Pressing pause to avoid error has never been more important

Ahead of the next ICE Strategy Session, Tom Barton of the Get It Right Initiative discusses how the message that eliminating error significantly reduces costs will be fundamental to the survival of many organisations once we return to normal working practices.

Eliminating error in the construction industry
Eliminating error in the construction industry
  • Updated: 21 May, 2020
  • Author: Tom Barton, Executive Director of Get It Right Initiative

One of the central messages of the Get It Right Initiative’s (GIRI) ongoing campaign to eliminate error in the construction industry is the importance of ‘pressing pause to eliminate error’. Sometimes it is better just to stop and take a moment to check that what we are doing is right.

But what happens when we are forced to stop suddenly, and under conditions in which we might not have access to the people, the information or even the technology that we need, to check what we are doing is right? Unfortunately, when we don’t have all of the necessary data, and we don’t revise the plan properly, we risk making things worse.

Covid-19 presents a huge challenge not only to the country as a whole, but also to our industry. There is absolutely no question that when we resume ‘normal’ working, there will be even more pressure on costs and resources, and GIRI’s message that eliminating error reduces costs significantly will be fundamental to the survival of many organisations. Whilst we are facing monumental uncertainty at the present time, the one thing that we can be sure about is that there will be a huge squeeze on costs and a drive to much greater efficiency.

Whilst key studies suggest the direct cost of avoidable error is around 5% of project value, our research among our industry members and their supply chains, both in the UK and internationally, revealed that the true figure is a great deal higher.

Eliminating error
Eliminating error significantly reduces costs in construction

When unrecorded process waste, latent defects and indirect costs are included, the situation gets much worse. Estimates of the total cost of errors range between 10% and 25% of project cost or between £10–25 billion per annum across the sector.

When many sites have been closed for an extended period, the consequent disruption and lack of continuity is likely to create conditions in which error frequency will increase. We anticipate that the restart has the potential to cause a spike in error - exacerbating the ten root causes of error that we identified in GIRI’s Strategy For Change report, as well as creating new causes.

Our members have told us that the main challenges they predict for the restart are how they will manage and motivate staff; the underpricing of future works, or the ‘race to the bottom’; sustainability of supply chains; reduced productivity; the legal implications of delays, and the potential loss of competence.

Availability of materials and the potential for inappropriate or lower quality substitutions; adapting to new ways of working; unknown errors that might have arisen due to the loss of face-to-face communications; and incomplete work that might take time to be identified are just some of the issues that the industry anticipates once work starts again in earnest.

So what can we do to address these issues, and is technology the answer?

While technology has a part to play – and I will talk more about its benefits and barriers to its adoption in the webinar – there are many other steps that we can take that will contribute to and support the drive to eliminate error.

Our research shows that many of the root causes relate to design; this is not because we have poor designers but because our culture does not enable designers and constructors to work together in a way which eliminates error.

GIRI’s Guide to improving value by reducing design error sets out twelve ways the industry can work to reduce error during the design process; these recommendations resonate almost perfectly with comments we are hearing from those such as Pell Frischmann director Joe Burns, who in NCE recently urged the industry to use this time to engage engineers ahead of the curve and allow schemes to be delivered more efficiently and effectively.

Now is the perfect time to take stock of what we are doing, reflect on how we are doing things and learn what we can do to improve them.

Specialist training courses developed by GIRI with its members, and knowledge-sharing webinars and lectures such as those being put together by the ICE have a vital part to play in this process. In common with many other organisations, GIRI is adapting its training support, education and communication procedures to give as many people as possible the opportunity to take advantage of this time in a productive way.

The industry must seize the moment and press pause; we need to change. We cannot afford not to improve the way we do things.

I will be joining representatives from ICE, Tony Gee and Partners and Dr Anne Kemp next week in the latest ICE Strategy Session. We’ll look further at these issues, and discuss how technology can be used to eliminate error in design and delivery in the construction industry.

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