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Keynote lean conference speaker cites ‘broken’ industry

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by Warren Frey

The construction industry is broken, but a new approach might fix it. That's the message Brxton Construction president and CEO Bill Black delivered in a keynote speech entitled Is Our Industry Broken? at the inaugural Lean Construction Institute – Canada conference held recently in Calgary, Alta.
Keynote lean conference speaker cites ‘broken’ industry

The construction industry's tendency to build silos between different stakeholders is doing harm across the board, Black said.

"We have created isolationism as a form of survival, which is our biggest challenge," he said.

Different sectors of the industry have different models for doing business, and "there are threats to their business that they have to protect themselves against and in doing so, they often pass the threat on to someone else."

Symptoms of a broken system, Black said, include the fact new ideas have to be defended and that low price commodity selection "drives all."

Success is measured on the wrong parameters and most of the default habits of the industry are "self-taught," he added.

"It's obvious that this industry is hard wired for adversity," Black said, adding construction is a "culture of fear, manifested through bad behaviour and money."

Though there is a persistent myth that contractors make money from change orders, Black asserted the opposite is true.

"It takes a long time to put together those change orders and you destroy relationships, create tension, and the industry suffers long term," he said.

But a potential solution to these roadblocks lies in lean construction practices, he said.

"Lean isn't about trial and error. Lean is about trial and learning," Black said.

Lean construction means not repeating mistakes, he added, and constantly revising and improving one's approach to work.

"You can learn and manage and work within a lean environment, because it creates predictability," Black said.

The challenge for 30- and 40-year construction veterans who struggle to adopt lean practices is that they have previously worked in an unpredictable environment, Black added.

"You didn't know what would happen next and it took you about 40 years to recognize what might happen," Black said.

Lean construction provides more discipline and "a consistency which could actually allow people to become very effective over shorter periods of time," he added.

But Black contends to fix the construction industry, action is needed immediately.

"We've kind of buried our heads in the sand. It's human nature, and our industry is no different. If anything, it's worse," he said.

Another stumbling block for construction has been demographics. As a boom and bust industry, it has kept away new talent during "bust" periods.

Hiring not only the young but those from outside the industry will help break the ideological logjam of current construction practices, he added.

"The next generation also doesn't want to participate in a highly adversarial industry, unlike previous generations. The older generation is also challenged by confident, plugged-in 25 year olds who can see past the habits they've worked with throughout their careers," Black said.

People are the true value proposition in a lean construction environment, he added.

"The more people with mutual skin in the game, the better teams will work," Black said.

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