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A new approach

A new approach

03/11/2009 | Channel: Construction

John Morgan, founder of WMS, gives Libbie Hammond an insight into why his vision of construction could be the
future for the industry


According to the latest RICS UK Construction Market Survey, construction activity in the UK continued to deteriorate in Q1 2009, with all sectors experiencing a decline in workloads, and profit expectations falling more notably. Given the business environment in which he’s operating, I expected John Morgan to be subdued, but in reality he was very matter of fact about the current construction climate: “We’ve seen recession come and go before,” he said, with a refreshing forthrightness. “It happened in the 1970s and late 1980s/1990s. We’re here again, and we’ll get through it again. I have to admit that the areas of construction that are worst hit are not really where we work, and we have several projects in the pipeline. WMS are actually in good shape at the moment.”

Another of the industry’s problems is its reputation for spiralling costs and out of control budgets, with Wembley Stadium as the prime example. This issue was reinforced by the findings of two respected construction research agencies BRE and BSRIA, which established that up to 30 per cent of a building’s construction cost can be wasted during its development and delivery.

John explained that Wise Management Services (WMS) was borne out of the frustration he felt about how construction projects were being planned and a desire to do it better. His career in the construction industry started back in 1976 as an apprentice electrician. Following this, he worked for several major international companies where he qualified as an engineer, before focusing on the project management of some of the most prestigious projects. “By the time I was 21 I was running a £1m project,” John commented. “And I soon recognised that there were huge opportunities for improvement in the industry. For example, suppliers creating specifications for design consultants stifled innovation. Consultants didn’t have the practical experience required to develop co-ordinated drawings, which led to redesign by contractors. This coupled with a supply chain, purely selected on the cheapest price, led to confrontation, delays and loss and expense claims.

“When clients blindly choose the cheapest bid in the hope they will save money, it actually costs them money. Issues with delivery usually follow the lowest bid, with contractors protecting their margins whilst trying to handle increasing costs.

“I knew that for projects to be successful we needed a whole new way of working, which would start by creating the right ethos. We needed revolution, not just evolution, as Sir John Egan recommended in his Rethinking Construction and Accelerating Change reports.”

When John set up WMS (then called Priority Engineering) it was initially a vehicle to provide Tarmac and Crown House with the capability to deliver the complex building services within GCHQ’s New Accommodation Project in Cheltenham. John set up WMS to project manage the co-ordination and integration of the building services and specialist systems, from concept to completion. At GCHQ the WMS role encompassed a £94 million pound package of services - mechanical, electrical, public health, ceiling and fire protection - vital to GCHQ because of its reliance on complex mission-critical IT systems. WMS introduced a fresh perspective to the project, as John explained: “Despite six months lost due to late access, the unique WMS approach allowed us to recover the project with an ingenious fast track programme. The complex package of services was safely installed ‘right first time’ and ten weeks early. The client realised an early completion bonus and significant savings in the cost of delivering the engineering services for this development.”

So what does John do that others don’t? “We ensure that the right person is undertaking the right task, and we introduce suppliers with the best solutions to the team,” he explained. “WMS staff, with their practical background, model the integration of the services with the building elements and produce the installation drawings. We have a collaborative and co-ordinated approach, which results in superior project management and project performance. At GCHQ we illustrated that encouraging mutual success could be beneficial.”

Such was WMS’ success at GCHQ that news of its approach reached the ears of BAA, who subsequently asked the company to lead and co-ordinate various teams to deliver quality design solutions for the Heathrow Terminal 5 (T5) buildings.
Although the completion of the first part of the T5 project may have been overshadowed by the headline grabbing baggage issues, the actual construction project was brilliantly executed. One of Europe’s largest construction projects, the new terminal building complex is large enough to house 50 football pitches. The total buildings cost was over £1.6bn with services worth £380m. Concourses A and B were completed on schedule in March 2008, on time, and to budget.

“T5 was a fantastic project,” said John. “There were 16 major and 147 sub projects going on at once. We were driving the M&E and sub-project collaboration, and were based on site. We started off with the satellite building designs, which we finalised, and then moved into main complex, T5A, which we supported and closed out.” This then further led to roles for the WMS team across the T5 campus, closing out the designs, procurement and hand over. “We’re now involved in T5C, and WMS have already saved £5m against a challenged £45m cost plan,” continued John. “We brought our strong values of integrity and mutual collaboration to the project, and seeing all the teams working together in action was fantastic, and hitting the deadlines and budgets was a brilliant achievement.”

John continued: “Not only is the way we work different, our approach through collaboration encourages suppliers to contribute with fresh ideas and new technology. For example one of our engineers developed a very simple bracket that enabled the majority of the services to be hung off the ceiling contractors’ support frame at T5, literally saving hundreds of man hours.”

Bringing difficult and complex projects in on time and budget has become one of WMS’ strongest capabilities, with experience gained from projects in a variety of fields, from pharmaceutical to defence. One such project, Hong Kong International Airport (Chek Lap Kok), is one of John’s favourites, and was completed when he, and the other key players who are now part of WMS, were all working for Rotary International. Again, John was working on a project of global significance. The Terminal Building is the largest covered space in the world and the sheer scale of this 570,000 m2 project demanded specialist support. John and his team were called upon to manage critical elements of the electrical installation due to the complexity and scale of the project. This entailed the high and low voltage electrical distribution and associated control systems (SCADA) throughout the passenger terminal building and management of elements of the building services across the airport platform.

Exceptional achievement
John continued: “Access to the all-important switchrooms of the passenger terminal building was delayed by ten months. Despite this, Rotary International completed 15 months work within five months to ensure that the key date for power on to the building was achieved. The processes and expertise of the team, now part of WMS, enabled this exceptional achievement. The airport has been winning awards ever since its opening and has achieved a five-star ranking from independent research organisation, SkyTrax, in the World Airport Rankings.”

When speaking about this project, John raised the issue of health and safety, something that is at the top of the agenda in construction and looks likely to remain there. Although some critics seem to believe that the UK’s standards are too stringent, John doesn’t agree. “Personally I don’t believe our laws are too strict, as I have seen the alternative when I worked in Hong Kong, and I didn’t like it. However, we do need to create a step change in the mind set in the industry, and we have got a long way to go. In the more traditional building segments such as housing, we can still see the old ways and employers taking unnecessary risks. But we did see vast improvements and a real embracing of the whole concept of health and safety on the T5 project, which broke the mould in so many areas.”

As John mentioned the ‘old school’ stalwarts of construction, I asked him if there was resistance in the market to the WMS approach. “We have definitely found some parts of the industry that are reluctant to see changes,” he said. “But that just makes it more refreshing to find companies that can see that there is a better way. We have to get the message to the project sponsors and main contractor who is generally the client. So we have to understand what gives success for them and sensible margins for suppliers, and our method provides clients real value for money. To this end we’ve also developed our own software to support our processes that promotes transparency to all stakeholders and now forms a key platform for our success.”

The RICS UK Construction Market Survey mentioned earlier identified there are still skills shortages for trades people in the market. John agreed that finding the right staff is a challenge that construction continually faces: “Schools are definitely not doing enough to attract young people into the business, and I can’t help but notice the aging population within construction, who are going to be retiring without their talents being replaced. WMS are lucky in that our point of view and philosophy empowers people, and this approach goes a long way to attract the right talent. We’re also keen to take on trainees - this year alone we’re taking on two trainee project managers and training new CAD personnel.” The company also focuses on developing people internally, and doesn’t necessarily insist on degrees when recruiting. “I find that those people with a trade background like my own are easier to develop. They have a practical approach and this translates very well to the site.”

Nevertheless, the right management approach is still critical. John explained: “Because our approach is different, we have to approach our management differently too. Development of staff is critical, and we actively teach them and empower them to deliver our projects. It is a mixture of control and innovation, and it has helped us develop great teams of people who willingly work hard and don’t shy away from a challenge. For example, on the Hong Kong airport project, where we faced such a short timescale – the camaraderie created on that project still remains today and many of the staff do, too.” He continued: “I also try to remember the trust that I was shown when I was just 21 and show that same trust in my own employees. Being shown that much trust at such an early age was a privilege and that feeling has really stayed with me.”

Construction is looking to move forward despite current challenging economic conditions and John predicts a slow in the decline in the short term. “While the sectors we work in have remained buoyant, everyone in this industry has to plan for the long term while taking advantage of the short term opportunities the recession offers. Looking forward, the industry as a whole has to focus on value not just cost,” he concluded. “Plus if we all work collaboratively, it means that large contracts aren’t simply ‘bought’ – they are actively fought for and won on merit.”