Creating a positive culture around error

14 Jun 22

Eliminating error has the potential to make a bigger impact on profit margins than any other initiative, Duncan Aspin from VolkerStevin told GIRI members at the summer meeting last month. His presentation outlined the development of VolkerStevin’s error-reduction strategy, the Quality Ripple, from which he shared key learnings.

This initiative is focused on creating a positive culture across the whole organisation. “Our approach is to engage with everyone in the business, at every level and in every department,” said Duncan. “Too often when we are looking for improvements, we focus on projects, and yet the success or failure of what happens on site depends on decisions made at the tender stage or during preconstruction.”

Duncan emphasised the importance of giving enough time to the planning stages of projects and how this can save time in the long run. “In construction, we often make time our enemy, but if we avoid that ‘bucket in the ground’ mentality of needing to get on site, we can actually do the job right.”

He explained that the programme is not about creating more procedures: “I think we all recognise that if we did what we are supposed to, we would make a huge difference”. It is about creating a culture where staff actively want to ‘get it right from the start’ and began by identifying the challenges facing people across the business, where change was necessary, and the barriers to that change.

VolkerStevin’s approach has three core principles: positive, inclusive, and future-focused. “Why are these elements so important?” Duncan asked. “Firstly, by being positive we create an environment in which people go the extra mile, and that generates the continuous improvement we are all looking for. We do this by creating ‘psychological safety’ – making people feel safe getting involved, stating an opinion, and being heard.”

Harnessing the experience of everyone in the business is essential. “We need to listen to the people doing the work. They know the problems and quite often they also know the solutions. And if you involve people in change, you foster that sense of ownership.”

The third core principle, the future-focused approach, does not mean ignoring lessons from past events. Rather, said Duncan, it is about creating a culture of looking for solutions and ways to improve. “We have used this positive, inclusive, and future-focused approach in everything we have done. It started with initial workshops working on particular challenges within the business. And we got so much good information about business performance from this that we were able to do more specific workshops. We selected a group of people to become our change agents – individuals with credibility within the business who would be listened to.”

VolkerStevin then organised a series of roadshows to engage with staff and formulate its quality strategy. The roadshows used GIRI research to raise awareness of both the cost of error and the opportunity costs. “GIRI talks about the 5% direct cost of error. In our business, with our turnover, if we could eliminate that error, we could make another £9.5 million of margin. Even if we halve or quarter that figure, that’s a bigger impact than any other initiative we could implement to improve our margin. And that really got the board interested.”

The roadshows saw GIRI’s root-cause analysis applied to issues within the business and got people thinking about the relevance of certain behaviours. The events were also an opportunity for teams and departments to work on their own action plans. The information gathered contributed to the formation of the Quality Ripple strategy, which focuses on three things: reducing errors, improving consistency, and creating a positive culture.

“Reducing errors improves margins and enhances customer confidence, which is essential if we want to work with quality clients,” said Duncan. “By improving consistency, we drive compliance and the understanding of what it is we want to achieve. It also creates certainty both for the business and our clients that we will deliver on our promises and on the specifications. And fostering that positive culture creates an environment where people are passionate about getting things right from the start.”

Duncan outlined some actions that arose from the roadshows, including the development of an online learning system to educate staff about the business’s management system at a level appropriate to the individual. 

VolkerStevin also initiated ‘expectation exchange’ workshops with clients. “Too often it is not until well into a job that we start to appreciate the client’s expectations. We want to understand this from the beginning, including handover requirements.”

Finally, sister company VolkerFitzPatrick developed an application for disseminating lessons learned within the business, making it easier to gather information and building it into existing processes.

Duncan finished by sharing some key lessons. “Know what you want to change before changing it. That’s what our workshops were about, and we spent two years on these. Ensure you have senior management buy-in from the start. Use credible change agents and make use of existing processes – don’t put more burden on people. Address quality improvements across the whole business not just specific projects. And, most importantly, engage with all your people.” 

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