I was reading the March / April 2018 issue of an industry magazine called Informed Infrastructure and felt compelled to respond to something on page 8, in the From the Editor piece, titled Old Habits Die Hard.

Here’s a link to the magazine website: https://informedinfrastructure.com/

Here’s a link to the digital online copy of that issue: http://read.informedinfrastructure.com/publication/?i=485588#{%22issue_id%22:485588,%22page%22:8}

My response was published in the May / June 2018 issue that can be found here: http://read.informedinfrastructure.com/publication/?i=499933#{%22issue_id%22:499933,%22page%22:10}

This is the contents of the From the Editor piece by Mark J. Scacco, P.E., (with my reply following after it):

I have a theory, and I wonder what you think about it. It has to do with ancient pyramids, spaceships, artificial intelligence, robots and self-driving cars. No, this doesn’t have anything to do with “ancient astronauts” or Chariots of the Gods; it’s a bit more mundane and a lot more serious.

The Other 1%

Without getting bogged down in the numbers, many studies have found that since the 1950s, manufacturing (which includes automobiles, aerospace and electronics/microchips, along with nearly everything else) has enjoyed a nearly 8% productivity increase, and the overall U.S. economy has seen increases of about 4%. In the same time period, the construction industry has increased by only 1% and has actually decreased since the mid 1990s. What’s going on here?

The Blame Game

There are a number of reasons frequently tossed about for why construction lags so far behind manufacturing. These include shortages in skilled labor and lack of adequate training; incomplete or inadequate designs resulting in rework, extras and delays; and an overall resistance to change or adopting new technologies. Although each is a valid reason—and discussions of them could and do fill many pages of journals and magazines—I want to use the next couple paragraphs looking at the last one: resistance to change.

Babies and Old Timers

The industries that experienced such dramatic increases in productivity all have existed for less than 200 years. In the long history of commerce and industry, cars, computers, rockets and robots are all babies, relatively new to society and civilization. Construction, however, stretches back nearly 200,000(!) years, with the earliest structures found in France dating back about 176,000 years. “Newer” construction such as Adam’s Calendar (also referred to as the “African Stonehenge”) is at least 75,000 years old, and the pyramids in Giza, Egypt, are 5,000 years old. Anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens, arrived on the scene about 200,000 years ago and, based on the sites in France, began construction shortly thereafter.

Building things such as shelter is as natural as our drive for food and reproduction. Just look at kids: from their earliest years, they build forts out of anything they can find, and then crawl inside and eat snacks! Everyone—without any engineering schooling or a construction background—knows how to build a bridge: chop down a tree and lay it across whatever obstacle you need to traverse. Of course, these are very basic construction examples, but what basic airplanes or electrical circuits can nearly every human build as a child?

So here’s my theory: construction is so old, it’s in our DNA, making the industry’s habits very old and very difficult to break, resulting in the incredible resistance to change.

An Engineer, Not an Anthropologist

As an engineer, I’m licensed to do a lot of complicated tasks, but one of them is not to analyze culture, society and genetics. In other words, I’m not an anthropologist, and these are simply my musing on the topic. However, to solve the 1% productivity problem, we need different ways of looking at the issue, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please comment or drop me an email.

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Hi Mark!

I receive the hard copy of your magazine and read your ‘From the Editor’ article a while back. As I was reading it I had some thoughts running through my head that prompted me to reply, albeit late. So, onto my thoughts:

Okay, I’ve read Chariots of the Gods (and many other similar books) and in fact, did my “graduate thesis” on the subject in 8th grade, so I think that’s a valid hypothesis that warrants further investigation. I would expand more on that here but I left my copy at my parents’ home in Pennsylvania and will have to get it first.

As to your statistics on productivity increases, I’ve never investigated those numbers so won’t comment on their validity, but I have heard similar statements and commentary by others.

Now, onto the meat of this. Personally, I think “lack of training”, “inadequate designs”, and “extras and delays” hits the productivity mark more squarely, but let’s take up this “resistance to change” item that you focused on.

Have you considered that your premise that ‘newer’ industries have experienced greater productivity increases than the ‘older’ construction industry actually points to the root answer of your “productivity” quandary? If something has been done for eons, successfully, why change? We have all heard “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” So, you better give me a pretty darn good reason to change what I’m doing.

As you state, there seems to be an innate construction skill ingrained in us. But I disagree with your supposition that it’s the “hard to break old habits” that generate resistance. I believe our intelligence can overcome that (especially as engineers), and my experience has disproved the classical suggestion that you submitted for this resistance. And forget about the complexities of anthropology, just look at it logically …which is the only way to analyze man, a rational being.

Now, my suppositions include nothing about the potential for irrationality to rear its ugly head, and we all know that it does with some individuals, but you can’t form a premise with an assumption of total chaos and random behavior. So let’s assume that we can maintain our wits about us. With that said, I believe that ‘resistance’ is not inbred, but consciously determined based on one thing – added value. Added value as determined by the individual from where he stands (or sits).

So how do we look at this topic of “change” and “resistance”?

By finding the added value in anything that attempts to change what I’m doing. The yardstick is what I’m currently doing, and any ‘change’ is benchmarked against that. For example, should I move to the latest version of any software? The questions that need to be asked are “What value does it offer me?” and “Is any ‘added value’ worth the effort?”.

Why do people upgrade their phone? Their TV set? Their car? Early-adopters aside …it’s done because there is an added value. That value is more often than not, an ‘individually’ perceived value, not a societal one.

Let’s take Civil software for example. Just because something new hits the streets, does it automatically mean that everyone should dump their old software and immediately upgrade. Everyone needs to be asking themselves the question, “Why?”. This question requires a good, meaningful, applicable, honest, technically complete answer. Not a superficial, financially driven, mandate from someone who isn’t qualified to make that call (like is often done).

Resistance to change? Why would anyone keep changing their calculator every 3 months just because a new one came out? Every decision needs to be properly assessed and the positives as well as the negatives need to be cataloged. Then, and only then, can the true value be determined.

Resistance to change? I don’t think people are really resistant to change, they are resistant to poor, inappropriate, improper decisions that adversely affect their ability to get their jobs done.

Resistance to change? Expect resistance if you ram something down someone’s throat without consulting them, or providing proper training, while expecting them to just ‘make it work’.

Resistance to change? Show these ‘resistant’ individuals (or industries) something that makes sense (and prove the added value) and I’ll bet you’ll find the agreement, acceptance and adoption that’s desirable.

And lastly, as an engineer, surveyor, or construction practitioner, we can all benefit from a greater interpersonal understanding of society and the people that we are constantly engaged with on a day-to-day basis. And I believe that if we did, we would see those elusive productivity gains.

Civilly yours,

- Mark “Zen” Ditko

Quotes

  • "Allow your passion to become your purpose, and it will one day become your profession."

    – Gabrielle Bernstein