Knowledge will lead to action

By - , Build 129

A starting point to improve building and construction productivity is having a holistic understanding of the local industry. The Productivity Partnership has made the first steps, identifying important knowledge gaps and the key research questions.

To quote from the Productivity Partnership’s Draft Research Action Plan, ‘lifting the productivity and profitability of the building and construction sector in New Zealand requires knowledge’. While we already know some things, much remains elusive.

Fixing lack of local research focus

Consequently, one of the main focuses of the Productivity Partnership is to find out what information is needed to develop a holistic view of the building and construction sector before setting out to make it more productive.

‘Until now, there has been very little research that directly relates to construction sector productivity,’ says Dr Helen Anderson, leader of the Productivity Partnership’s Evidence Workstream.

‘What research has been carried out is largely uncoordinated and involved only a handful of organisations. It also focuses solely on understanding the factors that contribute to low productivity and summarising overseas initiatives to improve it,’ she says.

‘There has been no local view of what can be done, nor the development of tools, products and processes to raise productivity.

‘For instance, we know that New Zealand has a large proportion of single-person firms – around 32,700 in 2010 – but no-one has looked at the best way to get quick uptake of new technologies that might increase their productivity long term.’

Now, the Productivity Partnership’s Evidence Workstream has taken up the mantle and developed a Research Action Plan in order to identify the most important knowledge gaps and the key research questions that need to be developed into research projects.

Until now, with the exception of work undertaken by BRANZ and the Construction Industry Council (CIC), the building and construction sector has not had a document that offers a best guess at the knowledge needed to make it more effective and efficient.

Report identifies research questions

The Research Action Plan, which was circulated late last year for consultation, suggests that, outside of business as usual (BAU) problems such as the economic climate and interest rates, the Canterbury rebuild, leaky buildings, the Auckland 30-year plan and Wellington’s earthquake preparedness provide an opportunity to understand more about the drivers of productivity, to trial and implement measures to improve it.

The plan also poses seven key research questions ranging from very high-level issues, such as how the sector actually works and why poor performance isn’t sorted out by the market, through to how the boom/bust cycle can be moderated by better procurement by government.

Other, more practical, issues that need examining are:

  • how clients know they have got a good product
  • how the Christchurch rebuild is changing the perception of standardised design
  • how we can build better business skills in the one-man bands.

Industry on similar wavelength

Feedback from the industry on the plan didn’t deviate too far from the draft document, apart from emphasising the need to understand the real costs of compliance in residential construction. A project looking at that by examining information from volume builders over a number of years is already under way.

Other feedback identified that quality is often seen as a direct trade-off in ‘profitable’ construction, so there need to be better ways to get long-term client value in the mix.

Putting the plan into action

The Research Action Plan is intended to be a mix of urgent, short-term projects and longer-term, but equally important, research. As it will require government and industry partners on most projects, the plan recommends initiating research or supporting existing research on the highest priority questions.

According to the workstream, these are:

  • identifying productivity measurements
  • industry structure and process
  • sector innovation line value
  • lessons learned from the Canterbury rebuild.

Implementing the plan has already begun with support from Scion, BRANZ and the partnership. A series of case studies revisiting the Construction Clients Group’s Pathfinder Projects is already underway, examining what aspects of those successful projects contributed to productivity improvement. Other research will seek support from the Ministry of Science and Innovation and relevant industry groups.

Looking for practical productivity measures

‘The research outlined in the action plan will contribute to the development of practical productivity measures. These can be used at both the micro and macro level and will help to focus on the improvement that will provide the greatest leverage in terms of increasing productivity,’ says Dr Anderson.

Success indicators developed so far, and identified in the report, include more standardisation of design and build, better planning and procurement and greater investment in training and education.

The most important indicator, though, is the partnering and collaboration of all of those involved in the partnership.

Joint effort is the key

‘The key to successful research, indeed the success of the whole partnership, is industry, government and research agencies working on this together,’ says Dr Anderson. ‘If we are to achieve 20% improvement in productivity by 2020, then it definitely needs to be a combined effort.

‘None of us can do this alone, without the help of others. If we manage this, then we will be a long way along the road to an improved, productive, skilled, innovative and efficient building and construction sector that contributes to increased business profitability and quality of life for all New Zealanders.’

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