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Time to fill the leadership vacuum

Just as Henry Ford re-wrote the rules of car-making we need imaginative leaders to do the same for construction. By Michael Brown

Thomas Edison, who gave us the light bulb, said: “Hell, there are no rules here - we’re trying to accomplish something.”

To me that sums up leadership and what it can do - not just for a company, but for an industry.

History is peppered with people who changed the rules overnight. There was nothing pre-ordained about Henry Ford becoming America’s top-selling car-maker after he left the Edison Illuminating Company.

When his Model T came out in 1908 there were over 70 car manufacturers in Detroit and elsewhere.

These were the days of wacky car designs - open buggies, tillers instead of steering wheels - but the Model T had shocking innovations: steering wheel on the left, solid-cast cylinder housing, and covered engine and transmission. Overnight these became standard.

With his eyes on the general user, Ford also made it, at $825, the cheapest in the land.

A far-sighted strategy

In 1914 he doubled his workers’ wages to $5 per day. Everybody thought he was crazy, except every talented mechanic in Detroit, who now saw no good reason not to work for the Ford Motor Company.
By 1918 (the price now cut to $360) half of all cars in America were Model Ts.

It’s not politically correct to compare the construction industry with motor manufacturing. But I believe there is a leadership vacuum in the UK construction industry and there is much for us to learn from the best of manufacturing.

Companies have made names for themselves in admirable ways, but it’s still an industry plagued by waste, inefficiencies, conflict, injury and death.

Does it ever change? I think it does. Looking back a little beyond our career spans, construction used to be about vertically integrated family firms and strong trade associations.

Now it is minutely fragmented supply chains, anonymously managed plcs, and quasi governmental ‘reform agendas’.

Re-writing the rules

So where do we go from here? That is where leaders come in. Just as Henry Ford managed to re-write the rules of car-making, somebody could re-write the rules for construction. I’ll stick my neck out: the construction leaders of tomorrow will be those who marshal advantage in three areas:

 Human capital: Being able to attract and intensify the commitment of the best talents.

 Politics: Finding a way to work more imaginatively with the whole supply chain.

 Technology: 4D modelling, for instance, lets data flow to all project stakeholders, which increases efficiency.

These are tricky areas to exploit, but it can be done. Building Travelodges from fully-kitted ship containers from China is what I call imaginative thinking - and leadership.

What it comes down to is being able to cut through the million tiny reflexes and the habits of the mind that act as a dead hand over the industry. No one changed the world by following the rules.

Michael Brown is deputy chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Building