Transitions in construction

Transitions in construction

Whatever you thought, think again.


Great idea. Boring, but great.

ReflectionsPosted by Dan Engström Fri, November 11, 2011 08:08:03

Let me tell you about yourself. You’re a dedicated member of the team at work. You’re used to being busy and to solve problems quickly, as they occur, in an ad hoc manner. Get it done, move on. You’re using your creativity to the best of your ability and loving it. OK, so you work long hours. It’s hard work, and sometimes even very hard, but the result you achieve from that is what makes you tick. You’re your own man. If you can’t fix it, no one can. You’re in construction and couldn't be happier.

One day, you get called to a meeting where one or other of all the supervisors or CEOs or MDs and what have you tell you about this new gospel: systems building. We now have a system for everything. Processes. Standardisation. A way of doing things, period. You do what the Joneses do. Let us know if you think it should be improved. Here’s the manual, go home and study, see you Monday. Dismissed.

Sounds like someone just took a class in management, and should ask for their money back, right?

You go home and you do study. You give up halfway through because there are just too many pages. But you decide to give it a chance the way you’ve been trained. You try it out.

Of course, things went wrong initially. But as it turns out, it works OK. Some new stuff to learn (centralized purchasing, checklists, visual planning, that sort of thing) but over time you find that the pressure is letting up. Things seem to run just that little bit smoother so that you have time to breathe. And you do breathe. It’s nice to be able to concentrate on the important stuff, like actually building stuff. You start to recognize the things that you did in the last project. They get easier and you do them faster.

However. You’re used to being you own man, to be the key player in your area. You’re used to rolling up your sleeves in the face of unexpected problems. You’re used to planning every project, every week and every day after the unique situation you’re in at the time. That’s what gave you the energy to excel. That’s not happening anymore. The work has become predictable. You groan when you think about it. This can’t last. It is simply too boring.

The backbone of systems building is repetition, albeit on many different levels, but there is always the ambition to utilize the things we’ve learned and do them again. We came a long way on the learning curve in the last project, let’s reuse that. You’re not into repetition.

Both your clients and your managers seem to be happy with the new systems building concept but you’re not. So you start to feel bored and out of touch with the atmosphere of your company. You do have the opportunity to give suggestions for improvement of all the processes and checklists, but submitting email suggestions doesn’t bring out the best in you. There is no challenge. You start to consider leaving the company for some place where you can continue with the adventure that construction used to be.

At that précis moment, immaculately timed, that manager calls for a new meeting. During that meeting, He announces the company’s next step in systems building. That step is … what?

Today, that’s my question to you and to myself. Considering the drivers and character of yourself and your colleagues, is there a way for us to develop and/or implement systems building so that we keep the spark alive? We so desperately need to build on the commitment and energy of our colleagues. We need to retain and develop the everyday drivers for their best efforts. Not just because it is efficient and good business, it is also the right thing to do. Employees with drivers to improve do better work and stay longer. What are those drivers, and how can a system that builds on repetition be reconciled with an industry and workforce that build enthusiasm on the spur of the moment? Without such drivers present, our systems and fine diagrams of value-chains, gates and efficiency in deliveries will be worth exactly nothing.

At some point, when I have read a paper or two and have an idea for how we could make this happen, I’ll come back with a new post on it. That’s the kind of thing that makes ME tick.

Images, Flickr Creative Commons: Happy Golden by Muffet, and Bored dog by Benoit Dupont.


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Posted by teraccount Fri, December 09, 2011 10:41:37

Dan, I'm all for automation in construction. And there are two arguments why this will NOT result in creative engineers wanting to slit their wrists.1. The more we automate, the more time we have to look at other items that get knocked down the priority ladder e.g. embodied carbon calculations etc.2. Designing the automation can be as fun as designing the product. I mean check this out:http://www.dezeen.com/2011/11/24/flight-assembled-architecture-by-gramazio-kohler-and-raffaello-dandrea/This is where automation is so cleverly designed (in the form of construction robots) that you can't help but get excited. There is always room for tweaking, and thats what makes us engineers - solving problems, coming up with more efficient and effective solutions.

Posted by Dan Engström Fri, November 11, 2011 23:03:15

Thanks Andy. I think you are absolutely right. This relates to systems building not so much in that it introduces oversight (checklists rather) but in that systems building introduices a new element in building design: configuration. This is my case: systems building (might be called industrial construction, building manufacturing and so on) builds on products - pre-engineered, customisable buildings. If we can reach a fair market share by standardising a framework and some credible options, why not do so - that kind of argument. So, engineering design (in fact, all design) for this market share becomes the general product development (which is about as much fun as can be had in engineering) followed by customisation in the specific project. Customisation can be more or less complex. Complex customisation would be close to regular engineering, simpler customisation would be more of configuration of preset components. It is this last task - configuration - that worries me. It will take a big chunk of time out of the week of some of our colleagues. It is a vital part of standardisation but hard on creativity. We need to solve this. Let's mull it over together. Good luck on your run!

Posted by noynek Fri, November 11, 2011 22:49:16

Struck a cord there Dan. In the drive for efficiency and lower costs the ability to be individual and do clever new things is removed by the introduction of processes and procedures that takes away our individuality and ultimately demoralises the workforce. Whilst process streamlining does result in efficiencies it has to allow woollyness at the edges for innovation to flourish. People need to be trusted too. We are professionals. Let us do the job without stupid levels of oversight. How this relates to system based design I'm not sure. I will mull it over on my run tomorrow and elaborate further if inspiration finds me.

Posted by Dan Engström Fri, November 11, 2011 22:15:35

Thanks Erik. Good quote! I agree of course. and we can turn it around: A disinterested person will defeat a good system anytime too. If we develop something without taking this into account, we're going nowhere.

Posted by Erik Söderholm Fri, November 11, 2011 14:39:00

Deming was, in my opinion spot-on when saying; “A bad system will defeat a good person every time.”
Still, I think (again) you are on to something crusial here; how can we motivate everyone to participate, and equally important, making sure that they find this part of their work rewarding?