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Making the most of specialists

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The subbie is dead - long live the specialist contractor. This is a fundamental part of the message in the latest report from the Reading Construction Forum Unlocking Specialist Potential. The report, by Mohammed Saad and Martyn Jones of the University of West of England, sees the specialist contractor as a Cinderella.

Contributing up to 80 per cent of the value of projects, they are often treated as social pariahs. The move towards a change in title is part of the drive towards rehabilitation. The problems that specialist contractors encounter are divided into three main classes: adversarial relationships, fragmented processes and a lack of customer focus.

'Most of the problems we have identified in construction,' said Saad, 'are similar to those already addressed in other sectors.' Although their aim is to achieve the 30 per cent savings demanded by the Latham report, they suspect that the total savings could be as much as 70 per cent, as achieved by other sectors.

The report divides problems into those that specialist contractors can deal with alone, those that require co-operation, and those which have to be solved by other members of the construction team. The most powerful parties, the authors believe, are clients and contractors. Interestingly, Jones criticises some contractors for a crime more often laid at the feet of architects: abrogating responsibility. 'There is a key role for a prime contractor,' he said. 'But some main contractors have missed a trick, and have lost their influence over the process.' He contrasted this with the automobile industry where, although there is increasing outsourcing, 'the main car assemblers have held on to a lot of expertise and knowledge. A lot of main contractors have lost that knowledge.'

The report identifies the following factors as inhibiting specialist contractors:

unrealistic project programme

undue emphasis on cost rather than value, producing fierce competition and reduced margins

Dutch auctions

perceived poor status of specialist contractors

onerous contract conditions

unreasonable payment procedures

unclear statements of requirements

insufficient focus on customer-supplier relationships

lack of clarity of agreed requirements with customers and suppliers

irregular flow of work

insufficient project planning

poor flow of information

underdeveloped management and interpersonal skills.

On teamwork and collaboration, the report recognises the difficulties specialist contractors face with some quotes, the most poignant being: 'Partnering is where a group of contractors get into bed together - the trouble is the main contractor usually has all the bedclothes.'

But it insists on the importance of teamwork and partnering, based on:

choosing the right partners

sharing risks appropriately

devising profit-sharing schemes

forming and agreeing procedures for resolving disputes

open-book costing

setting targets for continuous improvement.

The authors recommend a process-oriented approach to work, similar to that adopted in the automotive industry. Changes in traditional working practices should include:

more complete and integrated design information

realistic project scheduling

identification and management of the risks involved in the process

project partnering

both project and strategic partnering leading to shared project and corporate objectives

integration of design and construction processes

early involvement of specialist contractors

more complete and integrated design information

sharing of learning with other project partners

improved exchange of information

better design management

greater standardisation of products and processes

targets and specific improvements for raising the performance of specialist contractors

a measurement of progress.

Emerging strategies being taken up within the construction industry to increase customer focus include:

recognising that there are internal as well as external customers

concentrating on achieving customers' objectives

negotiating a complete and clear customer brief

incentives for teamworking

adopting partnering agreements

shared project objectives

payment for design input

involving specialist contractors early in the process

intra-company feedback

improving information exchange

making the process visible.

The 56-page document has numerous case studies, illustrations and lists. The authors acknowledge that specialist contractors are very busy, but they believe this is one report for which they must find time. Since so many of the recommendations require co-operation with other members of the construction team, it is relevant to all players.

Unlocking Specialist Potential by Mohammed Saad and Martyn Jones is published by Reading Construction Forum, tel 0118 931 8766, price £20

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