What Lego can teach construction clients

Lego was founded in 1932 by Ole Kirk Christiansen, a visionary who steered the company through a series of crises by adapting and modernising.

This was most notable in 1947 when the company switched from wooden to plastic toys.

Fast forward to 1998 and Lego faced its greatest threat. After failing to respond to changing play trends, it reported a financial loss and was forced to lay off 1,000 employees. It responded with innovation.

Among the key steps it took was to reach out to a group of Lego super-fans and crowdsource new ideas. The resulting products helped put Lego back into growth and profit.

Lego’s lessons

Similar lessons could equally be applied to the construction industry, which currently faces a range of challenges.

As an industry we face a skills crisis, compounded by a failure to attract a sufficiently diverse range of people. We lack efficiency, yet continue to overlook many processes and technologies that would improve the way we work. And we continue to suffer from an image problem, worsened by ineffective communication and collaboration.

The sector has a responsibility to embrace disruptive technologies, fix the gender imbalance and solve the skills crisis. But how do we achieve all of this when there is an obsession with driving down costs?

Just as Lego reached out to its customers, the construction sector’s approach needs to be championed by our own clients. If forward-thinking clients push the modernisation agenda, this will shift innovation from being a ‘nice to have’ pursued by some contractors to a business necessity practised by all.

At Lendlease, our work in developing construction management in the UK and, more recently, advances made in CLT construction would not have been possible without enlightened clients.

With their backing, contractors can experiment, innovate and build in long-term solutions which will benefit clients, contractors and end-users.

Client backing

The way the sector has adopted BIM is a good example.

It was only when the government set out the requirement for BIM Level 2 to be used on all centrally procured projects that the industry began to embrace the use of BIM technology. This is an example of a major client taking the lead by requiring the use of new technology on the projects it procures.

The sector must now recognise that we need to move forward together with a wide variety of further adaptations – not least wider adoption and further integration of BIM.

To truly innovate, contractors need clients’ support. With their backing, contractors can experiment, innovate and build in long-term solutions that will benefit clients, contractors and end-users.

So how can clients ensure the space to innovate is available? We need to consider whether clients should offers incentives and assurance.

Should they provide more clarity to the supply chain on the future pipeline of work? Perhaps they need to procure in new ways. Should the ability to innovate – whether to deliver commercial or indeed social benefits – be prioritised over price? Should project risk be shared in new ways? Should clients support pilot projects? Again, remember that the government set up trial projects to support the development of BIM.

To lay the building blocks to tackle these challenges, the industry needs to come together and give proper thought to these questions. But just as Lego did two decades ago, we can’t do it without our clients’ support.

Neil Martin is managing director of Lendlease’s construction business in Europe

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