isn't prefabrication, then what is it?

OK, so we know what we'll be doing the next time we build a similar house, wouldn't it be useful to standardise some of the features of the actual building too? Just the parts that crop up at every project. You know, the ones we spend time and resources on solving every time, without our client actually caring. The interface between the floor and the wall. Now, how shold we do it this time around? How about like last time, only a little better? Let's use the experiences we've made to enter each project a little higher on ther learning curve. And if (yes, if) we realise that our clients have little to add or revise from our solutions and they cater to a sufficiently large market, we might make them into a product (see my post Developing a building product below). Write down how you design, deliver and improve it. The product is the second building-block of systems building.

Finally, we need to be aware that clients not always put in their brief what they want, but what they expect us to be able to do. It's our job to help clients learn that that is not always the same thing. The contents of a tender based on the above logic will be different from traditional tenders, but that will not be readily visible. Your tender will likely be assessed like it was a traditional, project-based tender. "Low cost? Must be low quality then. All the other contractors accept changes late in the process too, and offer anything I want. This tenders just offers this or the alternative that."

The business model and procurement andis the final building-block for systems building. You don't own this part of your process. In fact, neither does the client - if you have a system, you will not be interested in business that require you to make major deviations from your business plan. You own it together. Find a business model where you have the same incentives as the client and offer that. Collaboration is the key, if not in every project, then between projects. Teach your clients what can be achieved by systems thinking and you shall be heard. Even better, show them. Show them their competitors making money by using your systems-based logic. That'll get their attention.

We are now in a position to tentatively illustrate graphically the building-blocks of systems building.It sounds hard. It is hard. But it is necessary. For the many projects that we do that are more similar than different from one another, we must start to look for these similiarites - and utilize them - if we are to bring construction costs down.

Let us leave the concept of industrial construction to the good people involved in prefabrication and adopt systems building for the holistic logic of Product, Process and Business model. Anyone interested in reading more about this would do good to start with Professor Will Hughes. Since we have only begun to start deconstructing this concept, you will very likely soon be able to tell me where I have the weak links in my argumentation. We'll make research out of this yet.

Images: "Rocketown Demo" bike jumper at the 2006 Williamson County Fair, by SeeMidTN.com, aka Brent, Flickr Creative Commons, and Systems building sketch by Dan Engström. Feel free to download it from here:


New research on clients decision-making

ResearchPosted by Dan Engström Wed, November 02, 2011 11:51:42
I just have to tell you about this new PhD dissertion I'm reading as it is being written. It is Susanne Engström at Luleå University of Technology who is writing her dissertation about how clients make decisions and how that affects the opportunities for supplier-led innovation. The subject area is how we might understand clients' role in unblocking barriers to offering products, with which we arguably offer better return on investment - better, cheaper buildings - but for a narrower brief. Papers in the dissertation will address explanations of the current state of affairs, managing uncertainties, lessons learned from clients as drivers of innovation, and client-contractor communication. All in the context of systems building. Papers can be downloaded from Susannes page at ltu.se.

The completed dissertation will be defended in March 2012, but it is time for Susanne to be subjected to the infamous pie seminar, where all that are interested have the opportunity to give criticise the draft material (pieing the defendant). I have the honor of being the main pie-thrower, on November 18th. I can't wait.

Lean Green goes back to the Lab

ResearchPosted by Dan Engström Wed, November 02, 2011 09:55:15
Vinnova is the Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems, aims to increase the competitiveness of Swedish researchers and companies. They just had a major call for proposals under the umbrella of innovations driven by society's challenges. From over 600 applications, a total of 94 applications were accepted, on areas from how to apply the right health care measures in every situation, to analysis of options for how we move the town of Kiruna as the major mine underneath is moving towards it. Some fabulous ideas there.
The core of the organizations behind the competence centre Lean Wood Engineering also applied (Lean begin the production philosophy of doing what's good for the customeer and nothing else). LWE works with processes and products for housing and wood manufacturing. Our application was called Lean Green, and applied a lean product development process for sustainable cities. Construction projects today are part of a continuous process with interdisciplinary teams that include various stakeholders in the construction sector; from politics and government to business, retail and universities. The innovation is the use of industrial methods and Lean in a planning perspective.

LWE has a well-earned good reputation, illustrated by the centre being invited by the European Commission as one of only two Swedish organizations to give input on the 8th framework programme. I can say this because I'm new in the group and haven't had time yet to discredit LWE. Yes, I am partially joking. Anyway. We were surprised and disappointed not to see our application accepted. We have now re-read it and realise we were simply trying to hard, going for too wide a scope. The application even gave our aim as to achieve sustainable housing by focusing on everything from the best accommodation (Product Innovation), best yield (Business Innovation), lowest ecological footprint (from 1000 years to 100 years in 10 years) with the most efficient production (Production innovation).

The potential of applying a coherent value-chain with process logic in planning is sound and needs to be adressed. But with hindsight, I probably wouldn't have given us the funding either. So it's back to the lab again, an important lesson wiser.