When Wim van den Bouwhuijsen reached retirement age, he decided that it would be a waste to stay on the sidelines without putting to good use the practical knowledge he had gained during his long career in the eponymous family business. Because a lot goes wrong in the construction industry, he says. “It surprises me that tenders are based purely on the lowest price. That leads to a situation where contractors are forced to take advantage of their subcontractors, who carry out most of the work.”
In order to make a decent living, these subcontractors are also forced to push the boundaries in terms of what’s still responsible, he says. The system basically plays contractors and subcontractors off against one another. “That’s disastrous for the atmosphere between people working on the construction project, and it makes it much more difficult to get a good result.”
In 2008, Van den Bouwhuijsen contacted Ger Maas, who was a professor at TU/e’s department of the Built Environment at the time. “I happened to know him because we had thought together about a school merger in Vught, where I live. Because I had an HTS diploma, I was thinking about following a Master’s program, but he said that with my experience I was more suited to be a teacher than a student, and he offered me to start a PhD research. I thought that was quite an honor.”
The retired PhD student immediately started to teach, including lectures in building process theory. He became more and more fascinated by ‘Lean’ management, a philosophy for mass production of cars that was once introduced at Toyota. “Construction is no mass production, because each project is different,” he emphasizes. “But the literature showed that it could also be possible to apply the principles from this theory to the construction industry,” Finding out how exactly is something he decided to dedicate himself to during his PhD research.
Reality on paper
After his original supervisor Ger Maas retired, his colleague Jos Lichtenberg took over as supervisor. At first, Van den Bouwhuijsen thought he could use the recorded information about construction projects for his analysis. On further consideration, this information proved not to be very reliable. Because recorded information about the construction process is a reality only on paper, Lichtenberg explains. “It’s not in the interest of subcontractors to report that brickwork is ahead of schedule. That lead will disappear like snow melting in the sun after a few bad weather days.”
That is why it was decided to approach the research more qualitatively, by holding surveys at major construction companies. That was quite difficult at times, Van den Bouwhuijsen says. “Because of my ties to our family business they saw me as a competitor. While I actually want the entire sector to benefit from my findings.” On the other hand, his PhD student was taken seriously from the start due to his wide experience, supervisor Lichtenberg emphasizes. “His seniority played a positive role in that. And I think it’s admirable that Wim found the energy at his age to radically change his research.”
Fortunately, that change yielded results: the findings of 335 respondents provide a proper insight into the construction process, Van den Bouwhuijsen says. “The most important thing is that contractors and subcontractors feel exactly the same about it. Subcontractors need to be managed differently. In the current situation, they are told what to do from above, and they hardly dare to speak up because otherwise they simply get replaced. My advice is to involve subcontractors in the tender process and to let them exert influence on this process.”
The ‘Lean’ management philosophy offers tools for this, according to Van den Bouwhuijsen, who was inspired by this philosophy to set up a conceptual model for the construction industry: PISM (‘Proces Integratie Samenwerking Model,’ or Process Integration Collaboration Model). “The idea is that in the end, it’s about people. Atmosphere is an important facet of this research. When you work with regular subcontractors you get to know one another, and you can learn from mistakes made in the past. In addition, the construction process should collaboratively be looked at in a goal orientated way. There is still much to be gained there.”
These past few months, the 75-year-old spent seven days a week from early morning until the evening behind his computer, not always to the satisfaction of his wife and other family members. He still doesn’t feel the urge to retreat to the sidelines though. “I would like it if my findings were to be put into use. During my defense, we came up with the idea of turning my thesis into a handy book for the sector,” the brand-new doctor says. “But I need to ask for permission from home first.”
The picture shows Wim van den Bouwhuijsen (right), and his promotor Jos Lichtenberg.