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Military blueprint points way for industry reform

The military-style planning used to deliver emergency NHS projects during the COVID-19 crisis should be used to inspire long-term industry reform, according to the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).

Collaboration between engineers and military planners enabled the transformation of the Excel exhibition centre in London into the 4,000-bed Nightingale Hospital in just 10 days; while 60 Ghurkhas helped to convert Birmingham’s NEC into a similar facility in less than two weeks. Several other NHS projects have been accelerated with Laing O’Rourke about to complete work on a new super hospital in Wales over a year early.

These examples could be used as a blueprint for future construction projects, according to retired Rear-Admiral Bob Tarrant. He told the Association’s daily COVID-19 update webinar that the secret lay in the detailed planning that precedes every military operation and the ability of commanders to retain the trust of everyone in their team by creating a clear, shared vision.

“Intent is the subtle difference in the way the military does things,” the former submarine commander told the BESA webinar. “They write down on one sheet of paper exactly what they intend to do and why. Everything flows from that and produces a unity of effort.”

He said that delegation was crucial when taking on complex tasks and that the military was very good at empowering people so they could work independently. This makes delivery teams more agile and quick to respond to new challenges.

“We don’t tell people how to do things – we tell them what to do. The days of just shouting at people are long gone.”


However, he stressed that leaders should never delegate responsibility – they always remained accountable for the actions of their subordinates.

“Good leadership will build fighting spirit, but you must be prepared to have your ideas challenged. You must be accountable and if you are not prepared to justify your decisions then you won’t be achieving what you set out to and the risks will start to stack up.”

While pre-planning and preparation are crucial; military planners also build in continuous assessment so they can adjust quickly to changing situations – and maintain clear, regular communications, the Rear Admiral added.

“They put together a sequence of decision points and then assess them regularly,” he said; adding that the project team at the Nightingale would have rehearsed multiple scenarios before work began and, despite the short time frame, carried out specific training. Detailed risk analysis also meant the team would have been ready to adapt.

“In a military setting, you must prepare for things like loss of your fighting power or failure of equipment during operations. The same principle applies to business,” said Rear-Admiral Tarrant. “You need to look at your resources; how you get products to market; and the needs of clients and stakeholders. Getting the right people and skills in the right place is crucial, but they also need to be supported by good equipment.

“You also need to consider your adversary (or competitor) and work out your own USP to counter them.”

The industry’s own problems with equipment during the current coronavirus crisis were highlighted by an online poll held during the BESA webinar where 66% of respondents said it was now hampering their ability to deliver projects.  However, only 7% said supply shortages were “chronic”.

Overcoming this kind of challenge will be key as the industry prepares to emerge from the current lockdown, according to the Rear Admiral. He compared it to the submariner’s process of “decompression” after a long period at sea.

“You cannot expect everyone just to go back to life as normal and straight into work at 100mph,” he told the BESA webinar. “People will need to be allowed to express their concerns. Site operating procedures [drawn up the Construction Leadership Council] will still be in place and workers will need detailed guidance so they can adapt.”

21 April 2020


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