Productivity: a debate we need to have
In the boom, the industry’s output and employment rose while productivity remained static. Post-recession, with fewer jobs, we have to turn our focus to productivity, says Judy Lowe.
As the latest swathe of results and forecasts for construction shows, the sector continues to face really tough times, and the much-anticipated recovery is forecast to be long and slow. With this difficult backdrop, it’s crucial that construction businesses look at every opportunity to give themselves a clear competitive advantage.
Running a productive company must clearly play a key part in this. But what does that mean? There has been little research into construction productivity, nor is there much information out there on drivers for change. So the time seemed right for CITB-ConstructionSkills to commission a research company to start exploring productivity in more detail.
The researchers spoke to 150 construction companies of all types and sizes. The first, and perhaps not surprising finding, was that almost a third of those surveyed couldn’t immediately provide a general definition of what productivity meant for the industry. Even among those who felt able to supply a definition, there was no consensus.
But while a general definition of productivity remains elusive, there is clear agreement about the importance of specific productivity measures. Some 85% of companies said that project level productivity was very important and 72% that it was very important at task level. Individual companies go to great lengths to measure organisational productivity and do so using a variety of tools and metrics supported by good record keeping.
The researchers also found that companies understood the factors that limited their productivity. A quarter cited availability of resources (such as materials and manpower) and the same amount planning; 19% referenced the skill levels of their workers; and 17% management abilities. These limitations were also mirrored in the actions being undertaken by companies to improve productivity — with 25% of them focusing on applying best practice; 21% focusing on training and development; 19% focusing on improving communications; and 14% on better management skills.
That said, the report also revealed some real areas of concern. Nearly two thirds of companies claim that clients have an impact on productivity, through changing plans or imposing penalties, yet only 45% had discussed productivity with their clients. Although the vast majority of those surveyed discussed productivity issues with some of the workforce, almost a third did not discuss it with site workers, and a quarter did not discuss it with subcontractors. Some 13% of companies felt that financial constraints were holding them back from improving productivity, and 10% felt held back by the attitude of the workforce or individuals.
So what can be done to help the industry be more productive? First, there’s a need to move beyond an internal, self-defined understanding of productivity. For example, only 13% of the firms questioned for the research benchmarked their productivity against anyone else. Comparison is almost always in terms of what the individual company has done before, with no reference to any industry standard. Looking at ways to provide the industry with guidelines, measures and comparators is an area where further research will prove invaluable.
Both in the main survey and accompanying interviews, there was almost universal agreement that multi-skilling the construction workforce would boost productivity. Not just to enable tradespeople to tackle more than one job, but also so they have an understanding of the issues involved in related trades, making teamwork more efficient. This is something that training providers must also consider, as well as those involved in qualification development.
Offsite manufacturing was also flagged as a key driver for productivity — CITB-ConstructionSkills has already invested in developing courses and training in this area, and it’s something we must continue to focus on to ensure we have a workforce with the right skills.
On a practical level, in-depth surveys with experts, undertaken to support the report, show that better communication and more collaborative working could also have a major impact on productivity. On site, managers need to communicate with workers and subcontractors, and it’s equally important that the workforce is willing to listen to and communicate with site managers.
Making sure that communications channels are always open is something that can be done immediately by any organisation, and costs nothing, but it can show an instant productivity benefit.
There’s clearly a great deal that needs to be done in this area. But if construction is to be better placed to withstand both tough economic times and periods of growth, efficiency and productivity will be key, at both a macro and micro scale. The time is right to start this debate, and to focus our energies as a sector on finding some answers.
Judy Lowe is deputy chairman of CITB-ConstructionSkills