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«Byggeriets produktion af svigt i et strukturationsperspektiv – Et studie af reaktive og proaktive problemløsningspraksisser CASPER SIEBKEN SCHULTZ ...»

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Byggeriets produktion af svigt

i et strukturationsperspektiv

– Et studie af reaktive og proaktive problemløsningspraksisser


Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Division of Construction Management


Gothenburg, Sweden 2012

Byggeriets produktion af svigt i et strukturationsperspektiv – Et studie af reaktive og proaktive problemløsningspraksisser


ISBN 978-91-7385-773-4 © CASPER SIEBKEN SCHULTZ, 2012.

Doktorsavhandlingar vid Chalmers tekniska högskola Ny serie nr 3454 ISSN 0346-718X Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Division of Construction Management Chalmers University of Technology SE-412 96 Gothenburg Sweden Telephone: + 46 (0)31-772 1000 Chalmers Reproservice Gothenburg, Sweden, 2012 English summary (extended) This thesis is the result of an Industrial PhD project conducted in cooperation between the university and NCC Construction Denmark – one of the largest contractors in Denmark. The specific purpose is to examine how failures and defects are produced and handled in the social practices of construction projects in order to make changes and thereby reducing the extent of failure in the building processes. As a result of the research design and the rooting of the study in the company the thesis contributes with an in-depth understanding of the relationship between the structural premises and the actions and decision-making of the project managers and craftsmen on construction projects. The premise is that failure and defects cannot be seen as

isolated incidents, but must be regarded as a correlation between the successful as well as the faulty processes. The key contributions of the thesis are the expansion of the understanding of:

Failures and defects; how routines and experiences in addition to helping to reduce the extent of failures and defects, also can be seen as instrumental in producing and maintaining a certain level of failure.

Practices of problem solving; the study highlights reactive and proactive problem-solving practices as being important for the completion of the construction project. Problem-solving practices are often forced into reactive problem solving.

Unintended consequences of routinized practices; elaborated through a) lack of knowledge sharing beyond the project boundaries, b) the reproduction of project participants as powerful problem-solvers and c) the reproduction of an "acceptable" level of failures and defects.

The research project is designed as an abductive research process where theory and empirical data inform each other in iterations. Based on Alvesson & Sköldberg (2000) a reflexive qualitative methodology is adopted with interpretation on four hermeneutic levels, acknowledging the need for various types of interpretations. The empirical material consists of a collection of written background material and a 15-month ethnographic field study comprised of workplace observations and qualitative interviews. The thesis is primarily sociological but represents an interdisciplinary approach through elements of an engineer-scientific approach applied for understanding the rationality of management, the habitus of engineering as well as planning.

The theoretical framework enables the central analysis that includes the underlying structures as well as the processes of structuration. It enables the understanding and analysis of the actions of the agents in the construction processes through the combination of processual elements with elements of stability (structures).

The thesis’ main theory is Anthony Giddens theory of structuration (e.g. Giddens 1984) which is adapted to the empirical analysis primarily on basis of Rob Stones 'strong structuration project' (Stones, 2005). The social practice is the mediating term between action and structure and describes the relationship between agent, action and structure in a duality of structure where the three concepts are mutually related. Structures are both the medium and the outcome of the process and are considered both constraining and enabling and as embedded in the agent - and may change over the course of time. On the basis of structures the social practice constitutes individuals as conscious, knowledgeable agents and through “activities agents reproduce the conditions that makes these activities possible” (Giddens 1984; 2). I.e. structures are reproduced, or perhaps reinforced or transformed - often unconsciously, which is described as an unintended consequence of social practices.

i The thesis examines the main problem from four selected empirical cases all from a larger residential construction project, and thus focuses on the agents’ actions and decision making on the distinct project rather than generalizations across business processes. The story begins with a number of "ordinary" small problems and defects in the processes of erecting the precast concrete elements and subsequently a series of observations from everyday processes around the assembly. Quality is only one of many considerations and objectives that shape and structure the processes. The otherwise mundane assembly story reaches a climax when a construction worker suffers a fatal accident, which puts everyday problems into perspective and test structures and practices almost to the extreme. As a counterpoint to the concrete element assembly, the planning and construction of the buildings penthouse structure is observed where processes appear much more unstructured and chaotic. In addition a case study furthermore focuses on the interaction between projects and business processes, highlighting the impact of the business quality structures in relation to “producing” quality in the actual project processes at the construction site. Moreover, it is studied how the specific project experiences affects the company structures.

The cases illustrate how quality issues pervade the processes in all parts of structuration both in the form of:

a) external structures (e.g., corporate structures) and internal structures (relative to the agent), b) the knowledgeable agents (including the importance of routines and reflection), c) in the form of intended and unintended actions (e.g., planning and problem solving) and d) in the form of unintended and undesirable consequences of the processes of structuration. The thesis results are also closely interwoven as structures, agents and unintended consequences are all elements of the social practices.

The empirical data and analysis show how failures and defects are produced, handled and reproduced in the building processes. Failures and defects are considered as consequences of something unexpected or unforeseen. Empirically, my own reflection was triggered when a break-down in the processes somehow triggered the reflection of the empirical agents, consciously or unconsciously; when they identified a problem, a failure or a defect. It is both the specific phenomenon of the failures, defects and/or problems that are investigated, but also the previous actions, processes and structures that affect the incidents, as well as the ex post effects in terms of consequences for both actors as structures. The extensive observations of the agents in the construction project shows some examples of firmly established hard-core routines and practices at the construction project, where agents reproduce practices that produce failures and defects; failures and defects are thus unacknowledged conditions of the actions. The interesting thing is that routines and experiences at first glance seem to help to reduce the number of failures, but at the same time they can also be seen as an element in maintaining a certain failure level in the projects, which is symbolized through the unintended consequences of agents' actions. Problem solving as a routinized practice is emphasized due to the research questions of the thesis.

The thesis considers design, engineering, planning and problem solving as problem-solving practices. The parts that relate to the correction of the defects and failures often take the form of reactive problem solving, while the other activities are described as proactive problem solving. The reactive problem-solving practices are highlighted as important for the realization of the construction project and as a vital element to ensure that planning and design is achieved in the finished project and that the project meets the clients’ demands.

The problem-solving practices are often forced into a reactive problem solving. Moreover the cases show that far from all failures can be traced back to the design, engineering or planning (the proactive problemii solving practices). The on-site staff and construction managers are often uncertain and vacillate about the premises, causes and consequences of their choices and actions in their problem-solving practices. While the problem-solving activities are organized and structured in practice, at the same time the importance of these problem-solving activities can be seen as neglected or overseen in many of the planning paradigms underlying most of the planning of construction processes.

The observed problem-solving practices form a continuum from a) structured problem-solving activities to b) a large number of more chaotic and unstructured processes. Both "extremes" have different starting points and introduce a number of unintended consequences. At this point the research contributes to our understanding of the unintended consequences of the routinized practices. The well-structured problem-solving practices that occur in the case of the precast concrete element assembly introduce problem solving as a relatively pragmatic practice that does not address the causes of the failures and defects. Hereby the on-site problem-solving strategy does not handle the underlying causal structures but only solve the manifested problems here-and-now. At the opposite end of the spectrum, one of the unintended consequences of the unstructured problem-solving practices are that the on-site staff - in spite of the problems - reproduce themselves as strong problem solvers who are able to solve all problems themselves without seeking solutions, skills or competencies elsewhere in the company or industry. This can be seen as a hindrance to organizational learning.

The thesis shows how well-organized as well as unstructured problem-solving practices contribute in reproducing the notion, that a certain level of failures must be expected in the construction processes; an acceptable level of defects. Hereby the agents' reflection on the underlying causal structures are described as limited, restraining exchange of experiences, learning as well as quality concerns in the processes.

The thesis investigates how the agents, the business as well as the industry are affected by the experiences of the specific construction project, highlighting the fact that the only time the experiences of the construction project reaches beyond the project boundaries is in relation to the fatal accident. It is seen as a paradox that the consequences of the failure or defects must be that extreme to create a change of methods and social practices in the construction industry. Moreover, it is also highlighted that the local agents actually learn from their experiences and the processes, but their knowledge of the specific solutions are diluted because they are either dismissed or moved to other business areas after project completion. Furthermore, the impact of a significant project manager is highlighted. The observations from the specific project indicates that the projects will be the context in which the redressing of failures and defects are structured and reproduced despite a focus from the company to enhance the link between business processes and projects. Corporate structures are also often omitted or used in a different way than originally intended and specifically “quality structures” (that is both internal as well as external relative to the agent) often proves peripheral. There is a contrast between process engineering incentives and economic incentives; “economy” and partly “progress” (in the form of scheduling) becomes dominant structures, while quality is considered a lower priority. “Quality” and “responsibility” as structures are to a greater extent elements in efforts to achieve economic results and comply with schedule.

Both visible and invisible power relations occur in the project processes. The structure of power between the project and the company is continually challenged in the interactions as well as a continuous positioning occurs internally on the project. The project manager dominates and shapes the problem-solving practices executing his “quiet” invisible power to the in-experienced project participants. This becomes an important eleiii ment in a prolonged structuration against an autonomous problem-solving practice, which is considered to have major negative consequences for the company, both financially and socially.

Theoretically, the thesis contributes to an understanding of the relationship between structural premises and the agents’ actions and the consequences of this. The thesis demonstrates how a sociological perspective can provide important insight for causal analysis of failures and effects, in addition to traditional causal analysis, since the analysis also includes unintended consequences of the agents’ social practices.

The knowledgeable agents are very "visible" in the processes with different prerequisites to achieve their results. The results can moreover best be described as mixed. The role and importance of different structures to the quality of the observed project processes is highlighted; the project staff draws on a varied, nuanced network of


structures. Problem solving is both considered as social practices, but also as the project staffs’ general-dispositions (or habitus); as internal agent-related values. Theoretically the interrelationships between structures are discussed as pluralism and/or hegemony, and the findings show that a certain hierarchy often seems to be present in which certain structures are more dominant than others. However, this interrelationship seems to be context dependent, where the agents are still important but constantly must consider a number of limitations.

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