For a construction company, few environments are more demanding to work in than Heathrow Airport. With more than a million passengers to process every week, downtime is not an option. But nor is expecting those passengers to wade through a dirty and potentially dangerous construction site on their arrival or departure.
What the situation demands is nothing less than an 'invisible builder', and the success of the BAA Fit Out team in meeting this most exacting brief earned them this year's award in the Manufacturing/Engineering category.
BAA Fit Out is not a business in its own right but a virtual organisation consisting of a core group of BAA managers working alongside personnel seconded from its first-tier suppliers. They are based at Heathrow but work at airports around the country for both BAA clients and external customers such as airlines and retailers, fitting out spaces within the airport buildings as well as installing facilities such as toilets, walkways and fixed links to aircraft.
The extraordinary demands of working in airports - Heathrow's 12% annual passenger growth, for instance, puts a huge strain on space - have prompted innovative approaches from the Fit Out team. Much of the work has to be carried out during a five-hour time window every night when the airport is closed, which means that cranes, building materials and other heavy machinery are whisked away before the first passengers appear in the morning.
One such strategy is to standardise components into a product catalogue and to build as much as possible off-site, reducing construction to the more manageable processes of manufacture and assembly. Another approach has been to rationalise the number of construction workers on site by issuing them with a passport that provides accreditation as well as documenting their experience and expertise. 'Six years ago, 25,000 construction workers came through Heathrow every year,' says Clive Coleman, BAA Fit Out's team leader. 'We're close to getting that down to 2,000- 3,000.'
The BAA team demonstrated impressive results on almost every measure: 94% of projects completed on time and on budget; safety well above industry norms; and dramatic time and cost reductions. Installing a fixed aircraft link, for example, used to take six weeks, but it has been reduced to four days, with a 12% cost-saving.
Much of this success is due to meticulous planning and management of each project. A team is selected on the basis of their expertise. In the case of those seconded from suppliers, this is irrespective of whether their own employer is involved in the contract. An action plan is drawn up, including a detailed profile of the customer, and there is an internal project launch. During the project, a continuous schedule of client meetings at every level ensures that changes can be quickly anticipated and any problems addressed.
Collaborative tools make progress readily accessible to the client, and after completion the Fit Out team places great emphasis on sharing the knowledge gained from one project and applying it to the next.
What BAA Fit Out has created could be regarded as a blueprint on co-operative working for the rest of the construction industry. And it has been done with the interests of the customer's customers - the passengers - ultimately at heart. As David Bray, production leader, proudly puts it: 'There are 400,000 aircraft movements at Heathrow every year, and we can say that we haven't delayed a single one.'