Industry Watch – Grenfell Tower – Final Report on Grenfell Tower Concludes Poor Procurement To Blame…Or Does It?

It can be quite difficult to come up with content every week.

It takes time to review stories and develop a point of view worthy of an article.  This is an issue I have faced many times developing this blog, but despite this challenge, the one thing I would never do is cherry pick a report just to write about.  So when I come across such behavior, I feel obliged to call it out.

This week I read an article from www.cips.org which talks about an independent final report on the Grenfell Tower Fire.

The article entitled, “Poor procurement kick-starts bad practices, says Grenfell report” was written by Francis Churchill and was published in May 2018.

Mr. Churchill is a senior reporter for Supply Management.  His LinkedIn profile shows that he has a degree in Journalism, but there is no sign of any procurement or facilities experience, so I may be inclined to cut him a little slack.  Regardless, I believe his article has missed some important details.

Churchill’s article refers to an independent final report on the causes of the Grenfell Tower Fire led by Dame Judith Elizabeth Hackitt, DBE, FR Eng, FIChemE, FCGI.  Dame Hackitt is a distinguished Chemical Engineer who has worked for a number of global Oil and Gas conglomerates.  She is also distinguished in a number of other ways, including being a trustee of the City & Guilds Group who’s stated objective is to develop a national system of technical education for the City of London.

Dame Hackitt was appointed to lead the development of the report by the Home Secretary and the Communities Secretary.  The report was commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government and is meant to be complimentary to the public inquiry of the incident.

Churchill’s article focuses entirely on a the content of 4 pages from the 156 page report.  His article suggests that Hackitt’s findings were entirely focused on procurement, but if you read the entire report, Dame Hackitt’s comments on procurement are one of many recommendations which she states are part of, “an integrated systemic change not a shopping list of changes which can be picked out on a selective basis.”

In reporting ONLY on the findings related to Procurement, Churchill has done exactly what Hackitt said not to do.  To do justice to the great work that Hackitt and her team have done, I want to set the records straight.

Hackitt’s report is far more strategic than it is tactical.  It does not spell out specific tasks that must be completed, rather it paints an overall picture of the construction industry.  It specifies the underlying problems in construction and then proposes a multi-part solution that she recommends be taken in whole.

The report does a great job of first identifying the issues in the industry.  Hackitt notes the following major flaws:

Ignorance

Hackitt points out that, “regulations and guidance are not always read by those who need to, and when they do the guidance is misunderstood and misinterpreted.”  This is a common problem in  construction.  Far too often tradesmen and contractors are given more credibility over code regulations than Architects.

Throughout my career,  I personally have experience dozens of times when a plumber or a carpenter has questioned dimensions on my drawing or failed to implement something specifically depicted.  Often these incidents have resulted in heated exchanges where they assert their “years of experience” to contradict the drawings.  The problem is that despite those “years of experience“, they have never actually read the code, they simply took something someone said and locked it away in their brain as gospel.

One of the principles that I bring to all of my projects is that every member of the construction industry is an expert in their respective area.  I view these as swim lanes where design decisions and code interpretation belongs with the Architect, scope scheduling and budget belongs with Project Management, means and methods belong with the Contractor, and sourcing and procurement belongs with procurement.

Too often, members of the team sway into another’s lane, causing problems.  Hackitt’s report proposes, “a clear and proportionate package of responsibilities for dutyholders across the building life cycle“.

Indifference

The indifference to safety and to “do things as quickly and cheaply as possible” is an endemic problem that permeates every layer of construction.  I have seen this with Owners, Contractors, Architects, Engineers, and yes Procurement Professionals.  Hackitt calls out how safety is at the lowest levels of priorities and cost is at the top.

This mindset is at the heart of most of the problems of the construction industry and certainly played a role in the Grenfell Fire.  Hackitt’s report addresses this mindset by proposing a “Clear model of risk ownership with clear responsibilities for the Client, Designer, Contractor and Owner”.  Her concept for “risk Ownership” include an “outcomes based” system that overthrows the current prescriptive code and replaces it with an Outcomes based framework that incentivizes and empowers professionals to think about the entire building as a cohesive system where you “consider different layers of protection that may be required to make that building safe on a case-by-case basis”.

I find this level of thinking to be revolutionary in a world where we are dictated to by a tangle of codes with layers of circumstantial requirements with many exceptions.  An outcomes-based approach would be in my opinion a difficult thing to enforce because it would undoubtedly raise the liability of all parties, but the new thinking that would come along with such a shift would effectively change the dynamics of construction.

Lack of Clarity

Driving home the message from key issue number 2, Hackitt discusses how the industry lacks clarity on the roles and responsibilities of the parties.  She states that “there is ambiguity over where responsibility lies, exacerbated by a level of fragmentation within the industry, and precluding robust ownership of accountability”.

To combat this issue, Hackitt calls for a transparency of information and an audit trail “all through the life cycle of the building from the planning stage to occupation and maintenance”.  In this approach she is targeting the manufacturers of products for construction.  She points out how certifying products for use in construction “is disjointed, confusing, unhelpful, and lacks any sort of transparency”.

Hackitt mentions that concerns identified through testing should be made public.  She goes on to say, “this industry sector stands out from every other I have looked at in its slow adoption of traceability and quality assurance techniques.”

Inadequate oversight

Hackett’s report also calls for regulatory reform.  She writes that “the size or complexity of a project does not seem to inform the way in which it is overseen by the regulator.”  She also points out that regulatory bodies act in silos and “for those on the receiving end of regulatory directives, this often results in disjointed and confusing guidance

To address the shortcomings of regulatory oversight the report calls for “existing regulators to come together and bring their collective expertise and knowledge to bear in a very different way to deliver a stronger and better regime that will benefit everyone

If adopted together with the new framework of responsibility, this new regulatory body could be far more efficient and could become an ally in construction.  Today the system can be quite combative, slow moving, and yes, confusing.  Once again in this area Hackitt is paving new ground in how we think about oversight.

Closing

I don’t want to pick at Churchill’s articles too much because I fully appreciate how difficult it can be to write an article every week.  However, I do believe that Hackitt has presented a very comprehensive report that does far more than just identify procurement as an area for improvement. The report is very comprehensive, it’s very far-reaching, and it’s very Progressive.

I’m not certain if the construction industry has the will to make the changes recommended in Hackitt’s report. Even if we were able to make only minor improvements we would still be in a better position than we are today.

The Grenfell Tower fire was a horrible incident I hope to never see repeated.  Hackitt correctly sees this as a comprehensive break down of all of the parties involved, not a singular negligence from any one.  In order to learn from this tragedy, we need to take a holistic view.

What do you think? Was the Grenfell fire something that could have been prevented by any one particular individual? Or was this the effect of a comprehensive breakdown of the construction process? Tell me your stories.

Thanks for reading.  If you enjoyed this content, please feel free to browse my previous articles and please like, share, comment, and subscribe.  This helps promote my content and is greatly appreciated.

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