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A move in the right direction? A lot more will be heard of M4I in the coming months, but what is it and what relevance does it have for architects?

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technical & practice

The publication of Sir Michael Latham's report Constructing the Team in 1994 drew little attention and only a few people read it. However, with wider press attention focused on the Construction Task Force follow- up report, Rethinking Construction - otherwise known as the Egan report - two years ago, people began to take notice.

The purpose of these reports into the state of the construction industry was to address the 'deep concern that the industry as a whole is under- achieving'. The ubiquitous 'targets' were set and, to a certain extent, the usual suspects were rounded up to focus on improving the problems of profitability and quality.

Out of this process has come the Movement for Innovation, cleverly abbreviated to M4I; the practical side of the Egan review. The M4I was established to bring about a radical improvement in the way in which the construction industry and its clients work together. Some of the anticipated benefits include improved value for money for clients and increased profits for suppliers. M4I speaks the language of 'customer' satisfaction.

So what are the ways of improving the performance of construction processes? There are a variety of guidelines on offer, but primarily, board chairman Alan Crane suggests that we should 'learn how non-value-adding activities can be removed'. Even though this all sounds like a politically correct way of downsizing, innovation is certainly essential for a modern and competitive construction sector. After all, architects are just part of the supply chain now.

The process

M4I involves an assessment of a construction project, or part of the scheme process, to see whether those established ways of working that architects take for granted, can be improved. It may apply to the whole scheme - or to the procurement or production processes separately - but at the very least it calls on the construction industry to rethink its working practices. Because the Egan criteria primarily concern the way a client liaises and a contractor sub-contracts, the architect is not portrayed as a central figure in the process of innovation in many of the demonstration projects. However, with the broadening out of partnership arrangements, this is set to change and will inevitably draw the architect into the 'movement'. Making architects aware of alternative ways of doing things, and getting them to consider buildability, for example, can be no bad thing, provided that it means that they actively think of solutions, rather than resorting to 'tick-box' bureaucracy.

A checklist of performance indices, known as 5/4/7 (see page 35), recommends that each stage of a job be assessed to confirm the best resolution to a given problem. While this may sound like commonsense, there may be a tendency for this to give rise to a technocratic response to construction issues. M4I already reads like a New Labourist five-year plan, insisting that the time from client approval to practical completion be reduced by 10 per cent, that there should not only be 'zero defects but (it should) be right first time ... stripping out waste, whether it be in design, material or construction on site', with 'annual reductions of 10 per cent construction costs'. Fortunately, most of the architects interviewed here recognise construction's need for built-in flexibility and are trying to pick the relevant bones out of the M4I 'process', to reflect the reality of work on site.

Partnering is the new buzzword. Even though the Task Force recommends that we 'respect all participants', it is possible that the new partnering opportunities will be open to abuse. Consensus may not always be possible and there is no way of legislating conflicts out of construction. The days of contractual handshakes are long-gone and ironically partnerships will inevitably have to be backed up by stringent contractual documentation. Fixed-cost schemes, for example, may not necessarily result in value for money projects; with the competitive edge taken out of the equation. On some schemes cost savings made as a result of on-site negotiations may not necessarily accrue to the client, but be recycled back into the pot of fees. However, there may be as many benefits as drawbacks. For team members to become more aware of each others' roles and responsibilities can only be a good thing for construction.

Unfortunately, the information contained on M4I's poor and inadequately updated website contains an over-abundance of platitudes, ('Quality means ... exceeding customer expectations'; 'a no-blame culture based on mutual interdependence and trust', etc), and there is a sense that this is a moral crusade. Whatever the justification, architects should realise that the M4I juggernaut is gathering momentum.

The Appendix to the Key Performance Indicators Report for the Minister of Construction, available from the detr (tel 0870 1226 236) sets out examples of Client Satisfaction Survey Forms, and Quality Registers from which to assess performance. The Construction Task Force is keen to expand the scheme. If you want to register your project, forms are available online (www.m4i.org) or you can call tel 020 7505 8563.

Professor Dan Jones, one of the world's leading experts on the application of lean thinking, will be speaking at the M4I conference on 22 May at Interbuild 2000.

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