It’s not about the room – how digital control rooms foster constant improvement

Aren’t digital control rooms just some flat screen monitors in a portacabin? Not so, argues Marc Roberts, Operations Director at LC International – they’re a crucial method for ensuring transparency, accountability and driving improvement in every aspect of a construction project.

Marc, to start, let’s go back to the very basics – what is a digital control room, and where did the concept come from?

A digital control room is a way of targeting improvement, bringing transparency at programme-level, and ensuring that everyone involved in a project is working to meet and exceed its KPIs.

Physically, it’s very simple – it’s a room full of digital screens that display everything you need to know about the project in progress.

If it’s done right, you should be able to step inside, and get an instant snapshot of how you’re performing, the issues you’re facing, and what you can do to overcome them.

The core concept is actually very old. When I first came into the industry, it was common practise to have a ‘war room’ – a space that served a very similar purpose to a modern digital control room, but in an analogue fashion.

It’s an approach that first emerged in the military. We’ve all seen films where a group of generals stand around a table, discussing strategy and pushing different regiments around a map. The context is obviously very different, but a digital control room serves essentially the same purpose.

In manufacturing and especially automotive, it’s a methodology that really took off in the ‘70s, pioneered by car giants like Toyota in particular. In the decades since, it’s had enormous impacts on efficiency and productivity, and has been gradually adopted by a whole range of different sectors as a result.

Tell us about how they went from marker pens and whiteboards to twenty-first century technology, and how that’s changed what digital control rooms can do.

I have to admit that originally I was a real technophobe. I thought there was huge value in the old way of doing things – dry whiteboards, post-it notes and so on. It was extremely simple, everyone could understand it, and everyone could engage with it.

My fear was that introducing technology would spoil that. If you have to write your own targets on a post-it note and stick it on a wall where everyone can see it, you own that process. If a computer automatically does it for you, you don’t – that was my attitude at the time.

Fast-forward a few years, and the technology has rapidly caught up. Now, I’ve fully embraced it.

It saves time, makes the data gathering process much more efficient, and frees up the members of your team to get on with taking action on improvement, rather than collating the information they need to know what needs improving.

It’s also opened up a whole range of other really exciting possibilities, too. In the old days, obviously, you had to be physically in the room to make use of it. The closest you got to ‘remote access’ was taking a photo of your post-its out with you on site.

Now, you can access the room – or all the insight contained in the room – from wherever you are. You can also bring in people from further down the supply chain, by inviting your manufacturers and suppliers to participate remotely too.

And it saves time for people much closer to home. You might be on a project with 60 contractors, working on a site the size of four football pitches. Simply walking from one side of that site to the other is a waste of time and energy that could be used much more productively if you just accessed the ‘room’ from a laptop instead.

What makes a good digital control room, and what are some of the common pitfalls?

My acid test for a good control centre is this – when I walk in, can I see if the project is on track, what the biggest issues or opportunities are, and what improvement actions are being taken all within the first thirty seconds?

If I can, it’s working. If I can’t, it isn’t.

A good control room needs to be simple, intuitive and engaging. When we come across customers who’ve tried to implement them before and claim they don’t work, that’s because theirs didn’t deliver in those three key areas.

If you walk into a control room and all the screens are turned off, it’s not working properly. Visual Management is making information visual and accessible to inspire action. If you’re having to fumble for power switches and find passwords, that defeats the whole object of having one.

Equally, though, I’ve come across companies who have digital control rooms that look visually perfect – you go in, every piece of information you need is immediately available, and the project is running exactly to plan.

However, when you dig a bit deeper, you start to see the problem. The project isn’t improving. It all looks very pretty, but they’re not using the data they’re collecting to take action and accelerate their performance.

Yes, you might be running according to plan. But if you go into your control room and all the performance indicators are green, you’re not being ambitious enough. No problem is a problem!

The room has two key purposes. The first is to control and manage the programme day-to-day – that’s what the kind of businesses I’m talking about here are doing well. But they’re also supposed to help you improve what you’re doing.

Ultimately, the most important thing anyone need to know about digital control rooms is this – it’s not about the room. It’s about facilitating a culture and a mindset of constant improvement.