July 23, 2012 12:09 am

From a blueprint to an Olympic megaproject

Andrew Davies

Andrew Davies: raising standards

Andrew Davies leads research on managing innovation in infrastructure projects and systems at Imperial College Business School, London.

With Imperial colleague Ian Mackenzie, Dr Davies has examined the role of innovation in the London 2012 Olympics construction “megaproject” and identified the key factors that have underpinned its delivery – on schedule and to budget. Their conclusions have been published as part of the Olympic Development Authority’s Learning Legacy Initiative.

● Have the preparations been sufficient to ensure a successful games?

There is always the danger of things not coming together perfectly. The baggage system meltdown experienced at the opening of London Heathrow airport’s Terminal 5 for example, which failed, despite numerous trials in the six months before its opening in 2008. In retrospect, Terminal 5 was signed off in a disjointed manner, undermining the processes that had led to its success up to that point.

A co-ordinated approach leading up to the launch of a project is critical and this lesson was followed by the ODA and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, which is responsible for staging the games. It was a fundamental reason why construction was completed one year ahead of the Olympics, to allow for thorough testing.

● How has the Olympics project benefited from recent megaprojects?

The ODA learnt from the experience of the Terminal 5 project. Being a “one-off” client, rather than a “repeat” client such as BAA which runs several airports, the ODA appointed a delivery partner, CLM, the construction and project management consortium.This gave the ODA access to some of the top heavyweights in project management, many of whom had worked together successfully on Terminal 5. Establishing a realistic budget and the government’s guarantee of the project were also critical and meant that there was a good working relationship between the client and the delivery partner.

● What were the reasons behind the failure of earlier megaprojects in the UK?

Much has been learnt since the Wembley Stadium construction project, which was delivered four years late and well over budget. In that case the client made the fundamental mistake of adopting traditional fixed-price contracts, which allowed no room for changes in circumstances. When problems arose, there was no collaborative mechanism to resolve the issues. Disputes between client and contractor ended in court, delaying the project.

● What has been learnt since the Wembley project?

The expectation that the risk in delivering such a large project could be contracted out to construction companies was seen to be incorrect. There is now a better understanding that risk has to be shared by the client and its contractors. For example, in the construction of Terminal 5, the client, BAA, elected for a more collaborative approach with the construction consortium, an approach that was adopted from the start of the Olympics project.

● How much importance do you attribute to an “Olympics effect”?

Unlike Wembley, the Olympics project had a non-negotiable deadline from the onset – the summer of 2012. It was essentially too high-profile a project to fail, not only for the ODA but, crucially, for all organisations and individuals involved. Furthermore, the prestige associated with the Olympics contributed to a particularly positive working culture.

● How can the lessons learnt be employed effectively in future projects?

The ODA’s Learning Legacy Initiative aims to raise national standards in the construction sector by codifying lessons from the project. Moreover, the knowledge acquired by those involved will be transferred to future projects. In fact, using the Olympics experience, a slightly more sophisticated version of the delivery partner model has been adopted for Crossrail, London’s next megaproject.

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