How can the industry speed up infrastructure project delivery in line with the ambitious challenge recently set out by the government? Simon Kirby from The Nichols Group offers some ideas below.
I have spent the majority of my professional life delivering major infrastructure projects. I have seen the benefits infrastructure projects can bring to individuals and communities across the country. To this end, I approach the government’s call to speed up infrastructure delivery as someone who cares about infrastructure being at the heart of improving the prosperity of Britain’s society. Given the current global crisis resulting from Covid-19, this seems even more of a priority than ever.
Whether it’s hospitals, schools or transport projects, improving the country’s infrastructure is a great way of stimulating the economy by improving connectivity, livelihoods and society as a whole.
Now working for The Nichols Group, who specialise in strategic change, especially in major projects, I see opportunities to significantly improve and streamline project delivery and as the prime minister put it – get Britain to build, build, build.
In my experience, similar issues crop up time and time again, irrespective of sector. I have always believed we can be much faster in project delivery and having seen the speed with which the amazing teams delivering the Nightingale hospitals worked, I am more convinced than ever that it can be done. This is not the first time we’ve seen project delivery done efficiently at speed as a nation. The Olympic Park is a great example of this. The Olympics has no room for negotiation on timeframes which serves to focus teams and aligns everyone to that goal.
So then, we know that infrastructure projects can be delivered much more effectively and at greater speeds and the government is right to challenge industry to cut back delivery times. In many cases, wasted time can make up as much as 50-60% when compared to international benchmarks. In the era of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have learnt just how valuable time is. The last few months have forced us to be quick, bold and flexible, more so than we’ve had to be for many years. We should learn the lessons from society’s pandemic response and approach projects with the same energy, flexibility and momentum.
And if we can cut out time, we can also cut out cost. If we can make projects faster, everyone benefits. It reduces uncertainty for those impacted by projects and delivers the positive social impacts quicker. As an engineer it’s easy to look at projects as engineering exercises, but ultimately projects are there for one purpose only – to enable people to have better lives and society to prosper.
But part of the reason projects get delayed is down to changes made by politicians and other decision-makers. In order for a project to succeed, it needs clear requirements that don’t change. This is true whether that is a hospital, railway, or an extension to your own home. No matter what the purpose of the infrastructure project, the requirements must be agreed early and fixed. Any successful project needs a vision set either by government or by private funders, and that vision needs to be able to stand the test of time. Politicians need to create a vision and policy, and then follow through on the plan with conviction – not relaunch every 12 months.
With political support and the project requirements fixed and aligned to local or national needs, the foundation is built for a successful and faster project.
Creativity and diversity of leadership is essential to success. Teams created to deliver a project all with similar experience of one sector tend to recreate environments that they are comfortable in, but that in my view doesn’t create the step changes in performance that are possible. Of course, a team must have sector expertise but that doesn’t mean a successful team is one that solely has that same expertise. Diversity is essential. Quite often standards become institutionalised and without challenges stemming from diversity of thought, the paradigm doesn’t change.
With all of the momentum behind infrastructure right now, it’s essential we learn the lessons of the past. I am particularly passionate about the need to embrace diversity in all its forms. Too often leadership teams are ‘pale, male and stale’ and we need now to actively embrace a greater diversity of people, more diversity in thinking, and more diversity in types of expertise if we are to respond to the needs of the modern world.
To enable a major infrastructure programme to succeed, the governance and bureaucracy surrounding it needs to be as streamlined as possible. In my experience this is rarely achieved. Good governance is essential to any programme, whether privately or publicly funded, but the governance must again be focussed on delivering the right outcomes. Governance can easily become cumbersome and slow and is often created by focussing on short term issues without emphasis on vision.
Creating speed in project delivery and momentum for success has a large dependency on the supply chain and establishing who the delivery organisation is is essential early in the project. Creating innovation and a design that is quickly buildable to high quality means the delivery suppliers need to be heavily involved early in the design process. Great design is one that balances the project outcome and the needs of the delivery teams tasked with building it.
I have seen this principle holding true on many projects from a gas turbine engine through to a railway programme like Kings Cross (pictured above) or Blackfriars Station. It also allows the whole supply chain to be aligned and incentivised commercially to deliver the client requirements. With requirements fixed, diverse leadership challenging the norm with a motivated and aligned supply chain, innovation will follow.
Industries that have made step changes in speed take most of the above for granted and focus much more on innovation and reducing lead times further. Just one example (of many) in the UK rail projects sector is the use of modularisation. Just look at the timescales to build a medium sized railway station and a similar scale retail development. By creating modular solutions, there are benefits both in terms of speed and quality of delivery but also in allowing for more sustainable builds.
So, there is much to be done and we as an industry need to look at ourselves in terms of how we need to change to improve delivery performance. The prime minister has set us a challenge to speed up big projects. From my point of view - challenge accepted.
Simon Kirby is an associate for The Nichols Group, former chief executive of HS2 Ltd and former managing director at Network Rail.