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: