Why Construction Must Aim to be Effective, Not Efficient

I often read articles with titles such as “why is the construction industry inefficient” or “why are productivity levels so low?” These are great questions, but they’re the wrong questions, and asking them has us looking in the wrong places for ways to improve.

Rather than efficient, we must aim to be effective, even if it costs us efficiency.

What’s the Difference between Efficiency and Effectiveness?

If you are efficient, then you produce results with as little waste as possible (waste of time, money, materials, for example). If you are effective, then you produce the desired effect.

For example, an efficient racing car driver might find ways to improve his lap time, but if he doesn’t win, he isn’t effective. After all, winning is the desired effect of a race.

I’ll give you another example.

Two kids decide to sell their possessions to make some money. One kid sells comics, and the other sells baseball cards.

The first kid drops posters and catalogs in mailboxes to build interest, and it works rather well. The following week he uses his bike and some shortcuts to cover more ground, and the week after that, he finds ways to go farther still.

Meanwhile, the second kid was yet to leave his house. He spent his time with his older brother building a website and online order process. It took him three times as long to get his first message out to his neighbors, but after that, he could dispatch note after note with a click of a button. Thereon he divided his time between creating cunning marketing materials and fulfilling orders. Not once did he spend time walking between houses. He could do everything the comic book kid was doing, and much more, without leaving his bedroom.

Both kids had the same objective, to make sales. The first kid approached the goal efficiently, and while he became excellent at dropping letters, his was not the most effective strategy.

We must focus on the result we are trying to achieve, not how we are trying to achieve results.

To be effective, which is what we must all strive to be, means to produce the desired effect. How we go about it is irrelevant if we never arrive at the desired effect. We must focus on the result we are trying to achieve, not how we are trying to achieve results. Imagine an archer concerned only with improving his bow technique and never aiming at the bullseye.

If we continue to focus on efficiency, we will become better and faster at doing what we are doing right now; if we are failing, then we become better and faster at failing.

We should instead focus on effectiveness and think about what our purpose is or what our desired outcome looks like, then do whatever it takes to realize it, even if that means being less efficient.

Examples of Efficiency vs. Effectiveness in Construction

Efficient Approach Effective Approach
Finding ways to make a site-wide morning briefing, delivered by an engineer, more relevant and engaging to all attendees. The desired effect is to ensure each worker receives a decent briefing of the day’s activities as they are foreseen at the start of each day.
This briefing does not have to be delivered by a single individual. I could be prepared by the responsible engineer and then delivered to individual gangs, by supervisors, at the work location relevant to the gang.
Using technology to speed up document control processes and help engineers complete their paperwork promptly.The desired effect is to ensure the engineer’s workload is delivered timely and to the expected standards. Workload includes paperwork.
Recognize the workload bestowed on engineers is too large, and ways to take admin tasks off their hands must be explored. For example, hiring less-skilled (engineering skills) and less-costly staff who can assist engineers in their paperwork.
Finding a way to make nightshift output equal to dayshift output The desired effect is to make up for a significant amount of lost time, ideally without extending the completion date.
Recognize the teams delivering nightshifts are fatigued and working at a time when the human body naturally wants to sleep. It is, therefore, unrealistic to expect the two outputs to match. The program should reflect this with nightshifts shown to be half as productive (at best). The completion date must be extended if an alternative solution is not found.

Construction’s Biggest Failing is that it is Ineffective

You can be highly efficient and productive at ineffective tasks.

You can be highly efficient and productive at ineffective tasks. You can learn to be efficient at climbing a ladder, but what if the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall?

What it means to be effective in construction, as a contractor, is to deliver projects safely, as per the contract documents, on time, and within budget. Yet far more often than not, projects fall behind, blow their budgets, suffer a high number of errors, and put many people in harm’s way. We are working incorrectly. We are failing, and for reasons I’m yet to understand, this is tolerated and has become the norm.

What is the point in more efficiently or productively ascending a ladder that is against the wrong wall?

Bloggers write about ways to improve the efficiency and productivity of construction, but what is the point in more efficiently or productively ascending a ladder that is against the wrong wall? We must first start doing our job correctly and adhering to the contracts we take on. After that, we can strive to do it more efficiently.

Prosperity lies ahead of the construction industry if we focus our efforts on being effective above all else and recognize what we are supposed, by our contracts, to do. Many complain of how slow construction is, but I am more concerned with how wrong construction is; we all should be.

As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, “the first step is admitting you have a problem.” The first step we, the construction industry, must take is to recognize we aren’t effective. After that, we’ll know the exact wall against which we must lean our ladder – that which leads to effectiveness. And we can use all the efficiency and productivity hacks on offer to get us there faster.

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