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Construction must step into the optimal performance zone

Anthony Heaton 30 Mar 2015

Routines, habits and finding comfort in what we know are strange quirks of human behaviour which influence our actions, as much at work as they do at home. We all probably have a favourite mug, pair of trainers, holiday destination, brand of beans or side of the bed. But is resorting to what is familiar limiting us? Is it worth stepping out of our comfort zone to be more productive?

The 'comfort zone' can be defined as a situation where you feel secure, comfortable and in control. A person in their comfort zone will use a limited set of behaviours to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk. Stepping out of the comfort zone raises anxiety and generates a stress response, which results in an enhanced level of concentration and focus, a response known as the "optimal performance zone". In terms of development, the objective of a trainer or manager is to cause a person to enter their optimum performance zone for a sufficient period of time to gain new skills and achieve performance1.

The comfort zone in construction is all the tried and tested processes, sequences and techniques we use to build a building. To improve things or to speed up construction processes we need to follow a leaner approach, spending more time internalising (looking at ourselves and questioning actions) before externalising (getting started) and finding problems as we go. We need to step out of our comfort zones to enter the optimal performance zone.

The Sunderland College team thought outside of the box in terms of construction sequencing

So what does the ‘optimal performance zone’ look like on a construction project? Taking the example of how we sequence a building is a good start.

I recently visited a project BAM is constructing for Sunderland College right in the heart of the city. The freshly enabled site resembled more a lunar landscape than a construction site, but hidden behind mountains of aggregate, crushers and loading shovels, I witnessed a really simple example of this change for real. A finished, fully planted, landscaped section of the site complete with trees and paths. After a quick pause, the burning question in my mind was why have they done that? To me it stood out as wrong, but it wasn’t wrong, it was just different!

When questioned about it, the project manager explained that he had looked at the site and realised that an operation that was as simple as planting trees was going to cause an enormous headache if completed as programmed in the last few months of the project. Access was terrible, soils would need to be craned into place, planting would need to be carried through the building and the works would take at least two weeks longer and be significantly more expensive. Completing it now on an empty site before a single foundation has been dug has caused no issues whatsoever. It was a breeze!

Trees have been planted even before foundations have gone in

Actions like this require collaboration with other parties and when questioning the landscape designer on the scheme for tree types and planting details, his response was “I haven’t been asked for this information this early in 30 years.” It just goes to show how comfortable we get doing it the ‘normal’ way.

We need to encourage more people to move out of their comfort zone and to challenge construction sequences. The Government has set out some ambitious 2025 targets for the construction industry and we won’t be able to achieve them unless we embrace efficiency, innovation and work in the optimum performance zone.  Concepts like the circular economy and lean will need to become part of everyday life if we want to really make a difference.

Anthony Heaton is a Sustainability Advisor at BAM.

BAM is a CE100 company working with the Ellen MacArthur foundation to change our approach to waste and enable a circular economy. If you would like to talk to us about the circular economy, contact us.


White, A. K., From Comfort Zone to Performance Management, White & MacLean Publishing, 2009.



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