One of the hardest things for many employees is to say, “I don’t know”. In construction, the reluctance to ask for help can not only reduce innovation; it can actually be a root cause of defects and non-compliance. Here is how you can change the game and create a culture that encourages continuous learning.
World-first research by Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmonson in partnership with iCare and R U OK? has found that many workers do not feel safe admitting mistakes or taking the initiative to innovate.
The Australian Workplace Psychological Safety Survey canvassed 1,176 Australian employees about the degree to which they felt mentally and emotionally safe at work. The results revealed almost a quarter of front-line employees did not feel safe to acknowledge mistakes, which has major impacts on mental health and the company they work for.
“A ‘psychologically safe’ workplace is characterised by a climate of interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people feel comfortable being themselves and to ask for help,” said R U OK? Board Member, Graham Cowan. “While there are benefits to individuals and a duty of care from organisations, psychologically safe teams have also been shown to be the most innovative.”
It begins at head office
According to Former Construction Director for Frasers Property Australia and current Project Director for digital Start Up, Built Environment Compliance P/L, David Graham, creating a learning culture must start at the top.
Too often, he explains, the build teams are “handed a project” with insufficient guidance and leadership from the developer or head contractor. The project leadership at the head office may also be less experienced than those on the ground, but those on the ground do not have a chance to share their knowledge and just follow directions.
“Sometimes, the management have forgotten they need to bring the construction teams along on the journey,” Graham says.
“Unfortunately, in many cases, senior management and company directors have very limited knowledge about building and construction. This means the teams they employ are unsupported and not held accountable for the delivery of their project.”
This top-down approach also sets a tone where those within the trade teams do not feel encouraged to ask questions or propose innovations concerning methods or materials.
At the same time, the trade teams themselves may have members that have taken a “set and repeat” approach to learning the relevant process, codes, and standards. Graham notes that such individuals may not be using the most up-to-date and applicable knowledge. This may be more prevalent should there be no culture on site encouraging workers to ask for clarification or further information.
However, supportive management that is not afraid of collaborative engagement can address this, Graham says.
“When you get supportive management, you feel confident that management will help you learn and develop.”
It is not the conventional “my door is always open” style of communication, either. As Graham explains, such an approach requires the worker to come to the manager. Ideally, it should be the management going to the site, going around the teams, and making it clear they want to work with the site workforce to assist with any needs around learning or improvements to practice, or just support them on the ground.
“There has to be a sense of total respect and genuine engagement that really values honesty. Managers need to get their mindset into what is really happening at the project level.”
There is no business as usual
There also needs to be a culture shift that normalises continual improvement and learning. Graham looks to medicine as an example, a sector where practitioners must continually be learning about new research and new techniques.
In construction, continuous learning is inescapable. There is a constant stream of new products, new methods, new technology and new regulatory standards, and regulatory requirements. However, the culture does not necessarily encourage most practitioners to keep up and grow.
“We need to encourage continual learning about products, technology, and systems. There are some beautiful systems out there,” Graham says.
Continuous learning and improvement needs to “become part of people’s lives” in construction. Graham suggests that a company could have someone who holds the role of learning manager, who keeps abreast of new products, methods, and regulatory matters that are coming through. They could then ensure site teams are rotated through an appropriate learning process that covers relevant topics.
Formal Continuing Professional Development can also play a part, he says. In most states, this is not mandatory for many of the key trades or for builders.
Another useful practice can be using detailed monthly project reviews as an opportunity to identify knowledge gaps and develop practical strategies for addressing them.
“The culture of lack of professional development is the reason we as an industry are struggling so much.”
Ask “why can’t we?”
Robert Pradolin has decades of experience in construction, including holding leadership roles with Australand, Frasers, Hudson Conway and AV Jennings. He believes learning and improvement are key to reducing defects and rebuilding consumer confidence in the products of the construction industry. It is also crucial for driving innovation.
“I think the learning mindset can also be looked at as curiosity and being willing to question the status quo,” he says.
This is a whole different mindset to the current “culture of blame” that he says exists in many organisations.
It takes courage to try something different. For this mindset work, though, the right culture from senior management and support are crucial. One example was Pradolin leading the design and delivery of the first lightweight timber construction medium-rise building in Australia at Parkville (The Green) for Australand.
A structural engineer by background, Pradolin believed it was possible to use the stick-build techniques of low-rise residential he learnt at his time with AV Jennings to build a five-storey building. It would deliver a faster, lower-cost project that still met all required quality, compliance, and safety benchmarks.
“I asked, ‘why can’t we do this?’” he recalls.
“We have to start building smarter and more safely, Innovation is about asking questions of ‘why?’
“Innovation is important for any business to succeed. This means we also have to learn to embrace failure because failure is part of learning. You never actually really fail until you stop trying! You need to robustly test things and give it a crack, and if it doesn’t work, ask, what have we learned?”
Learning builds trust
Pradolin is now Managing Director of Built Environment Compliance P/L, which is about to develop a technology-based building and compliance platform that will assist all stakeholders, including developers, builders, insurers, certifiers, local government, asset owners and our emergency services responders. It will allow the digital storage, access and monitoring of the entire construction process, and making the compliance regime, post occupancy, transparent to insurers and Regulators.
This also relates to cultivating the learning culture. With the right, purpose-built tools, people are better equipped to identify mistakes and learn how to prevent them next time. For the construction industry generally, reducing the rate of defects is absolutely critical.
“In the delivery of any service or product, there is an implicit duty of care; a moral obligation to ‘one’s neighbour’. Currently, the public is losing confidence in the building and construction industry and its ability to deliver safe and compliant buildings,” Pradolin says.
“As an industry, we must act, and act decisively, to raise the standard of building compliance within our built environment. It is not only expected; it is the right thing to do. Otherwise, the social, economic and legal ramifications will be felt across our nation.”