Learning from success, learning from failure

A main idea that I promote on this website is that identifying and adopting guiding principles is a key issue in successful problem solving. We can learn about such principles by observing how successful projects are managed and from identifying the reasons for failures when they occur. In this post I analyse one of each of these from the infrastructure sector.

Success: the procurement of Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport

In the 1990s BAA (then known as the British Airports Authority) had plans for a significant expansion to their infrastructure. In particular they intended to build a new Terminal 5 facility at Heathrow. A study of such projects worldwide showed that it was common for them to be heavily over budget and significantly late in completion.  How could such poor performance be avoided?

The conventional bidding process for contracts was such that contractors had to look to claims in order to make a profit. The relationship between the contractors and the client representatives was confrontational. BAA decided to do it differently.  They invited firms to form partnerships with them guaranteeing them continuing work. To keep contract costs down, rather than using competitive tenders, BAA staff worked on improvements in the contractors’ supply chains. BAA took ownership of all risks and paid contractors for work done at negotiated rates. This required open accounting and trust – more information here.

Terminal 5 opened on time within the budget and to specification.  What fundamental principles supported such achievement?

  1. BAA challenged conventional wisdom.  They refused to accept that the ‘way it is normally done’ was the way that it should be done
  2. They operated as a ‘competent client’. They appointed expert staff on their own payroll who were able to take a system view of the project and ensure that all partners were focussed on the client objectives.  But it was not, it could not be, one-way traffic; the client sought to ensure that their partners’ objectives were also met.
  3. They used collaboration rather than competition. All parties worked together to meet the project goals.

Failure: the Grenfell Tower disaster.

In June 2017, an internal fire at a low level in the 24 Storey Grenfell Tower residential building in London caused the cladding to ignite. This external fire spread rapidly sideways and upwards.   72 people died.  It was evident that the specification for the cladding was faulty.

The ensuing 2018 report by Dame Judith Hackitt on the regulatory system for high-rise and complex buildings identified a number of ‘deep flaws’ in the processes for design, construction and maintenance. In her Personal Statement in the report she wrote: “At the heart of this report are the principles for a new regulatory framework which will drive real culture change and the right behaviours.” In other words, using good principles, i.e. good ethos, is a key objective. In particular, an ethos for risk control – a central issue in complex problem solving – needs to be addressed.

What can be learned?

In professional practice, regulations, such as the building regulations, are used as main strategy in the control of risk. Designers sometimes reluctantly comply with the regulations and treat that as the only source of risk control. At a recent IESIS talk, Stephen Payne, the designer of the Queen Mary 2, said that when designing a passenger liner, he took the regulations as a starting point for safety assessment. This ties in with a statement in Dame Judith’s report that safety should be assessed on a case by case basis.

   Near the city of Edinburgh are three long span bridges across the River Forth. In the construction of the Forth Rail Bridge (completed 1890) there were over seventy fatalities; for the Forth Road Bridge (completed 1964) that number was seven.  While the factor of ten reduction was a significant improvement, seven deaths would now be considered to be totally unacceptable. In the construction of the third bridge, the Queensferry Bridge (completed in 2017), the single fatality was considered to be an aberration. The difference now is that on construction sites, at least on major sites, a safety culture is adopted. Everyone involved in the enterprise seeks to improve the safety conditions. All employees are invited to propose improvements for safety and managers are required to respond appropriately.  This is the case in other contexts.  Visit a nuclear power station and you will sense the aura of a safety culture.

    Dame Judith’s report shows that this type of thinking was needed in the procurement of multi-storey buildings in the UK.  A safety culture approach needs to be adopted not only for site safety but across the procurement and maintenance processes. Clients, designers, contractors and regulatory authorities need to work together towards such adoption. 

   Having a safety culture infers the use of the principles identified from the Terminal 5 situation: (1) Challenge conventional wisdom –  it is important that even the regulations are challenged; (2) Competent client –  the client must take an active part in the risk control process and (3) Collaboration of all parties is a key issue.

   Adoption of a safety culture has the very important advantage that the concept of whistleblowing is discarded. People who make suggestions for improving safety are thanked and possibly rewarded rather than being vilified. This applies to all aspects of risk control. If, as a manager, you do not welcome colleagues pointing out errors and suggesting improvements, you should not be a manager.

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