Why is construction so backward?

Hal Macomber and I have been talking about construction messes for many years. He regularly says good things on his blog, Reforming Project Management.

I use the word “mess” to refer to a situation that cannot be responsibly characterized as a problem, or even as a collection of problems. A problem is something which, by virtue of the idea that there are “solutions,” presents itself as sufficiently well understood that skilled and intelligent people can bring solutions to it. A leaking faucet or a car that is not working is a problem. An automobile accident is a problem. A simple illness is a problem. Modern construction is not a problem. It is a mess. It begs for a historical reconstruction and the creation of new interpretations, from which whole new approaches to making offers, organizing the work, and conducting the work, will be born.

Yesterday Hal cited an article in the Boston Globe entitled, The Industry that Time Forgot, by Barry LePatner. In the article, LePatner talks about the recent extraordinarily rapid repair of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, as an example of evidence that other futures for construction are possible. The author says, among other things, “The modern construction business hasn’t changed significantly since the first steel-frame skyscrapers began to rise in the early 1900s. Early tall buildings such as the Tribune Tower in Chicago and the Woolworth Building in New York grew too complex to remain under the purview of a single “master builder,” the architect who knew and supervised every detail of the project. Instead, each required an assembly of specialists — electricians, plumbers, heating contractors, excavators. Dozens, then hundreds of companies arose to handle those systems, each a local family-run shop that drove its truck to one project at a time. Today, in 2007, that’s still basically how the business works.”

What a wonderful opportunity!

As I write, I am listening to Scott Joplin’s Heliotrope Bouquet, from 1907, and the music fits perfectly. A lyrical piano piece 100 years old that would have been lovely accompaniment to a segment of a Charlie Chaplin comedy – perfect music for “modern” construction. Click here to hear the music played on YouTube by Andy Koehler.

John Prewer, called “the Godfather of modular construction,” recommended that I read Why is construction so backward a couple of years ago.

Anybody out there read it? I have found that most of my friends in the construction industry are not even aware of its existence.

10 thoughts on “Why is construction so backward?

  1. Why is construction so backward? Because the industry insists upon it! It’s not connected to market forces. And works hard to stay as disconnected from them as possible. It both smothers under and insists upon regulation. This encourages focusing upon satisfying letter rather than spirit. And leaves little room for anything innovative.

    Blind bidding encourages rigidity. Cost, rather than value focus encourages managing as if these were expenses rather than investments. We judge goodness by comparing actual to expected cost, not value to actual cost.

    It also insists upon adversarial relationships, as if these would keep everyone honest and everything above-board. It seems to encourage extended games of liar’s poker instead.

  2. To David and Bob:

    Thank you very much for commenting! We (Greg and I) like the spirit and direction of your comments, and have some questions for you. How would you help the industry understand what you mean by “value”? In the background of your comments, are you thinking of the “Design-Build Model” for understanding the overall process of conception-design-construction? If we were going to prepare ourselves to intervene in the industry, to address its “backwardness,” what would you recommend? Finally, have you read the book, and if so, what do you think of it?

  3. David Green

    I work for the NSW Govt. and our approach to our construction suppliers attempts to deal with some of these problems. We pre-qualify our suppliers into two panels: ‘best practice’ and ‘the rest’. We get quarterly performance reports on all projects, with the scores being used to guage contractor quality and capability. Lower scores mean fewer tender opportunities. We use selected tender panels, not open tenders, so we know the capability of our tenderers. We also use a cooperative form of contract (GC21: check it out at: http://www.managingprocurement.commerce.nsw.gov.au/system/index_contract_forms_gc21.doc
    Using this form of contract we’ve seen a huge reduction in contract disputes and better on time performance.

  4. Robert Wilson

    The concept of value at any moment should include some strong associations with the “what are we trying to accomplish together”. The concept of value, to be measured, seems to me a complex nest of concepts. There is the money which we can easily count. There is the timing which we can just as easily count. There are the changes that we can easily count and combine with the counting of the money and the time. There are far more concepts that are part of the nested Value concept that some traditions might tell us are UnKnown an Unknowable. These “softer” things are where value really is – in us together and that is probably why we don’t spend much time on them – it is deemed by many as too philosophical. Maybe this elusive assessment of value is part of the cause of backwardness in industry. I think it is safe to say that the backwardness not only exists in Construction, but in many other industrial places where we are trying to make life happen. Much work here that puts us at the center and doesn’t try to make Value a thing that is just seen and touched.


  5. Pingback: construction bidding

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