Unconventional Wisdom

What makes something unconventional? By definition, it is something not bound by or in accordance with convention. It is out of the ordinary. Consider modern oil and gas production – advanced production technologies have created new classes of “unconventional” reservoirs and products such as synthetic crude, gas-to-liquids (GTL) and light tight oil. Energy firms and governments around the world are investing in these unconventional sources due to the increasing scarcity of new conventional oil reserves. From this perspective, one could conclude that we search for (and value) products that are unconventional.
In contrast, where people are concerned, we tend to not value those who are unconventional or use different approaches. We brand them with unfavorable labels like dissident, heretic, iconoclast, unorthodox and maverick. It is not considered flattery to say “he/she has an unconventional lifestyle.” Instead of celebrating their approach, too often we discard or attack – preferring the “tried and true” methods of the past. So we have a dilemma:  how do we advance our industry with new and unconventional approaches if we are unwilling to embrace people who think differently?
Albert Einstein said, “the world we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems we cannot solve at the same level of thinking at which we created them.”  Go ahead – read that again (for me, it took a few attempts for it to sink in!). If we consider the world of project planning, execution, and operation, it seems that we may be unable to solve our current issues unless we involve people who are willing to try something unconventional. Indeed, that is the essence of research. Looking for answers to vexing (and properly defined) problems often can create valuable solutions. In people, it also creates something else: unconventional wisdom.
A few years ago, I became fascinated by something called Innovation Diffusion Modeling. Marketing professors created this technique to determine how quickly an innovation such as an iPhone would spread, or diffuse, through a marketplace. When my research group at CII applied this modelling to our industry best practices, we discovered that while the things that were adopted the fastest (think zero accident techniques and front end planning) had a sizeable impact in terms of performance improvement, they rarely possessed much capability for further improvement among the companies that used these practices the most. For example, good front end planning (FEP) explained just eight (8%) percent of the variation in leading companies’ project cost performance. Today, we believe that is because leading companies deploy FEP at a good level on most, if not all, of their projects.
Leading companies must consider what is next. To do that, they must invest in research and development (R&D) and pursue approaches that may seem unconventional. Note this is not to say that the leading companies should not attempt to perfect their deployment of industry best practice – because, absolutely, they should. But, they should also seek to understand and solve problems in a new, perhaps unconventional way. Doing so creates the opportunity and space for breakthrough advances to occur. Concerned about workforce availability, industry specialization / fragmentation, or field productivity? So are we. CII is funding and conducting research now to:

  1. Understand the impact of offsite construction on the workforce
  2. Model the anticipated composition of the workforce in 2030 so companies can prepare
  3. Create a smart, model-centric approach for the collaborative execution of capital projects
  4. Support the design of a more efficient business model known as Operating System 2.0
  5. Maximize the use of resources in the field through Advanced Work Packaging (AWP)
These topics may appear a bit unconventional, and that is intentional. Research conducted and sponsored by CII and the Construction Owners Association of Alberta (COAA) pioneered the concept of AWP (#5 in the list above). This best practice is a great example of how the productivity of a capital project can be improved by focusing on the production side (i.e., the numerator) of the productivity equation:
Output (e.g., tons of steel erected) / Input (e.g., ironworker hours expended) = Unit Rate Productivity
I now refer to AWP as a “modern production system” because it really encourages new methods of production, rather than blindly accepting “time honored” approaches and attempting to expend fewer worker hours. It even considers how design is done and, eventually, how the supply chain will collaborate to increase output. 
To be sure, AWP was not the first lever pulled in improving productivity – rather – it was the unconventional one. But, it has created a following amongst those who understand its potential and who value the power inherent to unconventional wisdom.

Date posted: July 4, 2019