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.

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).

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

One thought away from a breakthrough

IndustryPosted by Dan Engström Tue, December 13, 2011 00:40:13

A sociologist, an engineer and a marketing manager walk into a bar. Then what?

Did you know that you are only a single thought away from an amazing breakthrough? All you need to do is think it. Put like you were a trailing hockey team (only two shots away from the win), it sounds terribly easy. Actually, it can be. Here’s what to do. Collaborate.

In his fabulous book ”How breakthroughs happen. The surprising truth about how companies innovate”, Andrew Hargadon argued for technology brokering. He argues that enlightened trial-and-error of cross-disciplinary teams will triumph over the deliberate planning of the lone genius. Don’t think outside the box. Look inside someone else’s box where they already have been thinking. Use that thinking to match a need in your field and you have an innovation. One very successful example of this is the IDEO DeepDive methodology.

Andrew Hargadon’s book was a real eye-opener for me, inspiring but also frustrating. When the book was published in 2003, technology brokering took very hard work. How do you finmd the people, the ideas and the boxes to connect with? The systematic building of intersections of people was hard to pull off. So I shelved the idea because I couldn’t be bothered to do the work. But it is now December 2011 and times have changed. After the 2003 web 1.0 (I write, you read) web 2.0 (we all both read and write) has established itself in the form of Wikipedia and twitter, just to name two. People are finding each other all over, like the Occupy movement which is reinventing politics, thanks to the use of hashtags like #uws and #occupy on social media. And social networks are developing into social markets, like zilok (rent anything) and taskrabbit (get any chore done).

It is almost too easy to find someone that knows what I need to know. I realize that it it is time for me to blow the dust of the ideas in Andrew Hargadon’s book and look for that unexpected, perfectly matched skill in a different arena. Let me give you a couple of examples, courtesy of Alfons Cornella. First, the Jukari Fit to Fly. Reebok were of the opinion that women are bored in gyms, so in 2009 they teamed up with the Cirque du Soleil to develop something that is a distinctly different type of training. The Jukari has its own youtube channel. Second, Amazon (who is a web 2.0 company in itself) teamed up with the 7-eleven chain to provide pickup lockers for parcels. The one company had the digital infrastructure, the other had the physical network of stores. And don’t get me started on the Renault and L’Oreal Zoe spa car.

Does this seem far-fetched? We cannot all practice business like we are designers (Nike) or technology like we are culturalists (Apple). But this method of using different skills and backgrounds is nothing new to construction. It is the same line of thinking that we use to argue for partnering. There will be one colleague that knows the solution of a problem. We only have to make sure that colleague is given incentive to share the solution, and that this opportunity is given early enough in the process. In order to do that, we have to share what our problems are. We just do it A) between projects, and B) with companies not within our comfort zone. For real.

Our main challenge is that old habits die hard. Our economic system is built on competition. This method of creating innovation and step-change is built on collaboration. This requires trust, and trust is built on generosity. Share like you care. It not only is good business, it is also good fun. But it's hard. You will get frowns from management. At the end of the day though, I think you'll find this new-ish paradigm rewarding.

"The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall." (I never thought I'd quote Che Guevara, but there's a first time for everything)

Right. Let’s say you’re in. I talked you into testing. You’ll likely argue that with hindsight, connecting Coca-cola and Italian coffee maker Illy to create a soft drink-type market for coffee looks easy enough. But actively coming up with the perfect connection is harder. Or is it? Actually, there are a handful of methods we could use. This list is by all means not complete, it is only my first draft of methods I’ve come across. Personally, I think it contains everything one needs to make that breakthrough. It’s just a matter of starting. But remember, you can’t do this alone. Bring in some people that are unlike you and get to it.

1) Map your challenges

Map what your challenges are and identify what sectors likely have that ability. Describe the business idea and try to team up. I gave some examples above. If you want to map in a network, there are organisations like Co-society and Jump Associates that do that sort of thing.You probably have such resources closer to home, you probably just haven't looked.

2) Reengineer your revenue stream (Jump Associates article here)

If a company of consulting engineers were to go from charging by the hour to charging a subscription fee for their engineers or creating franchises, the business of that company would change to its very chore.

3) Challenge-driven innovation

What is your main goal and what is the main challenge you face in reaching it? Define that and then ask what it would take for you to reach the goal and overcome the challenge. You might just find out that articulating that was all you needed to do to identify the change needed.

4) See the need, fill the need

Like Rodney Copperbottom did in the Pixar film Robots, look to your own experience of working with your clients and see where there is a need. Then fill it. Like Rodney, fail fast, fail often, fail inexpensively. Ben Rennie suggested (here) that in the next 30 days, we try creating something, share our ideas liberally and simply view the world from someone else’s viewpoint.

5) Name the product and decode it

A product needs a challenging, inspiring, intuitive name. But a catchy name can unleash a creative urge to decode what that product is. Have a beer or two with some colleagues and come up with a name for a product. Then let that name be the catalyst of development.

6) Mindmapping innovation

This exercise really does create new ideas, and can be done for the fun of it during a coffee break with three to five strangers if you wish. Put five columns on a large piece of paper. Headings are Technology, Target group, Problem, Distribution and Business idea. The first four columns you fill with anything you can think of. Then you have the group close their eyes and point to a word in each column. They then come up with a business case involving those four words. Have them write it in the fifth column.

When we did this (with Kreo as facilitators), our words where Cassette tapes, Pensioners, Unhealthy food habits, and Supermarkets respectively. We came up with a business idea involving Walkmans which guide you through the supermarket, and marked with the dinner you want today. If you want to go on with the exercise, this can be done over and over. The best cases can be posted on another paper and the skills of the group can be mapped on a third paper. In that little exercise there will be a business idea somewhere.

A sociologist, an engineer and a marketing manager walk into a bar. The question is what they came out with.


Images Flickr Creative Commons: Product design innovation workshop led by Larry Shubert of Zip Innovations, by Bytemarks. Collaborating nails, by michaelcardus. MindTouch: Collaboration Revolution, by Roebot

Final image: Mindmap of innovations, by yours truly.

Reasoning and examples in this blog post come in part from Alfons Cornella of Co-society, Barcelona.

Organising industrial R&D

IndustryPosted by Dan Engström Thu, December 08, 2011 23:55:25

I’ve been thinking. Why is it that research is not used more often in construction? And how could we organise research so that we got more out of it, from a business perspective?

Local business, global knowledge ...
In construction, business is normally done locally. Even larger corporations give freedom to local managers to do business the way that works best in their town. This is our blessing and our curse. We are well adapted to local situations but we have a problem with lateral knowledge management. This fits well with the world view that each building is unique. We have not seen the need to implement incentives for dissemination of key findings to other colleagues within the company. Most transitions that are not driven by local business are disseminated through top-down directives.

But each building is not unique. Construction consists of a number of activities that we’ve done a thousand times before. Our organisation is not good enough when we need to pool our creativity, like we need to in order to meet the fast-paced development of the challenges of the market. We currently need to lower construction costs, radically increase energy efficiency in buildings, create business out of sustainability demands, recruit the best professionals, increase transparency and quality, and make workplaces safe – among many other things. In order to do that, we identify and adopt new technology and processes. We develop and market building products. When we do that, the well-entrenched, local, business-driven organisation we’re stuck with is simply not up to the job. We will not be able to make these things happen ad hoc in the context of a construction project, especially not if we expect that client to pay for an investment we made for the good of our whole company.

Research and development is a good an example of a lateral activity that suffers by this. Dear friends, we might as well face it, researchers are frowned upon in construction. We represent almost the antithesis of the adventure that construction has been made into. Researchers like it when events are predictable, repeatable, when we understand the mechanisms behind them. Yes, we can be used as experts in tricky situations, and indeed often are. But our research skills are of little use in the local project. They need to be put to use laterally, in the learning from project to project.

Good researchers work laterally
You will no doubt know this, but it is worth repeating. You don’t hire researchers because they are so skilled in the narrow field they wrote their theses on. You hire them because they are good at pulling out a solvable problem from a complex problem field in real life. You hire them because they are good at suggesting a feasible approach to solve that problem, going through with the project, analysing the results and working laterally so that others may learn. That is what they were trained to do.

Sedimentation researchers in the Morro Bay, CA Estuary mudflats. There is business in understanding mechanisms.

You use those skills to make sure your company has the knowledge necessary to meet changing market needs. And you pool them. By all means let your researchers be organised locally, but make sure they have guidance for what the company priorities are. If you don’t, you’ll have them running in every direction because they’ll all read the business strategy differently.

In order to provide that guidance, you organise an R&D unit. You likely put it in a satellite of its own, maybe reporting to the MD or his process manager. This unit ensures the long-term accumulation of knowledge, both in terms of results and of people. It will be an important element of your company’s attractiveness to the specialist skills that can further contribute to if you reach the market in the best possible way.

The R&D unit pools knowledge and activities within the company to identify knowledge gaps that prevent you from meeting the market the best possible way in say three years’ time. It identifies and initiates R&D projects in these areas. It also addresses the balance between the need for short-term development and long-term research. It is funded so that it in turn can fund both in-house projects and the acquisition of externally financed projects. If there is no product development unit, the R&D unit is also responsible for the creation and development of the products the company markets. There. You’re done. You are in control of a lateral knowledge flow to support business.

Well, yes and no. Before you have established R&D activities you likely have isolated islands of activity, which have good contact with the business and the construction site. That was the very reason I argued why a company of your size needs an R&D unit, remember? You need it to pool the islands of activity. So you do establish a centrally controlled operation. But then you’re in for a paradox: you lose the very close collaboration contact with the business, because critical mass invites R&D to be a full-time employment for the people involved.

I'll try it in the next project, if I have the time
It is reasonable that everyone makes the construction project a priority. But this focus will likely be taken to the point where you may find it difficult to link the R&D activities in earnest to the real business benefits. Your R&D type colleagues have good ideas but they have a difficult time of it convincing local managers and business managers to devote time to test new methods. Your research people are staff persons and have no say in local business decisions. They can only give advice, which frankly is taken lightly if there is a risk involved for costs or problems that cause delays.

One way to solve this is to assign each geographical or market area their own strategic development area (energy efficiency, virtual construction, industrialization, sustainability and so on). You give them the task of being the company's role model in that area, and you followed up like you would any metrics. You link regional management bonuses to the success of those metrics and to their adoption of the ideas of others, as well as to their business results. Do that – and hang in there – and enjoy seeing your company overtake the competition, or even find new business.

Given half a chance, at least that’s what I would do.

Images, Flickr CC: Sedimentation researchers in the Morro Bay, CA Estuary mudflats, Doing research, painter's doll by Viewoftheworld, US Army Corps of Engineers site visit by USACEpublicaffairs

What skills do you need?

IndustryPosted by Dan Engström Sat, December 03, 2011 19:35:20
This blog is about the ongoing transition of construction from project-based logic to product-based logic. What do you need to bring this transition about at your company? In this guest post, Helena Johnsson, associate professor at Luleå University of Technology as well as Design and construction manager at Lindbäcks Bygg writes about the people we need. Educate or recruit? Probably both. But before we deal with the frustration of having old-school skills, what should we teach our colleagues? What skills do we need in our staff? Helena summarises theses skills below.
Brasilian theatre. Hopefully the frustration we deal with in construction is a tad less temperamental.

Helena writes:

Skills and competencies needed to establish a transition in construction

If you want change, it starts with the people. If construction is to be changed, it is the people in the construction trade that needs to change first. Now, that is not very easy to do, so another way of going about it is to introduce new people (and thereby new thinking) into construction. These people bring another set of skills and another kind of knowledge into construction. What would these skills be if we would like to accomplish the transition that this blog presents?

First and foremost, a holistic view is needed. This means looking upon work not as a series of different tasks, but having the knowledge 'how the machine works' i.e. what is the point of what we are doing? It also incorporates the ability to take a step back and asking 'can this be done in a better way?' recurrently. If the answer is yes, one also has to be prepared to gather the resources needed to change. By some this is identified as a cost without benefits. In a short term perspective that conclusion is correct, but not in the long-term, since the improved method would lead to an improvement the next time the task is performed.

Secondly, endurance is vital. This is the kind of endurance that means long-term patience and a belief in continuous improvements. Now if you apply continuous improvements without a holistic view, you will sub-optimise, which leads eventually to poor overall performance. As the driving force for the holistic view, the customer or client is the key. Customer focus in construction is obscured since we operate in an environment where the client represents the end-users. Citing Will Hughes, Professor of Construction Management at University of Reading: "the builder that understands and acts upon the end-users needs will be very, very wealthy". So, endurance and customer focus are crucial skills.

Thirdly, the ability to differentiate between daily work and new solutions is a must. Daily work can be optimised and standardised, requiring as little effort as possible for the organisation to conduct. Product development must be separate from daily work, due to its exploratory nature and the strain it causes on an organisation that was not set up for it. This is easy to say, but construction is really having a difficult time with this one. Since production is project-based, it is easy to make product development within a project. The problem is that the findings seldom migrate from the project, they remain coupled to the project even after completion. This is devastating for continuous improvement, which incorporates a great deal of learning for individuals and organisation.

Helena Johnsson

My personal reflection (yes, this is Dan again) on this great post is that the task for academia is obvious to the eye but hard to pull off. These work methods need to be researched when adopted into construction, and the mechanisms need to be understood and translated into skills which then need to be taught to students. This wil be hard because we have organised our departments as interdisciplinary silos. Perhaps the curriculum for architectural engieering, which is more cross-disciplinary, has things to offer. We shall no doubt return to this subject many times over. What do you think?

Image, Flickr Creative Commons: Staff, La Intrusa, Teatro Vila Velha (Salvador-BA), Brasil, by Vivadança Festival Internacional Ano 5

Certify engineers. Now.

IndustryPosted by Dan Engström Mon, November 28, 2011 14:51:07

When my engineer brother married his physician fiancée, his physician best man spoke at the wedding reception, coining the phrase “The difference between engineers and doctors is that doctors only kill people in ones”.

We don’t want doctors to kill people, so we have a system in place to prevent that. We have certified doctors. Of course we do. The National Board of Health and Welfare is in charge of that. We have certified pilots, courtesy of the Swedish Transport Agency. From the other day, we now also have certified teachers, by the Swedish National Agency for Education. I’m all for that. People that are certified have shown a public authority that they are qualified for a job with responsibility for the safety of others. And like me, you probably have a driver's licence and approve of the need for one.

But Sweden does not have certified engineers. For bridges, houses, chimneys, harbours, towers, stadiums and everything else you can think of, we don’t. The only thing that prevents you from working as a structural engineer is that the insurance company might not want to insure your company if its engineers don’t have the experience for the projects they’re signing off on.

Designed by unchartered engineers. The 19.000 capacity Gamla Ullevi stadium.

We are accepting that the qualifications needed to be a professional engineer are being defined and enforced by proxy – by companies with a different agenda, doing different business. The opportunities and risks inherent in engineering are being measured by the one metric whether insuring this particular company is good business for the insurance company. Unlike in aviation, medicine and teaching, they are not an authority charged with the task of keeping track of the development of the profession and its consequences.

A chartered engineering degree or a certification for engineers in construction would provide us with an opportunity to develop our profession. Like the system we have for certifying architects. When you’re done with your education and have gained sufficient experience, you can be certified by the Swedish Association of Architects. It would make it possible to give the work of the engineer increased influence. It would provide engineering with a clear career path. It would perhaps even prevent some of the many roof failures we’ve seen in Sweden these last two winters.

The system could be developed by clients, contractors, designers, authorities and insurance companies together. Put the system in the hands of a professional organization. The UK has its Institution of Civil Engineers to oversee the chartering of professional engineers. We also have one. We have the Swedish Society of Civil and Structural Engineers, SVR, with a membership of a fourth of all graduated civil and structural engineers in Sweden. If the chartering of engineers is not a main task for SVR, I don’t know what is.

Image: Gamla Ullevi, Flickr Creative Commons, by Jacob Poul Skoubo

Developing a building product

IndustryPosted by Dan Engström Sat, November 05, 2011 00:32:41
Sometimes, things just come together. I'd like to tell you about this neat sports hall we've developed at NCC. We made a deal with the Swedish Handball Federation that we'd develop a simple sports hall for kids practicing handball. Being the guy that was actually given that task, I am still amazed as to how successful we were simply by applying product logic to a task we normally would perform as a traditional project. Its homepage in Swedish is here.

It is in fact a product in that it has an given organisation behind it, it is designed to fit a brief we wrote to cater for a defined market segment, prepared modular options to chose from for the client and systematic improvements between projects. The key is repetition. What would we do if we were to build this over and over? We'd be prepared.
We started out by writing our own brief: "A simple sports hall for practices and lower-tier matches, for handball and similar sports, with focus on young athletes". It looks better in Swedish, but you get the idea. So, next we identified what traits in the hall are needed for it to live up to the brief and still be a worthy sporting environment. Using our personal experience from handball, and from maintenance and production of sports halls, we decided that it needed a full sized court, proper lighting, the right sports floor and a handful of other traits. We did not save any money on them, we just tried to be smart. But. We scratched everything else.

Read that again. We scratched everything else. If it wasn't needed for a worthy, functional sporting environment for kids playing handball, it went out the window. The end result is a fine sports hall for exactly the brief. If you want something else, my colleagues will be happy build it, but we will not be able to match the price we ask for this prodict, which typically is half the price of a traditional sports hall.
It all sounds well and dandy; getting a great sports hall for half the price you expect. But, the other price you pay is that you get a hall that ideally suits the brief we wrote, not the brief you might expect to write. This is the key to the product logic. We learn the drivers for the clients in the market segment we are looking to address and design a product that should be perfect for them. This is a product developed before there is a site set. Because of this, we might miss out on business beacuse our product is not well suited to local conditions. But that is a risk that is inherent in product thinking - in order to utilise the learning curve over several projects, we must standardise.

In order to mitigate the standardisation we were forced to make, we have prepared optional extras. Since the inception of this hall in 2006, we have had the privelege of building this product in different versions for about thirty clients. The different versions we've built get included in the product as options, so for every one we build, the next client has another option to choose from.

But you as a client might want something outside of the scope of our options. With the strict product logic that comes with large series of manufacturing, we would decline that contract. But since this product has long servicelife and gets built in small series, there is room for customisation by the client even slightly outside of the prepared options. And so, another version is born.

This is somewhat of an experiment, turning the tables like this on our regular processes. So far it has been successful and we aim to keep it that way. It had - has - its share of teething problems, so it might serve its purpose the better here as illustration to the logic of products.

Finally, I'd like to share with you what happened when we offered a municipality a hall for the first time. We submitted a parallel tender to the design/bid/build brief and offered our product at half the price of the one in the brief, almsot without changing the brief. Almost. Well. The municipality stopped the procurement process, redesigned the hall to fit the specifications of our product and restarted the process. The contract went to a competitor. They were marginally cheaper because they saved on the worthy environment part.

We're trying hard to improve. We do not always succeed. But municipalities reading the law of public procurement like the devil reads the bible does not contribute to ... well ... anything.

Images: Torvalla sports hall, images by NCC

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