More than a century ago, manufacturing found a way to enhance productivity and cost-efficiency while also making complex products more widely affordable. 

We can thank Henry Ford’s assembly line process for that. In fact, we might go even further back to 1794 when Eli Whitney patented his Cotton Gin with its simple replaceable parts. 

The construction industry does not seem to have evolved quite as quickly or as effectively. But can we compare manufacturing and construction? 

Sure, the construction industry is highly complex. Some might say it’s more complex than automotive or other areas of manufacturing, but complexity is not the issue. 

The high degree of fragmentation and siloed disconnection is our problem, combined with a lack of collaboration and trust, where behaviors are driven more by individual self-interest than what’s in the best interest of the project. We’re not aligned (and there are few things more aligned than an assembly line).

There’s also a view that construction is different because each project is unique, but that’s not really true. Think of foundation systems, for example. While the shapes may vary considerably, the process for making them is largely the same. 

Why did Ford create an assembly line? Because it augmented the skills of his human employees while minimizing their weaknesses. In construction, too, we should start with the human element as a point of considerable variability. 

There’s a high level of human contact at every level in construction processes, and where the people-content is high, the variability is high. Repetitive tasks are often the ones most prone to error. When actions become habitual, we frequently cease to think about them in terms of improvement opportunities.

Technology can provide elegant solutions. Computers have better memories than we do. They are more rational and faster at calculations, so we can leverage them to do some things better than we can. 

At the same time, we need to think about simple and intuitive human interface design. Technology is a dead-end if we don’t think about the human users involved. There’s no point pushing information or technology when people can’t use it or if it’s in a form they can’t understand. 

Take Smart Contracts as an intuitive solution. Humans are not willing to work closely with others they don’t know or who have not been proven trustworthy. Smart Contracts build-in trustworthiness in contract execution and blockchain provides verification of compliance at all stages of the contractual process. 

As such, Smart Contracts address our lack of faith in others. Trust and transparency are integral to how they work. It’s a technology that enables humans to trust each other before and during project execution, even if they have had little to no personal interaction previously.

Henry Ford said that if he’d asked what people wanted, they would have asked for faster horses. Horses were the only solution they knew so they sought a variation on that theme. Later, with mass acceptance of the automobile, a new normality was born.

Construction is close to that tipping point, but we need to go much further. The Construction Industry Institute’s Operating System 2.0 (OS2) initiative is currently educating and conducting research aimed at defining new ways of doing business in the capital projects industry and it’s absolutely directionally correct. 

A goal we can all aim for is a “neighborhood” culture in which we recognize we’re a connected community and that acting together for the good of the industry as a whole (i.e. being a “good neighbor”) will benefit all stakeholders.

Henry Ford also said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” A positive attitude and taking active, collaborative steps to improve our business environment is necessary to be an agent of change.

Horse or car? History already has made the choice for us.

PrairieDog thanks Dean Reed, Director of Lean Construction at DPR, for his time and his insights. 

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