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Construction site systemic change

Systemic change – people or tools first?

Author: Tuomas Hakulinen
Published: 26.11.2020

Well now, we’re building the future of construction, and fast. We’ve got takt times, data-drives, leading with data, industrial construction, condition monitoring… AI and automation are available for sites. Sounds like starting Ford production back in the day – the industry is going to completely transform itself!!! Well, for sure it will, but while we’re over the top excited about it, do we fail to remember that also in the future, the key to everything will be people?

How does this change show in the daily life on construction sites? Has building turned into ”assembling” a building? Does the production proceed like in a Japanese car factory? And what about the quality – simply the best even when trying to achieve the average? Nope! In fact, not so much has changed in the real site life, at least not yet. There are successful projects here and there but they remain single diamonds in the gray mass of daily work.

But how can this be!?! Nobody can disagree with the benefits of the Toyota way and Lean. Nobody can argue that takt production wouldn’t be efficient. Conditional monitoring simply must help in building drying. Daily management, real-time situational awareness, and Last Planner – ask any site manager and they’re all simply better than what we had before. These are scientific facts!

There seems to be this one thing in common in all this development stuff, to throw them to a construction site like into a moving train, and then wait for the results.

So this makes a great dilemma for us. Everything has basically been solved already, we have the technology and even practical successes here and there. But despite this, most construction sites are what they’ve always been. It’s not a question of money. It is, most of all, a question of processes and ways of working, rather than financial investments.

Let’s take digitalization for starters. Can’t argue it wouldn’t be good. It’s important, and even quite a cool thing, that we can collect all that data. With digital tools, we can communicate, gather information, manage and visualize. We can make use of the data, combine it, and share with different groups of people in pretty packages to support decision-making. But the thing is, they’re only tools. You can throw the fanciest sets of power tools into a bathroom renovation site and still get no results. Or, from another viewpoint, have you ever heard anyone say wow what an efficient electrician that was ‘cause he had such good tools? What I’m trying to say is, no tool will ever change anything for you. Committed, skilled people will.

In addition, change scares us. What if it doesn’t work out? It’s easy to see new things, especially digital ones, in a suspicious light. “Yeah I don’t know, it might be those carpenters won’t want to / know how to / be bothered to…”. But what if they will? All of us running around the site – carpenters, electricians, material deliverers, supervisors, even the probably-never-got-anything-done folks – we’re all people. And a person, then, is kind of like the algorithm that defines how the tools work. For that, we need the tools to be the kind that help us people. And so the digital tools, too, are only any good if they genuinely make work easier for us people. Because no matter how automagic we make things, it is us people who do the work. And that makes people the most important key to everything.

Ever heard anyone say wow what an efficient electrician that was ‘cause he had such good tools?

Earlier I mentioned that the change doesn’t depend on financial investments. But it can depend on investing on people. There seems to be this one thing in common in all this development stuff that’s going on these days, and it is to oftenmost throw that stuff to a construction site like into a moving train, and then wait for the results. Too often, the office folks who do this development work for their living, simply wait for the fruits of their labor to drop into their laps. But the people on the sites build for their living, meaning they actually already have a job to take care of! Luckily, there are also development teams that understand this and consider it when bringing new things to the sites. And the fruits come, really, when they bring themselves to the sites, and learn about how to build from the knowledge that the site teams have. So here, too, changes that are useful and enduring only come when worked on together.

To top that, the main contractor – subcontractor model puts the people into different companies, like different camps. If the main contractor wants the supply chain to join, or to make any progress happen whatsoever, this is where the investments need to be. Subcontractors have no interest in doing the development work for the main contractor if they don’t benefit from it, too. Either economically, or in a way that makes their lives easier somehow. Continuity, possibility to influence, trust. How did we lose the feeling of belonging where the site was one team? This team spirit we need to bring to developing the construction industry; The feeling, that we’re here together. Nobody makes this change happen alone.

To sum up, we can get the newest site gear, power tools, headlamps, leathermans and spare batteries, top that with our tablets and devices, and know our Lean studies, but even then, there’s always going to be the machine driver in there – a person. The external stuff, technology, theory, science and tools we have pretty well figured out already. Now we’d still need to develop the people in the system to the same level, too.

About the Author

Customer Success Specialist at Fira Smart, Tuomas Hakulinen brings his expertise to his words from the sites. Tuomas has work experience of over 10 years from construction sites in site management, where he drove forward operational development from within the site. On his last pipe renovation sites, Tuomas took part in developing the schedule management system Fira Sitedrive, and eventually moved on to continue this work full time in the Fira Smart team. However, a huge part of his work time is still spent on jobsites – nowadays in the role of training and consultation to help sites deploy digital solutions.

Contact Tuomas – he may very well pay you a visit, as well!

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