Innovative ideas from construction site workers can enhance value and drive productivity
Innovation involves the implementation of new ideas that generate benefits for an organisation. Innovation for the construction industry is seen as key to not only maintaining a competitive edge but also delivering projects faster at higher quality and at a reliable value. A lot of innovations that are implemented to improve productivity in construction are top-down driven without much involvement from construction site workers or the firms that directly employ them.
Unlike other industries, the construction industry is dominated by higher number of Small and Medium Enterprises (SME’s), whose capacity to engage with innovation is not the same as larger organisations. Some have observed that the industrial characteristics of the UK construction industry restricts large scale innovation and that small construction firms are limited in their ability to adopt new processes. However, the site level supply chains are constantly experiencing problems for which they need to either make-do with reduced productivity or find new solutions that improve value and productivity. This raises a challenge across the construction industry of how the site level supply chain can be empowered and supported to drive change from bottom-up through innovation and value contributions.
During a series of three (3) workshops on innovation and value, site workers explored the concept of value and innovation and how these related to their everyday work. The participants were asked to take part in a game called Creative Connections©. The game involved participants answering a series of questions in sequence relating to stakeholders and values on a specific project. They had to identify the important stakeholders on the project on coloured rectangular cards. On each of these pieces of card the participants identified key stakeholders such as their own senior management, the main contractor, suppliers, residents, sub-contractors, site supervisors, client, and local community. Participants were then asked to identify what value they create for the various stakeholders by writing these on post-it notes and placing them under each of the stakeholders they previously identified. The answers needed placing on a hexagonal board as shown below:
Participants also asked to indicate which of the stakeholders create value for them by using a string to connect all the relevant stakeholders. Participants had to observe and discuss what they had created on the Creative Connections © board. Finally, the concept of innovation was explored with participants, where they had to reflect on all the areas of value they had identified and suggest innovative ways of improving value through their work on site.
Participants identified a broad range of value they contribute to different project stakeholders. They identified for instance that they provide a defect free high-end finish for the client, create increased profit and a good work environment for the main contractor, state-of-the art facilities, and investment into the local economy for residents, perfect delivery and achieving the completion date for their own senior management. While money was raised as an important factor to the participants in terms of value, they also valued the quality of interpersonal relationships on site and those who enable them to complete their tasks. One participant identified that they had previously seen social value on pre-qualification questionnaires (PQQs) but often ignored these and will now consciously consider how their activities contributes towards this aspect of value.
In terms of ideas that that could help participants gain a competitive edge or improve their productivity and add value, a total of 16 innovations were suggested across the 3 workshops on innovation and value. These comprised of 5 product innovations and 11 process innovations. The process innovations included suggestions for improving site communication, enforcing clean hand-overs, retention of apprentices to complete their training, sharing positive feedback, supporting non-English speakers on site, and employment of non-construction people looking for a career change. This was a significant outcome given that participants were initially accustomed to thinking about innovation in product terms rather than processes that needed to improve.
One of the product innovations identified related to modifying the size and weight of plasterboards, which could improve manual handling, and the safety of the aging workforce. This enabled the development of innovation proposal that was put forward to the manufacturer to investigate different configurations of plasterboard sizes and weights.
These outcomes demonstrate that the experience of those that work directly on site can be very key to innovation and value addition on projects if they are provided with an enabling environment to bring suggestions forward.