With productivity rates at the bottom of the charts, the construction industry may be a little too comfortable with waste in the many forms it can take — overlapping workflows, underutilization of talent, overproduction of materials and more. Small inefficiencies that go unnoticed for a long period of time can add up and cause schedule setbacks and project increases, some argue, a bit like the boiling frog scenario.
Proponents of lean construction say there are lessons to be learned from the way that Toyota streamlined its processes by cornering eight types of waste: defects, overproduction, waiting, unused talent, transportation, inventory, motion and extra processing.
Other manufacturing firms have followed suit. Compared to construction’s 1% global annual labor-productivity growth over the past two decades, manufacturing beats the economy-wide average of 2.7% with a 3.6% rate, thanks to a lean framework paired with automation, found a McKinsey & Co. study.
Organizations like the Lean Construction Institute (LCI) and International Group for Lean Construction have interpreted and catered lean thinking to the AEC industry as a way to derive more value from every expenditure of resources on and off the jobsite.
'Bit by the bug'
A company’s journey to get to this point typically starts with an employee or two seeing lean principles in action on a project, witnessing efficiency gains and getting "bit by the bug,” Kristin Hill, director of education programs with LCI, told Construction Dive. They start to learn more about the system, bring those ideas to their projects and eventually take it further up the chain.
High-level buy-in is key to sealing the deal for a lean transition, she added. “Once leadership is on board, wanting to go in a lean direction and setting the vision for that happening, it starts to happen very quickly.”
Lean construction practices are often paired with tools like 5S, a method of organizing a workplace; A3 problem solving focused on continuous improvement; and the Last Planner system, a workflow of planning, making adjustments and sharing lessons learned throughout a project. The full suite of lean principles and tools can be overwhelming to construction professionals because of the change it brings to so many aspects of their work.
“Once leadership is on board, wanting to go in alean direction ... it starts to happen very quickly."
Director of education programs, Lean Construction Institute
But trying to teach all of these things at once can put benefits like schedule reduction and cost savings on hold, according to Hill, who suggests the better approach is to “start somewhere, start today.” Anyone can start to look for and root out waste from their first exposure to lean, she said, because the journey is defined by small but continuous improvements.
As employees are introduced to lean, though, they need to be able to see the concrete ways that the principles apply and can streamline what they do on a daily basis, according to Katie Wells, Brasfield & Gorrie’s director of lean construction. “There is a lot of theory around what lean construction is and why we should embrace it,” she told Construction Dive. But to convince operations staff of its credibility, “you must be able to provide practical applications."
There may also be an opportunity to point to ways that lean might not be so different than what employees are already doing. Southland Industries, for example, talks about lean in a way that’s consistent with the firm’s core values, pointing to things like collaboration, accountability and innovation.
“We identified what was in keeping with lean thinking and also resonated with our employees,” said Jessica Kelley, an operational excellence manager at Southland, in a recent webinar. “We aim to keep it simple.”
One of these simple ideas was implemented in Southland's Mid-Atlantic plumbing shop, where workers adapted a music stand to hold instructions for pipe fabrication. That way, they aren't turning around to look at the instructions every few minutes and potentially confused by which way the illustrated directions are faced.
Other small changes that have taken place since the company adopted lean principles in 2013 include engraving each tool with a number (instead of using tape to adhere the numbers, which inevitably fall off) and keeping them inventoried through Trimble's AllTrak software.
The payoff has been a safer, cleaner, more organized workspace, said Southland construction manager Rob Delawder, with the shop's Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR) falling from 3.80 in 2013 to .04 last year. "A lean shop is a safe shop," he told attendees at a recent tour of Southland's Mid Atlantic Division fabrication shop organized by the Lean Construction Institute's DC Metro Community of Practice.
Design, construction and manufacturing firm Skender was one of the first members of LCI's Chicago community of practice. Its modular construction approach combines lean manufacturing practices, BIM and other technologies to reduce cost and time to market, said Pete Murray, president of Skender Manufacturing.
“By having our architecture, manufacturing and construction leaders all working together from a single source of truth, we’ve developed a hyper-efficient process that eliminates waste and dramatically cuts the time it takes to bring a building to market,” he said. “The learnings from each project inform the next to create even greater time and cost savings.”
The firm's new modular manufacturing facility borrows ideas from Toyota's assembly line, Skender Chief Design Officer Timothy Swanson told Construction Dive. In addition, every morning the Skender team has a stand-up meeting for design, engineering, manufacturing and construction employees to share insights and challenges.
"What's really powerful about that is that all of a sudden you get to a situation where you may have one team that's on a healthcare project and another doing a hotel and there's a detail we've solved on the hotel project that can now work for healthcare, too," Swanson said. "So there is continuous learning even in a quick meeting situation."
Small steps, big wins
Small, focused improvements over time add up to major benefits for project teams, said Hill. Lean really starts to gain traction when these teams can step back and see how far they’ve come, she said.
“I think it’s very important to have somebody who’s in a more neutral position to look out for the health of the team,” she said. “Are we getting burnout? Are we … realizing the little improvements that we are making? We always say, 'celebrate the small successes.'”
But big successes — finishing projects as much as three or four months ahead of schedule, boosting trade productivity by as much as a 200%, winning over the seasoned superintendents — are also well within the realm of possibility, Hill said. The best wins, though, are when lean brings out the best in people. “You see the people pull together differently to solve problems to deal with their day-to-day situation,” she said.
Delawder said the best lean ideas have come from the workers themselves, who have been empowered to speak up with new ideas through a suggestion box, lean champion of the month award and video contests. "Once their ideas start to get implemented they really start to come up with more and more of them," he said. "It's all about building on good ideas and making them better."
One employee idea that's made its way into the firm's practice is the use of fixture carts that hold sinks and toilets that are assembled in the shop and delivered to the jobsite, reducing jobsite storage, labor and trash collection.
This drive for excellence means that lean is a never-ending practice, Delawder said. "It's called a journey because it's a continual process."