Changing the course of engineering construction

I have heard it said that accountants know the cost of everything and the value of nothing, and that newspaper editors sort the wheat from the chaff and print the chaff.

In a recent post, it has been suggested that the barrier to the uptake of Advanced Work Packaging (AWP) is that decision-makers need to be persuaded as to the ROI on AWP. Assuming that they are neither accountants nor newspaper editors, my view is that they are asking the wrong question. Some say the definition of insanity is continuing to do exactly the same thing (badly) but expecting to achieve improved results. It is no secret that reports by well-informed industry practitioners, observers and commentators reveal that the ROI on engineering construction is, in the main, not sufficient for a sustainable industry. Would you invest your own money in engineering construction? I have not and I have no intention of doing so until the engineering construction industry makes fundamental changes to reverse the progressive decline in ROI that has occurred over the last fifty years, compared to other industries that have reinvented themselves in the way they organise and conduct business – one must presume that insanity did not prevail here.

If the decision to adopt AWP turns on the ROI that can be generated by it, that suggests a certain expectation of AWP in the context of improved project performance that single-handedly reverses the decline in the industry ROI and a level of investment that needs to be made in AWP – neither of which appear to be realistic or relevant. AWP is a tool, and as with all tools, the benefit is derived from the way they are applied and used – enter the human element! Some say a fool with a tool is still a fool. Make no mistake, all the indications are that AWP is a very good tool that can contribute considerably to improved project performance provided it is used to its maximum potential, but no tool, no matter how well used, can single-handily reverse the trend in declining engineering construction industry ROI. Reversing that decline requires a fundamental re-think by the industry about how projects are conceived and delivered. This is about mindset and behaviours. There are indications that a re-think is taking place – it’s about time! The benefits of real collaborative working are beginning to surface and hopefully will soon start to hold the middle ground and substantially replace what has become accepted practices that thrive on a concept of winner-takes-all and the race to the bottom in contracting arrangements.

Collaborative working practices are enablers to maximise the benefit that can be achieved from AWP used in conjunction with other existing and developing interventions and tools such as Lean, Last Planner, Digitalisation, Standardisation, BIM, Factory Thinking, Pre-assembly, Digital Twin, etc.

Therefore, in my view, the question that decision-makers in engineering construction need to ask is:

Do we want to enjoy the level of ROI achieved by comparable industries and if so are we prepared to fundamentally change the way engineering construction projects are conceived and delivered?

This is not a question about the cost and benefits of individual improvement initiatives and tools, it is about determining and taking actions needed to assure the long term survival and prosperity of the engineering construction industry, globally. AWP and other initiatives and tools are a positive step in the right direction, but we must go much further and faster as an industry. We are now entering a phase of significant technological change with decarbonisation, energy transition etc, so surely this is time and provides the opportunity to coincide technological developments with the fundamental shift in how engineering construction projects are conceived and delivered. To the decisions makers, I refer them to some well-known sayings,

You can look before you leap if you want to, but ultimately you will have to leap … and remember, he who hesitates is lost.

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