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Systematic Innovation in the Construction Industry


Companies in the Architectural, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) and other industries face increasingly complex challenges. For these they need to evolve adaptive management practices, adopt key technologies, and use systematic innovation related to tasks and decision-making on a daily basis.

Although this article focuses on systematic innovation in the AEC industry, the innovation principles and methods shared are applicable across all industries. Situational context, well-informed decision making and innovation are required to navigate the complex and changing business landscapes we are seeing today. Key factors are the adoption and mastery of new technologies, the demystification and systematisation of innovation, and the need for a reliable and adaptive management approach with rapid feedback mechanisms, visual information sharing leading to high situational awareness, and inclusive decision-making.

I am an outsider to the AEC industry. However, rather than this being a liability, it allows me to see the wood for the trees in this industry (and in others). My focus, passion, experience, and competence, relate to the sharing of powerful systematic innovation approaches.

Slow Adaptation to Mounting Challenges Will be the Bigger Risk

Changes in the way of working in the AEC Industry have been slow until the recent decades, but are now accelerating at pace.  New technologies are being introduced and this brings challenges and opportunities. Innovation can either help to prosper a company or help competitors to eat its lunch, depending on the company’s response to it.

The AEC industry has some conservative stakeholders, and rightly so, as risks must be avoided or mitigated when creating structures which are heavily regulated regarding safety and other constraints. But adapting too slowly to new ways of working could well be the bigger risk.

Can Innovation and Technology be Demystified?

Perhaps if innovation and some of the new technologies were demystified, making changes would not be such a leap of faith. But leap or move forward we must. Technology can be demystified by purposing to, and then actively adopting it, initially using a pioneering team. If principles of innovation could be codified, classified, synthesised and used to solve complex problems systematically, it would be a great help. It certainly would be easier to follow a codified approach than to be asked to ‘be creative’. And what does ‘be creative’ mean?  Each of us starts by being imaginative, curious, and creative. Some of our parents, schools, workplaces have suppressed or continue to suppress, our inborn creativity.

Genrich Altshuller, a patent clerk in the Soviet Navy, believed that creativity could be subject to analysis and asked the question, “How do things improve?” After researching this question and studying some 200 000 patents, he found that there were very specific concepts, principles and trends which satisfactorily unlocked inventive and often breakthrough insights. He largely demystified innovation by using his penetrating insights to create tools and methods to put systematic innovation into play. Although ‘Big Data’ is useful, ‘Big Insights’ are often more valuable when it comes to innovation.

Background and Way Forward

For some background and examples of innovation principles, you may wish to read this:

Later in this article I  introduce you to a relatively new and still developing technology in construction, namely Building Information Modelling (BIM) software.

I then detail how to use the innovative multi-screen diagram. This diagram can be used to open solution opportunities for innovation in the many AEC phases (found in pre-construction, construction, and post-construction).  The multi-screen diagram may be used to similarly drive innovation value in construction or other supply chains which I will not cover in this article.

The use of BIM as a collaborative team and necessary project communication involving AEC stakeholders throughout the project, together require a fast and adaptive management approach with rapid feedback mechanisms, reliable information sharing, high situational awareness, and inclusive decision-making. I will use Altschuller’s eight trends of system (or technology) evolution to discuss an appropriate adaptive management approach.


Innovations: Building Information Modelling (BIM)

The quotations below come from the abstract of Kekana, G., Aigbavboa, C. & Thwala, W. 2015. Understanding Building Information Modelling in the South Africa Construction industry (

 “Building Information Modelling (BIM) is a concept that has been defined as a technology that digitally constructs an accurate virtual model of a building. BIM can be defined as an IT enabled approach that involves the application and maintenance of a fundamental digital representation of a building and all its information throughout the different stages of the project”

 Furthermore the findings revealed that,

“a lack of skills, education, and knowledge on BIM are the biggest barriers to the full implementation of BIM in South Africa”

Of course skills, education, and knowledge lie in the ambit of management, institutions, and pro-active individuals who seek these enablers.

BIM has steadily advanced, with each increment of capability increasing the BIM Level. BIM levels refer to the advancing core capabilities of the software:

BIM Level 0: 2D CAD drafting, no collaboration, electronic or paper prints.

BIM Level 1: 3D CAD, Common Data Environment (CDE), models not shared between team members.

BIM Level 2: All parties use own 3D CAD models, design information is shared through a common file format.

BIM Level 3: A single shared project model is held in a centralised repository.

BIM LEVEL 4: Capability to use BIM data to analyse time sequencing.

BIM LEVEL 5: Includes cost management.

BIM LEVEL 6: Helps with facilities management.

Cost savings of over 20 percent can accrue from the 3D visualisation of structures, and the ability to see defects in the design before construction.  Some well-populated BIM models allow a bill of quantities to be printed at the click of a button. BIM could have an effect on quantity surveyor and other job roles; as a minimum it will require quantity surveyors and other AEC roles, and businesses to rebalance their mix of marketable skills.

Innovation: The Multi-screen Diagram Applied to Construction Phases

The multi-screen diagram is an excellent way to place innovation challenges and problems in their time and relevant system contexts.

In a simple formulation the multi-screen diagram grid would have nine areas.  With the addition of more phases or system layers, the number of screens would increase.  When filling in the screens of a multi-screen diagram, start with the current time or building phase and the main system under consideration. In the example case below we have started with the construction phase at system level. Screen text notations are for illustrative purposes only.


Using the multi-screen diagram we could concentrate on the timing sequence of each of the phases as illustrated below (path bent because of space restrictions). In this case each phase is marked with QS for Quantity Surveyor. The question now becomes, “Which tasks, processes, cost or time savings, and extra value innovations can a quantity surveyor bring to each phase?”





Similar questions for each phase could be asked of each specific construction role, architect, engineer, electrical contract company, and so on.  The expanded innovation opportunities can now be worked into the complete BIM model and the cradle-to-grave construction project plan. This actual and virtual planning and preparation will ensure efficient logistics and highlight any problems or special needs cases well before major onsite costs are incurred. Innovation principles can also be brought to bear; for example the principle of ‘beforehand preparation’ could result in offsite concrete casting, steel component assemblies and so on,  so as to reduce the construction phase and onsite duration.

Innovation: Adaptive Management as a New Way of Working in the AEC Industry

The extra layers of information in BIM models and the identification and exploitation of project phase innovations, while running business as usual, will put impossible workloads on management; but only if they choose to be the bottleneck of decision-making. Workshops can be held where specialist roles and individuals can simultaneously contribute to the identification of innovation opportunities, including better ‘integration and synchronisation plans’ for the build phases. This does not preclude management or team reviews of decisions made, nor does it prevent the inclusion and the consideration of alternative solutions. All relevant approved decisions can be costed, designed and entered into the BIM models and the construction project plan.

It is useful to put forward the management problems of the day, and to use these as a suitability test of the work team requirements, if they are to support important decision-making and improvements.

The table below lists management problems and challenges to overcome in the left columns, and the work team requirements for project teams to grow adaptive capacity.




The table below lists eight trends of (technical) system evolution. Each trend suggests innovative opportunities for deriving an adaptive management or team model as a management solution for decision making capacity and quality, and to incorporate innovative improvements on AEC projects.

Given these team requirements, there are successful management models that have been developed in industries outside of the AEC Industry which can be easily adapted to meet specific company or project needs.  The figure below depicts an indicative AEC adaptive management team and a team-of-teams for an example construction project phase.



Companies in the AEC and other industries face increasingly complex challenges. For these they need to evolve adaptive management practices, adopt key technologies, and use systematic innovation on a daily basis.

Adaptive management practices share decision-making with small teams which work in parallel, greatly increasing the volume, speed, and quality of decisions.

Companies need to demystify innovation and use it in practical day-to-day applications and for industry breakthroughs. Systematic innovation has a proven track record of solving complex problems and innovation challenges as it guides and supports thinking.

Finally companies must adopt key new technologies. A good way to do this is to assign reconnaissance teams with the task of using, evaluating, and helping others to use the products as quickly and proficiently as possible.

Wayne Mallinson

If you would like to attend a free 75 minute information session on systematic innovation on Wednesday 30th August 2017, in Centurion (700m from the Gautrain Station), please SMS me or WhatsApp me your name and email address on 0836040902 and I will call you back or email and ask for details.

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