We are shaped by the way we were brought up, what our parents taught us and what we learned from our teachers and mentors. Many people are shaped by the history of their country, and some even bear scars and hate because of it. History can teach us many good things, but used incorrectly, or manipulated it can be damaging. Unfortunately even today, countries are prepared to go to war based on historical inaccuracies.
So also in construction, how we did previous projects can serve as a valuable lesson, but sometimes it can be a hindrance. What we learned from our managers and the people that worked around us can serve as valuable experience, but sometimes it can also be detrimental.
We always do it like this!
Don’t you hate it when you propose a different construction method and someone says no, it’s not necessary to change, since we always do it like this? How quickly is innovation stifled!
Sure the previous way may have worked – but was it the best solution? Anyway, are those methods appropriate to the new project? Every project is unique in many respects.
We cannot automatically assume what worked before is the best solution now. Don’t let your history blind you, or indeed the history of another person deter you, or give you the wrong sense of how things should be done.
What we can learn from history
Our projects can supply much useful data, especially when it comes to pricing our next project. This data includes:
But is history always reported correctly?
I’m sure the history most of us learned at school has changed? But how is this possible – history is history and can’t change? Unfortunately people view history from different perspectives, and the hero in one person’s version of history could be the villain in another’s version of the same historical event. Most history school books are distorted in some way to give the version of history that suits the current values and norms, which are often dictated by the government of the day. So too in construction, we have to understand how reliable the history is that we are getting.
The history of past projects is often distorted by who is telling the story. After all, the project manager is always quick to blame the estimator for errors that were made in the pricing document which cost the project money. The estimator will blame the project manager for a poor project result. Project managers are quick to claim that they and the construction methods selected were the reason for a project’s success, when a large proportion of the success could be ascribed to the project price and schedule having ‘fat’. In fact, maybe the project could have been even more successful if other construction methods were chosen, if another more diligent project team had managed the project. Using that same project team, that appeared successful, on another project sometimes leads to problems which then surprise management.
Of course the client’s team will blame the contractor when a project goes wrong when problems could be due to their own project team. Not understanding these problems could mean they are replicated on the next project.
It is important that facts are recorded accurately so that there can be no debate about what went wrong and what mistakes were made. It’s important that systems are in place to monitor and record the health of a project. That reports and meeting minutes are accurate. That facts don’t get changed or go missing. But of course it is equally important to question and analyse the data that’s presented, so that inaccuracies are detected.
Does what worked in the past apply to our situation?
The Vikings won many battles with axes and swords, swiftly moving along rivers in their longboats. Well the strategy that worked (which was cutting-edge then) isn’t going to work today because the world has changed. We need to take what we learned from our past projects and apply them sensibly to our new project. We need to understand what’s different with our new project. Every project is different in some way, with a different; team, client, contract conditions, specifications, design details, weather conditions, topography, ground conditions, etc. Even the company’s circumstances may have changed, and of course things even change in the country with financial conditions varying and the availability of materials, skills and finance differing. We need to take what worked on previous projects and adapt it to suit the different conditions. Even identical projects probably won’t cost exactly the same!
Our teachers and mentors
I feel sad for those new to the construction industry who have to rely on poor managers to teach them, managers who sometimes haven’t a clue how to manage a construction project properly. We often have the blind leading the blind.
I was fortunate that I had many good managers, and also many good supervisors and foremen from whom I was able to learn. Sure, there were also poor managers, but I was able to use their example as how not to do things, because I had so many good teachers, examples and mentors.
So there are many in the construction industry today, who have learnt poor methods from their history. Unfortunately, sometimes this is self-inflicted because a person chose to follow a bad example, instead of a good example. Sometimes we choose not to question those in authority, or we choose to believe those who are supposed to be teaching us. Often young recruits to the construction industry select who they work for based purely on salary, or where they can advance the most. They fail to understand the importance of working for a reputable company with good people and mentors, where they’ll get a sound grounding in the proper construction methods and practices. We don’t always have to be the victim of a poor history. We don’t have to be disadvantaged by our history. Always question if what you were taught is actually the best way of doing things. Always look for alternatives. Even be prepared to change companies to learn the correct way of doing things.
Of course the older knowledgeable and experiences people owe it to the industry to pass their knowledge to the next generation.
It’s always important to learn from our past mistakes, even from the mistakes of others. Regrettably, we all make mistakes, we’ll all make the wrong decision sometime. The sad thing is when we don’t learn from these mistakes.
But, we cannot accept that history is always right, or what worked on the last project will be the best solution on our next project. We have to be prepared to ask questions, to try new solutions.
The history of our next project is in our hands. We owe it to those following to ensure that the facts are accurately recorded on our project. That when things go wrong that the blame is accurately apportioned – not so that those who caused the problem can be punished or victimised, but rather so that everyone can learn from the mistake and not repeat it again. The truth shouldn’t be hidden, nor should it be dressed-up as something it wasn’t. We need to ensure that we have reliable reporting systems in place and that the data inputted is accurate.
But when we use these facts in pricing our next project, or to plan our next project, we must understand not only the reliability of the historical facts, but also understand what is right for our new project, what is applicable and what should be used.
We cannot be blind to the history of our past methods and projects, because there are often valuable lessons to be learned. But, we also cannot let this same history dictate the methods and planning of our new projects. We have to be open to new ideas and methods.
So next time you decide on a construction method or action, ask yourself if your decisions are being influenced by history alone, or have you put real thought into selecting the best and most appropriate methods based on the current situation.
Next time don’t be so quick to squash innovative ideas by saying we always do it like this or, it worked on our last project. Let’s also consider new technology and innovative solutions. Let’s always look at new ways to shape the future of our project. Our project does not have to be a victim of our history, but also let’s not make the same mistakes that occurred on other projects.
This article is adapted from information in the author’s popular books: 'Successful Construction Project Management: The Practical Guide' and 'Building a Successful Construction Company: The Practical Guide' and 'Construction Project Management: Tips and Insights'
'Construction Claims: A Short Guide for Contractors' is another of Paul's useful books.
Paul has recently published 'Construction Management: From Project Concept to completion'.
These books are available on Amazon and other online book stores.
Paul publishes articles regularly on LinkedIn and his website.
Paul writes regular articles for other websites, gives lectures, mentors, and is available for podcasts and interviews.
© 2017 This article is not to be reproduced for commercial purposes without written permission from the author.
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The opinions expressed in the attached articles are those of the writer. It should be noted that projects are varied and different laws and restrictions apply which depend on the location of the contractor and the project. It's important that the reader uses the supplied information taking cognisance of their particular circumstances. The writer assumes no responsibility or liability for any loss of any kind arising from the reader using the information or advice contained herein.
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