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Boosting productivity requires a serious rethink

A recent report from the Economist Intelligence Unit has revealed that 74 per cent of construction professionals believe lagging productivity is a major challenge recognised by their leadership.

At the same time, 48 per cent of those professionals believe that their leadership has failed to come up with a coherent strategy to address the problem.

The difference between these two figures is informative.

It confirms what you already know: that solving the challenge of low productivity in construction isn’t simply a matter of tweaking a few workflows, Gantt charts or contract clauses.

‘Low productivity’, like ‘high-risk, low-margin’, is one of those unfortunate labels which has hung around the industry’s neck for too long.

Serving up a toxic mix of raised costs, added risk and increased waste, it reduces margins and mitigates opportunities to add value to our built environment.

“Solving the challenge of low productivity in construction isn’t simply a matter of tweaking a few workflows”

Yet construction professionals are rarely ‘unproductive’.

Passionate workers

They’re hard-working, often care passionately about the projects they deliver, and are highly innovative (in a low-margin industry you have to be…).

It’s perhaps unsurprising then that the report highlights the top four factors presenting the biggest challenges to increasing productivity, at the level of an individual firm, reside in the greater stakeholder community, outside of the firm’s control.

Industry professionals cite a lack of skilled talent, clients’ chosen procurement practices, requirements posed by governments, and aggressive project timelines.

These are all factors that an individual contractor can react to, but is largely powerless to shape.

So how are companies responding?

The top response was: “More rapid uptake of emerging technologies by contractors, suppliers and clients”.

The report found that while the use of productivity-enhancing technologies is currently widespread, it is not yet intensive, thus creating clear advantages for early adopters to achieve a competitive advantage.

But they have to be willing to both commit the time and the training necessary to make these tools effective.

Leading-edge technology does keep companies at the forefront of innovation and boosts productivity, but requires continual investment and training.

For instance, Turner Construction achieves this by making training part of every kick-off meeting to ensure subcontractors and clients understand their roles in each project and are empowered to be as productive as possible.

BIM takes to the stage

When it comes to new methodologies, virtual design and construction and building information modelling were chosen most often by industry professionals as the technologies best positioned to boost productivity over the next three years.

“Tackling the productivity challenge at the industry-wide level though requires a commitment to long-term structural change”

In fact, in the report BIM was cited as an important innovation to boost efficiency.

Tackling the productivity challenge at the industry-wide level though requires a commitment to long-term structural change from all stakeholders across the industry.

A common willingness to build long-term relationships, adopt value-based procurement, and switch to more collaborative approaches that reward all parties equitably for focusing on common goals, were the report’s consistent themes.

However, that type of change isn’t going to happen overnight.

Historically it’s proven elusive, but as the market for construction services becomes increasingly globalised, the question is: can the UK construction sector afford not to?

Dominic Thasarathar is construction industry strategist at Autodesk

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