London’s Lessons for Good Management

The London Summer Olympics are over and it was, from start to finish, a jolly good show. Underneath the sport and pageantry—the pixie girl gymnasts, the Mary Poppins troupe, the floating and flaming rings, the lightning Bolt—was a remarkable organizational triumph, and a message for those involved in managing power plants and projects.

Behind the spectacle lay a tough, resilient physical infrastructure and a lesson on how important construction management is to building successful enterprises. I took that lesson from a presentation in Baltimore in July at the Construction Industry Institute by Alistair G. Gibb, professor of complex project management of the European Construction Institute and the UK’s Loughborough University.

Gibb described the monumental, multi-billion-dollar task that faced Great Britain in transforming a marshy East End Docklands site into an Olympic venue. Among the challenges was a dangerous residue of World War II. The Germans bombed the area heavily during the Battle of Britain, meaning that unexploded ordinance was among the hazards the workers faced.

Hazard was always on the minds of the managers of the Olympic construction project. When Lord Sebastian Coe, Olympic gold medalist and former world record holder in the 800 meter and mile races and head of the Olympic endeavor, laid out the goals for the construction project, said Gibb, he laid down a tough challenge. Coe told the project’s construction managers, “Build us an Olympic Park. Do it all on time. Do it all on budget. Do it all on quality. And, by the way, don’t kill anybody.”

Coe wasn’t joking. A graffito sprayed onto a wall at the East London project reads, “Olympics are painted in workers blood.” Two workers were killed during Olympic construction in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996. One worker died during construction of the 2000 Sydney games; 14 were killed in Athens during the 2004 Olympic construction; 10 died in Beijing during construction of the 2008 Olympics. But no one was killed building the London venues. From a worker safety standpoint, working construction at the London Olympics was the equivalent of working in an office.

London’s safety record wasn’t because it was an easy job. The project was daunting, with five major venues, 10 new railway lines, hundreds of acres of parkland, new residential high rises to house athletes in the Olympic Village, 30 new bridges, and unique buildings designed to be scaled back to a smaller size once the Olympics were over. Just the media facilities amounted to over 900,000 square feet, Gibb noted, providing workspace for 20,000 broadcasters and scribblers from around the world.

Managing the human resources to build the Olympic Park was a mind-boggling task, particularly the task of communicating with supervisors and workers. Some 46,000 people worked on the project, Gibb said, with a peak workforce of 14,500. They accumulated 77 million work hours. One of the results of the reach of the historic British Empire was that managers had to deal with workers speaking 12 different languages on the construction site. So a lot of job instructions ended up as pictures, rather than written material.

Continuous planning and evaluation was important, Gibb said. The managers employed what they called a “6 and 6 plan.” That is, they continuously looked at what they would be doing in 6 weeks, and in 6 months, and adjusted at every step to incorporate what they had learned during the project.

Looking back at the Olympian project, Gibb said the key question is not “how” things worked out so well, but “why.” In asking that question, he said, the project designers and managers concluded: “It’s not rocket science, but the things we found that were making a difference were the things we all know about—respect, trust, empowering parties to work to the best effect, motivating people to achieve more than they think they can, being consistent, alignment in the supply chain, clarity, transparency, share commitment, and thinking ahead. They were good people with good processes.”

And, by the way, the construction project came in under budget, on time, and with extremely high quality. And, again, no one died.

You can check out a time-lapse video of the growth of the London Olympic site here.

—Kennedy Maize (@kennedymaize) is MANAGING POWER’s executive editor


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