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Digital Transformation

Construction project benchmarking: Six lessons from the COVID-19 vaccine development programme

Big pharma was able to do in ten months what most had predicted would take five years. What where the factors which led to this extraordinary leap in project efficiency, how can benchmarking play a role, and what lessons are there for the construction industry?

Kay Pitman, World Built Environment Forum
31 March 2021

Getting the numbers right at the start of the project is crucial

Quite often, a project will start with a cost estimate that is too low. Starting off with the wrong number puts the project team on the back foot from the outset. Good project benchmarking uses data from real and completed projects. By doing so, it can help companies to get the right figures, which means projects don’t have to go back for refunding. “If you use the benchmark at the front end, you see better outturn costs and more predictability on those outturn costs. This is what the shareholders and stakeholders are asking for”, explains Nigel Barnes, Head of Life Sciences at Linesight. “You’re starting to give the project teams and stakeholders the right facts and data to allow them to make the right decisions and allocate the right resources to deliver those projects.”

When benchmarking data comes from across industries, you start to get large datasets. The larger the datasets, the more confidence a company can have in the insights gained through the benchmarking process. Barnes continues: “It’s not always going to give you exactly what you think the answer is. And if it isn’t what you expected, you’ve got an opportunity to do something about it. Where datasets are quite large, you start to get the confidence and surety of delivery. You can start applying this information to the early stages of planning, where an idea is not yet a project. You can determine if those ideas have a commercial basis. As we know, the further down the delivery process you go, the less influence you have on ensuring your project will be successful.”

WBEF Strategic Partners, Linesight

Project Benchmarking: What can the construction industry learn from Covid-19 vaccine development?

Explore how the process for developing the Covid-19 vaccine might have practical benefits for the construction industry.

Developing trust and collaborating in benchmarking has significant advantages

Retaining the confidentiality and anonymity of commercial data is a major concern for companies considering collaborating on benchmarking. However, the advantages include greater efficiency and accelerated problem solving. “Benchmarking is not about sharing information with regards to the actual processes that are used”, says Nigel Barnes. The data shared is quite specific. Companies want to understand how their projects compare to their competitors, so they see the value in sharing their own data on a ‘tit for tat’ basis. “That’s what persuaded people to take part, to access that larger dataset, with data from other companies, other regions, and other industries, to allow decision making on trends.”

Steve Townsend, Project Controls Director – Global Capital Projects Group at GSK states, “If organisation A, B and C are all trying to reinvent the wheel for this product to tackle COVID-19, then it becomes inefficient. It doesn’t take long to realise that, in this case, we’re trying to all do the same sort of thing. And it would be much better if we could actually share information on that basis.”

If organisation A, B and C are all trying to reinvent the wheel for this product to tackle COVID-19, then it becomes inefficient. It doesn’t take long to realise that, in this case, we’re trying to all do the same sort of thing, and it would be much better if we could actually share information on that basis.

Steve Townsend
Project Controls Director – Global Capital Projects, GSK

Having a collaborative mindset also allows teams to get together and look at problems from an integrated project delivery perspective. As Nigel Barnes notes: “The sharing of data and the use of resources helps align work and move things along quicker. And not only are we moving things along quicker, they’re moving along at lower cost. We’re able to deliver more between us collectively, so that common goal has really helped us to focus. That has been one of the lessons that we’ve all learned the past few months.”

Steve Townsend agrees: “It hinges around collaboration and trust – having that sort of approach takes a different mindset”, he explains. “Creating the right environment - where your ideas are well thought of, they’re considered properly, and they can help us to progress – is a step forward.”

Good benchmarking is about seeing the wood from the trees

The types of data shared in benchmarking are quite specific, and it’s the role of the benchmarking partner to provide actionable data about project trends. One of the ways this is achieved is by filtering through the various layers of project data. “We say that projects are discrete activities in that no projects are like for like. But actually, if you break projects down into their component parts, you do start to get quite a lot of alignment”, says Nigel Barnes. “It’s about looking at the sections of the projects which are comparable across projects. It’s almost an 80/20 rule: 80% of data is transferrable and therefore becomes useful.”

The sharing of data and the use of resources help align work and move things along quicker. And not only are we moving things along quicker, they’re moving along at lower cost. That has been one of the lessons that we’ve all learned the past few months.

Nigel Barnes
Head of Life Sciences, Linesight

Steve Townsend expands on the theme: “It’s about taking away the data that can cloud your view and move you away from getting the data that matters. It’s like layers of information, and layers of accuracy and surety. As you mature your process, you go further down those layers of information, to develop your understanding of your data and what it actually means.”

Having a trusted, impartial benchmarking partner is crucial

Institutions or organisations that act as data custodians have a key role to play in this success. “It would be very difficult for our organisation to speak to our peers about sharing data”, explains Townsend. “It would involve discussions about what sort of confidentiality agreement is needed. I don’t know how long that would take, but it would certainly slow down the very process you were trying to accelerate.” A trusted intermediary, therefore, is critical.

Standards are essential to good quality, comparable data, and they also allow for greater efficiency in operations

Working to shared industry standards enables greater efficiency in comparing like for like across industry projects. “Making sure we all use similar work breakdown structures makes it easier to compare across projects”, explains Nigel Barnes. “There are different codes, standards, and ways of packaging a report. Our data analysts work with the cost people in each of the relevant companies to translate this, so that we can start comparing like for like.”

Says Steve Townsend: “It’s not just about standardisation purely for the benefits of benchmarking. When you have a number of projects across a number of capital teams, it’s really helpful if everybody understands and utilises the standard. If you move from project to project, you then recognise the stages or phases. That helps efficiencies within the normal course of design and build, which is something we strive for.”

Off-site modular building fabrication enabled construction to continue throughout the pandemic

Some construction projects were needed on sites where facilities were already in operation. Choosing a modular approach involving off-site building fabrication allowed those projects to continue throughout the pandemic. As Steve Townsend explains: “Existing facilities have to be able to continue making other medicines. Access to those facilities was very rigorously controlled to prevent people coming onto site who were not directly involved in the manufacturing process during the pandemic. If it had been a traditional stick build, construction would probably have been cancelled or extended considerably.”