We’ve all heard it before >> “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
In many cases these are smart words to live by. They prevent us from potentially messing up something that is working well, and they keep us focused on solving existing problems rather than creating new ones. But there is a key problem with this philosophy: it prevents innovation.
History has proven across industries that innovation drives business growth, and that companies who don’t innovate eventually get left behind. While change may come more slowly to construction than other areas of the economy, it isn’t immune to the basic forces that drive business success.
Construction companies that innovate will outperform over time, but it isn’t going to happen by maintaining the status quo.
Tradition and experience have always been important factors for the construction industry – probably moreso than many others. When there are competitive projects, firms who have existed longer and have performed more of the type of work required will always have an advantage.
But is that changing? Is innovation becoming more important than tradition?
I would argue that it is changing, and fairly rapidly. Building owners increasingly care about factors like the use of technology, the transfer of data, and the ability to collaborate. That’s why topics like BIM, IPD, the cloud, and COBie are getting so much attention these days.
As an example, a developer said to me the other day:
“I’ve sat through hundreds of contractor presentations, and at some point they all start to sound the same. They talk about how their firm is 100 years old , how most of their work is pre-negotiated, and that they value quality. Then they introduce their estimator and say ‘Joe is the best. He’s been doing this for 35 years and knows it all.’ Then they introduce their superintendent and say ‘John is the best. He’s been doing this for 25 years and knows it all.’ There is usually very little to differentiate them.”
According to this anecdote, the contractors focus on experience much more than innovation or technology. (Note: he also said that they’ll mention BIM, but don’t know quite what to say about it yet…)
Why can’t they emphasize both?
A quick survey of contractor websites will confirm the bias towards valuing tradition more than innovation. Every firm mentions when they were founded, but it is much more unusual for them to talk about how they search for new and better ways of doing business.
That mindset needs to change.
The consistent focus on tradition keeps the industry looking to the past, and it prevents people from trying new methods and technologies. Experience is highly important, but when it leads to a fear of / resistance to change, it can be damaging.
Construction companies should start to examine their basic business processes and look for ways to improve them. In essence… it ain’t broke, but try to fix it anyway. This is exactly how efforts like Kanban, 6-Sigma, and other Continuous Improvement methods have revolutionized other industries; it can easily happen in construction as well.
Example Questions to Ask
They need to start reviewing and optimizing the way things get done. One good way to do this is with new technologies that have been developed specifically for that purpose. Then they need to talk about this innovation – and the technology that helps enable it – to differentiate against the competition.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that tradition and experience are not highly important. I’ve heard “technology doesn’t build buildings, people do,” and for the most part I agree. (Although, watch out for 3D printing…) But I am suggesting that they are becoming more of a “hygiene factor” that contractors need to have, but aren’t really a big differentiator. I’m also suggesting that the focus on history at the expense of innovation is holding companies – and by extension the whole industry – back.
Technology is evolving quickly, and the companies that don’t try to keep up by proactively adapting will struggle to play catch-up, while the innovators prosper and grow.
In a future post I’ll examine the risk involved with innovating and how to mitigate it, but I’m curious… what do you think about the need for innovation in construction methods and processes?
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