Enabling behaviour and culture change in the construction sector

Culture is how people behave and work together within an organisation, and the construction sector faces unique challenges when it comes to developing and implementing a cohesive culture.

As part of the Construction Sector Accord’s Towards High Performance webinar series, experts from across industry discussed how we can enable behaviour and culture change in the sector.

Following significant input and collaboration from industry and government agencies, the Construction Sector Accord's three-year Transformation Plan sets out a bold vision for transformation – 24 programmes across eight focus areas focus on driving long-term culture change and helping to create a more sustainable and profitable construction sector.

The Transformation Plan focusses on enabling behaviour and culture change by improving health and safety, strengthening procurement practices, raising standards of leadership, and growing and developing a skilled, sustainable and diverse workforce.

At the webinar experts from the Construction Sector Accord, MartinJenkins, Fonterra, Fulton Hogan and Watercare shared best practice, and discussed their work with government and industry to drive behaviour and culture change in the construction sector.

Understanding culture and behaviour

Speaking on the webinar, Behavioural Scientist from MartinJenkins, Renee Jaine, said culture is known as "the way we do things here".

Jaine compared culture to the fundamentals of a building. The first layer is the foundations, the underlying beliefs and assumptions about what is important. Then the walls and roof, the tangible elements of culture – what is reinforced daily, what people talk about and focus on, and what gets overlooked. Finally, the paint job, a more superficial idea of culture.

"This is what a lot of people think of when they think of culture. They think of the values on the wall – we are innovative, collaborative and those kinds of things – but in terms of driving culture change they're actually at quite a superficial level. You need to kind of address the structure and the foundations if you really want to drive culture change.

"You can't actually change a culture without changing people's behaviour. If culture is in essence, the way we do things here, then obviously the way we do things is the way that people live their lives, the way that people make choices and decisions and go about their days at work. You can't change a culture if you don't change behaviour."

Challenges for the construction sector

The construction sector faces unique challenges when it comes to culture and behaviour. Jaine said in the industry there's often a tension between working fast and efficiently to get value for money, and health and safety – particularly given the sector works with dangerous equipment and machinery, and safety is a key concern. She said efficiency and safety aren't in conflict, but often if these values aren't communicated the right way it can seem like there is a cultural challenge.

Another challenge for the construction industry is around risk. Who creates risk and who holds risk in the long-term? In construction the risks that are created are quite long-term, risks that are created today might not be felt until many years later, as occurs with building defects.

"It's important to embed values and behaviours like we do the right thing even when no one's watching, and we take responsibility for our actions even if it costs," said Jaine.

"But again it's the balance right? You don't want a company taking excess responsibility because that's not fair, so finding the right balance of risk and who holds it, I'd say that's a unique challenge."

Fonterra's people-focused approach

Fonterra is one of several organisations across the country taking the lead by introducing programmes that are driving behaviour and culture change in the construction sector.

Following two construction site fatalities in 2009, Fonterra wanted to understand how it could avoid future incidents. The dairy co-operative decided to fundamentally change the culture at its worksites and over the following 10 years Fonterra developed its Community of People programme, which has fundamentally changed the culture of its work sites with an innovative approach to worker welfare and project efficiency.

David Williams, Cultural Advisor of Capital Projects at Fonterra, said these changes not only made Fonterra's employees and contractors safer and healthier, but also made its projects more productive and successful.

"It's been very interesting watching the responses and the reactions of people who are new to the village concept and the Community of People idea. For many people, it's a kind of disbelief when they first come aboard, but after a while, they understand that there's a reciprocal expectation that if Fonterra's going to provide all these facilities then the expectation is that you provide your best work.

"If you invest in the people, the other things will follow. So that's the first lesson. The second is that culture change is iterative and recursive. Which means that things don't happen in the linear fashion. Sometimes you'll make an intervention and you get kind of an unexpected result.

"Sooner or later, new habits are formed and you do end up with this culture trajectory towards better performance. It's really important to keep at it. If something doesn't work the first time, it doesn't matter. Keep doing it, keep doing it and keep doing it."

Watercare – leading a collaborative culture

New Zealand's largest water and wastewater company, Watercare, is working with its construction partners on an innovative carbon reduction programme. The programme is driven by collaborative, long-term supplier partnerships and is enabling behaviour and culture change through demonstrating industry leadership.

Tuan Hawke, Solutions and Implementation Lead of Programme First at Watercare, said they started by setting a bold vision of a 40% reduction in carbon by 2024, a 20% reduction in infrastructure cost by 2024 and a 20% improvement in wellbeing, health and safety. The vision was supported throughout the organisation, from the top down – led by Watercare’s Chief Infrastructure Officer, Steve Webster, and his team.

"We needed a game changing approach. We couldn't do it the same way as we'd always done it before and we couldn't do it alone. So we needed our partners to be able to help us with it. The previous way that we used to do it was quite short-sighted. Project by project and that didn't deliver the outcomes that we required.

"The programme approach enabled learnings to be shared and reused. Lessons learned can add value. The programme approach enabled us to upskill, keeping people with the skillsets, viability of forward work and keep people engaged and excited."

"If we get the correct people in the room when we kick off, we really understand the project and we go for all partners and it minimises rework, it helps us develop things that are constructible and efficient in what we're doing," said Daniel McKessar from Fulton Hogan, one of Watercare's Programme First construction partners.

Improving the culture of the construction industry

Construction Sector Accord Transformation Director Dean Kimpton said the Transformation Plan is jointly owned by government and industry and has brought industry, central and local government, sector organisations, and other stakeholders together to design and implement targeted initiatives. It is designed to benefit all parts of the sector, including small, medium and large procurers, professional service providers and contractors.

"We are now seeing leaders across the sector, from large and small businesses and government departments, talk with each other about common problems and collaborate on ideas and ways to transform our sector.

"Only by working together can we lift the performance of our industry."

Webinar video

This webinar was recorded on 31 March 2021. It includes speakers from the Construction Sector Accord, MartinJenkins, Fonterra, Watercare and Fulton Hogan.

Watch the full webinar(external link) - vimeo.com

Last updated: 05 May 2021