We began our infrastructure programmes in the UK construction industry with Diplomas in Construction Process Management accredited by the University of Cambridge (UCLES) and part-funded by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB). These 12/15 month, action learning, part-time programmes focused on improving project performance with particular reference to integrating the construction supply chain.
The first programme was done in one of the UK's largest civil engineering companies. They contracted with CBS to solve one of their biggest problems, that is, the lack of integration of their supply chain which was characterised by a culture wedded to operating in isolated professional silos and defending professional vested interests (designers versus project managers) and deep-seated scepticism and resistance to change. This led to low productivity and adversarial relationships. To drive itself out of this regressive spiral the Company argued they needed a step change in behaviour and a radical change in the processes used to deliver projects. The action learning programme was designed to begin a process of introducing these changes and solving this pressing business problem.
This programme included the managers from the Company's clients (Highways Agency, Thames Water), their consultants and their suppliers and subcontractors together with project managers, quantity surveyors and finance managers from the Company. The programme consisted of the central elements of CBS programmes, that is workshops customised to the needs of the participants, individual and group projects and PDPs. The workshops were conducted by subject matter specialists from the industry, universities and senior managers from the Company and their supply chain. The programme lasted for 15 months and consisted of five 4-day modules made up of workshops, group projects work and supervised work on individual projects and PDPs.
The action learning programme solved the problems of lack of integration of the supply chain, resistance to changing the conflict ridden culture and operating in isolated professional silos.
In this workshop the participants were divided up into 3 group project teams. Their first task was to begin to remove the negative perceptions the occupational groups had of each other. For example, the project managers criticised the designers and sub-contractors and these sentiments were reciprocated assertively. The issues were teased out and documented and solutions discussed. Presentations were given on the learning process, on the practices which characterised excellent companies and on best construction practice which featured replacing single project relationships with long-term multiple project relationships based on collaborative contracts; early involvement of specialised suppliers and learning and improvement from project to project etc.
Participants were asked to reflect on their previous experiences, to suspend existing judgements and consider the views of the other interest groups and learn to modify their 'mind sets' via a process of making a different sense of their previous experiences of conflict in collaboration with their colleagues on the programme.
A strong, team based, non-adversarial, collaborative spirit emerged as did a 'meeting of minds' over boundary issues between designers, project managers, subcontractors etc.
Developing this new meaning to relationships and to partnering between organisations was continued in the group project teams, each made up of individuals from the different interest groups. Each individual continued the process of reflecting on their negative perception of others while they were working on a problem of strategic significance to the industry which they had been party to selecting. Over the months a strong, team-based, non-adversarial collaborative spirit emerged which resulted in not only producing excellent group projects, but a 'meeting of minds' over the boundary issues between clients, designers, engineers, project managers, quantity surveyors and sub-contractors.
One of the group projects created a new procurement strategy for the Company, based on enhancing performance and profitability, not just a means of reducing costs to the detriment of suppliers. Another looked at improving total factor productivity via superior utilisation of capital, materials and people on sites. A third group mapped out in detail the seven key business processes identified in the corporate strategy and identified the gaps in implementation, particularly on projects where there was little evidence of following the corporate strategic intent, which was lost in the freneticism of project delivery on site.
These projects made a major contribution to the performance of the projects represented on the programme. The measure of effectiveness of action learning projects is whether they are used in the business. The procurement strategy report as an example was adopted as THE company strategy, ie the pinnacle of acceptability!
Group projects created a new procurement strategy, improved total factor productivity and key business processes.
Three executive directors of the Company were given the job of mentoring each of the three group project teams and on three occasions presentations were made to the Company's executive committee. The CEO instructed each of his directors to incorporate the key findings from the programme in their directorate strategy implementation plans. This was reinforced by representations made by participants on the programme in the management meetings of their directors, which led to modification in working practices in departments not represented on the programme.
Each individual was required to define and implement a BIP covering all the activities in their construction projects and departments. Guidance was given in the workshops, the group project meetings and the personal tutorials on what should be included in the BIPs. Part of the BIPs had to deal with how the company business strategies were cascaded into each construction project and down to individual managers and engineers. Considerable success was achieved in the effective management of this strategy cascade process and the performance management systems which drove this process.
In addition, the Programme Director stressed, to the participants, the importance of involving their subordinates in the decision-making process and using the implementation of the BIPs as the vehicle for individual and departmental learning.
These BIPs led to significant improvements in the construction projects run by those on the programme and in the relationships between the suppliers represented on the programme and the Company due to the emphasis placed on supply chain relationships by the participants. Parts of the BIPs of the suppliers on the programme were aimed specifically at propagating the partnering ethos of the programme to others in their parent organisations.
The line managers of the participants were all very positive about the improvements in the personal performances of the participants and the use of BIPs in improving the outputs on their projects through the action learning process. In particular, they featured the increased leadership competence demonstrated by the participants in areas such as improved: