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Insights and best practices for construction management technology and project delivery

Keys to Advancing Effectiveness and Efficiency in Construction

In our most recent "Trailblazers" interview, we speak with Dr. Martin Fischer, Kumagai professor of engineering and director of CIFE at Stanford University.

Fischer shares the evolution of his career in academia, including his interest in expediting processes through virtual design and construction, as well as his insights into the industry itself as the director of the Center for Integrated Facility Engineering (CIFE).

Dr. Burcin Kaplanoglu, executive director, innovation officer at Oracle Construction and Engineering, leads the discussion.

BK: What is your current role is and how has your career evolved to where you are today?

MF: I'm the Kumagai Professor of Engineering at Stanford and a professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering. I also direct the Center for Integrated Facility Engineering, which is a fully industry-sponsored research center focused on advancing the effectiveness and efficiency of the construction industry.  

When I say the construction industry, that's meant very broadly; not just builders, but also engineers, owners, architects, operators. So really, the creation and use of the built environment.  

My role has evolved from being product-focused as a structural engineer designing structures to improving the process of making and using buildings and infrastructure. 

Virtual design and construction

As a structural engineer, I found that I was not as productive as I wanted to be because of what I considered an inefficient process, including the information flow. Without information, nobody can do anything in this process. That’s how I started BIM research in the late 80s and into the 90s.  

That focus is what we now call virtual design and construction—not only the use of technologies like BIM to improve the information quality and timeliness, but also attention to process and Lean methods. This includes the timely engagement of the different disciplines and collaboration between them to define the performance criteria used on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. 

This is followed by the engagement of different disciplines and collaboration between various parties and the performance criteria that we use on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis—and at the end of a project.  

BK: In addition to academia, you’re also dealing with the industry itself while as the head of CIFE. What’s your view of the state of innovation in the industry?  

MF: I'm amazed by the amount of innovation I see on projects. And I'm amazed by how slowly things have advanced over the last, say 20 years, in terms of technology.

By technology, I also mean the impact it has on the staffing, the skills, the process, the workflows, and the performance we achieve. When I visit projects, I hear about innovative ways of addressing challenges on projects.  

But when I visit with companies, I see very little uptake of those ideas. There still seems to be a sense that we must reinvent the wheel on every project. Every project is unique, to some extent, and it can be difficult to transfer the lessons learned from one project to the next.

However, there definitely seems to be innovation potential, because I see people do it a lot on projects. But there’s also still a lot of resistance to bringing new methods to a project.

BK: What are the biggest challenges to innovation? 

MK: The biggest challenge I see is that every project is set up like it was the last project for a company.

In that case, you wouldn't have any budget for innovation or learning. Companies would just apply what they know. And then you're done. Typically, a company says that this is what the clients expect.  

But when I ask companies if they expect to be in business in five years, organizations always say, “of course”. Well then, where and when exactly is that innovation change going to happen? Because certainly things will be different in five years.

Applying innovation to project-based work

When I speak with clients, I ask if this is the last project they’ll ever do. Clients often respond that they have 20 more projects, to which I respond: “What’s your strategy of getting more bang for the buck on project number 10, compared to the one you have today?”  

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"At least in many of the companies I know, the people in the trenches are looking for a vision. They're yearning for a direction. Where are we going together here?"

-Dr. Martin Fischer, Kumagai Professor of Engineering and Director of CIFE, Stanford University

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Often organizational leadership doesn’t have a clear vision for the company or a strategy to achieve that vision, but the industry is big, and I'm sure some companies are doing much better than others in this respect. 

BK: So how can organizations foster a culture of innovation? You mentioned culture a few times during the challenges. How can you ensure those people you mentioned drive innovation?

MK: I worked with a major owner doing research in applying 4D models on a complex project. This was the most complex 25 percent of the whole project.

That part of the project, which was deemed to be the most complex, was completed with half the change orders compared to the other 75 percent.  

Towards the end, this part of the project could lend staff to the other parts of the project for completion. If I’m an owner, these benefits seem significant to me. I thought that surely within about five years, this owner would use 4D models widely.

And that didn’t happen. When I asked the president, he said, well, I can’t put this project team on a pedestal.

I’m using this example only for illustration because it has repeated itself pretty much on every case study we’ve done with industry, where we have showcased the potential of a new method. 

Leadership and establishing an innovative vision

Executives must set the vision—whether you do it by yourself or with an executive committee or input from many. You find a process across the whole company that fits your culture. But you must provide a vision.

I also suggest that each first-line manager that's in charge of a business sector in the regions—the first not directly billable to a project—is asked to contribute one innovation to the company a year.  

Launching effectiveness and efficiency in organizations

For example, it could be a better way of reconciling payments with the progress of construction. Or it could be a better way of transferring design information to the field. It doesn’t have to be a totally earth-shattering innovation; just something that makes the company more effective or efficient.

A key part of these managers’ annual review should be: “What innovation did you contribute? And what innovation from another group are you using?”

For companies already embracing this, the rate of innovation will be dramatically higher. And I believe once that's established, it'll keep going.  

Read our eBook: "Innovation in Construction: Perspectives from AEC Innovation Leaders"

Explore how you can deliver project success with Oracle Construction and Engineering.

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