Reduce error to meet productivity challenge6 Dec 21
Error reduction is a key target area for improving productivity in construction and infrastructure projects, and sits squarely under the efficiency challenge, said Ed McCann, director of Expedition Engineering and ICE President, in his keynote presentation to the GIRI members’ meeting on 10 November at the ICE in London.
In his role with Expedition Engineering Ed has been working with HS2, looking at the delivery of innovation across the programme with a focus on productivity, and he shared some key findings from this project.
“The first thing we looked at was what productivity means in construction and infrastructure. We looked at the situation across industry and internationally and we read a lot of reports.”
An early challenge was agreeing a definition of productivity. “There are multiple definitions in use even within the sector, so we tried to get back to the fundamentals, and ended up with a process definition – inputs, activities, and outputs. We framed productivity through the optics of effectiveness and efficiency, where effectiveness is related to the quality or value or scale of the outputs and efficiency is a ratio of outputs to inputs or how wasteful we have been in the process.”
The resulting definition adopted by HS2 is: improving productivity means increasing both effectiveness and efficiency. “This is fine at the process level, but we do not build processes. HS2 is a programme, so how do we turn that definition into something that works in a programmatic context?”
This requires an understanding of projects and programmes and work to define inputs, outputs, and outcomes, said Ed. “And context. We need to understand the role of context on processes when we talk about productivity.”
They also looked at inputs, drawing on lean principles used by manufacturing that don’t include money as an input but instead consider things such as time and human capital. Ed pointed out that while this is useful for infrastructure, the inputs are not the same. “For example, manufacturing does not consider land or eco-systems as inputs, but infrastructure uses a lot of land and destroys or creates ecologies. Also important for infrastructure is social capital. You build social capital when you get communities on board or get support from MPs and you blow it when you make mistakes. So, we have inputs and project outputs, but how do we turn these into programme outcomes?”
As to the question of what drives effectiveness, Ed said that on infrastructure programmes it comes though specifications and design. “The choices about what a project is going to do, its value and scale and so on, are there when a client decides they want a railway. But it also crops up all the way through the design process. Designers decide how requirements will be manifest and they are defining them right up to the point where the contractors start building.”
Efficiency, on the other hand, is the elimination of waste, so if you put those together you end up with a productivity challenge for an infrastructure project expressed as maximising the effectiveness and efficiency of the programme through the optimisation of requirements and the elimination of waste.
“This shows how GIRI and error reduction dovetails with the overall productivity improvement agenda. From the beginning we articulated that error is essentially process non-compliance that results in waste. Error is a key source of waste in infrastructure projects and a key target area for improving productivity, so it sits squarely in the efficiency part of the challenge.”
That challenge, said Ed, “is even worse than we thought”. He explained that while the initial GIRI research looked at the consequences of error, this recent work revealed that what happens before errors occur is fundamental to productivity. “We found that designers expect errors to occur, so they overdesign everything – either because they expect mistakes to be made in the design, or by contractors, or that clients will make changes. We never looked at this aspect before. We never asked what people are doing because they are worried about errors.”
He also touched briefly on the role of error reduction in reducing carbon, pointing out that getting things right first time can help towards achieving net zero and can reduce project costs, therefore should be a high priority for businesses.