So in the final part of our series on Dr Who and the Clockwork Contract we have now explored time travel, quantum physics and the indirect impact Erwin Schrödinger has had on the construction industry… yes, really… but is our project on time…. and where is Dr Who… read on.

So, as I was saying the, rather obtuse, point is that each of the parties (planners, contractors and employers) only ever really looked at each end of the path into the future, not even the same future (their idea of the future) perhaps with a couple of stop-off milestones along the way. In fact, it was only the contractors who were expected to plan the path in any way at all, and they did so on the basis of having the degree of control and freedom that existed in young Pablo’s original sketch.

Now nobody can have absolute control over the future unless they control every variable. System Dynamics tells us we don’t know all of the variables so we are dead in the water there, and any sensitivity to initial conditions further dooms us to failure even in short term prediction of the future (thank you to you too, chaos theory). So if no contractor ever has this control how come any project ever gets finished except by luck?

As far as his own internal mechanisms go, his homeostasis, the contractor knows how wrong he usually gets things and should allow for this when entering into a contract. In big picture terms, he knows Mars is coming around again and pretty much where and when he will be able to find it, it’s pretty big up close and an easy target to hit.

In finer detail, he also knows that when a something goes wrong, there are a stack of alternatives, behind the fridge if you like. Maybe some better than the original and maybe some worse, but they are there, and will work, to a degree. All he needs to make them happen is the freedom to implement them, for good or for bad.

Disruption is pervasive, pernicious and cost accumulates insidiously; it starts in the hidden cost of every extra letter, every technical query, every request for information and drawing, before they even leave the office.

I have occasion in my professional life to look at many projects and try to figure out reasons (excuses perhaps) why things didn’t pan out as the baseline predictions, well, predicted, or why they seemed to go so horribly wrong.

I have come to the conclusion that in none of them was their prediction really in error – the action ‘as-planned’ was just played out in a different cosy little universe behind the fridge. Of course, when things started to drift, the contractor should have been able to choose the best alternative plan, to redraw Pablo’s sketch, and to do so whenever things began deviate from the current one, but this often doesn’t seem to happen because the freedom to choose is denied.

Apart from the excessive coffee consumption, why would this make any kind of sense or have any relevance whatsoever? Well here’s why.

Recently I was having a rather fun time re-reading reading through the second edition of the Society for Construction Law’s protocol. Whilst in the midst of frenzied and passionate debate about what the definition of disruption did, or didn’t, mean, the lights went on.

No, it wasn’t because the fridge door was forced open by yet another missing universe popping into existence, it was simply the revelation that all of the argument about why things didn’t go ‘as-planned’, is that the reliability of a plan is inversely proportional to the number of future predictions it makes.

As an aside this underlies the “divide and conquer” mentality of adding more detail, because it means more opportunity to criticise unavoidable error. The point is that the requirement to produce a contract programme in massively greater detail than any tender programme is simply asking someone to predict the future; that every prediction is a decision point that can (and will!) be criticised, when, not if, it goes wrong.

The insistence on ever more complexity in programmes creates more opportunity for, frankly unavoidable, errors with subsequent arguments about why the time machine manual is missing.

From that premise, any idea that a construction programme is, or should be, an immutably clockwork thing is clearly an exercise in futility and that if there can be said to be any true ‘baseline’ other than a bare-bones implementation of the contract milestones then it was the one that was tendered.

Following on from this cross-disciplinary ramble I want to drag myself back to disruption and the SCL protocol, although, as usual, I will paraphrase it heavily to make my reading clear.

Disruption is simply the interference with freedom, and this includes the freedom to make mistakes. It is nothing to do with being right or even finishing on schedule.

The ‘baseline’ programme, is only one possibility in many, nothing more than a pipe dream that reasonably demonstrates a mutual agreement (contract, if you like) of ‘possibility’ in performance; the contractor should not be bound to it but left as free as possible to react to change. Like the only surviving plant in my office… leave him alone. Feed him information, water him regularly with payment, shine the photosynthetic light of fulfilled obligations upon his leaves and only point where the weeds of defect have taken root.

But step outside of these lines, even with the best intentions, and not only are you paving a road to the hell known as disruption, but the cost of constructing this road is going onto your account.

Disruption is pervasive, pernicious and cost accumulates insidiously; it starts in the hidden cost of every extra letter, every technical query, every request for information and drawing, before they even leave the office.

As the tools to model and value disruption develop, contractors, as typical recipients of the brunt of disruption, are becoming more aware that costs can be recovered and will look to recover them more frequently especially as margins shrink and the tools develop, become easier to use and, through use, more familiar.

This is not to say that only contractors suffer disruption, it is simply that the consequences are unstoppably magnified as they are reflected up and through a large organisation and mushroom out into dis-organisation. If 50 of the contractor’s 500 strong labour force is sitting still for a day on site waiting for a late drawing, this has just a little more visual impact than one of the engineer’s 10 staff relaxing and drinking tea for a day, unable to prepare the same drawing because he’s still waiting for contractor to finish the site investigation.

Though it’s truly a two-way street, the traffic is definitely heavier on one side of it in terms of cost.

Originally I closed the draft of this article with one word … beware, but since it is in everyone’s interest just to take care of their interactions with others and I will change that to … Be Aware.

Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 2 here.

Quantum Executive Consultant, Dean Packer is a UK degree qualified management and PMP professional with over 36 years of experience, of which more than 20 years has been in remote and challenging environments. He started in production and buildings technology moving up through quality and project management.

Dean has a thorough understanding of all processes relating to civil engineering, earthworks, pavements; buildings, hydraulics, aerodromes and water treatment as well as extensive contract management experience as a Project Manager on EPC/FIDIC yellow, ICE and EDF forms of Contract from tender through planning and execution to handover.

Having worked in Europe, Mozambique, Ghana, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Qatar, Dean is now based in Quantum’s office in Amman, Jordan.

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This article is published with the purpose of promoting discussion only. The contents must not be relied upon or applied without first seeking professional advice.

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