The real-world case for lean construction
AUSTIN, Texas—Lean integrated project delivery starts with a set of ideals around collaboration and waste reduction, but when put in action on jobsites, it's about driving projects ahead of schedule and under budget, said Felipe Engineer-Manriquez, corporate lean manager at McCarthy Building Cos. during a session at Procore's Groundbreak Construction Conference last week.
The labor shortage is not likely to let up for some time despite firms’ best efforts at recruitment, said co-panelist Greg Martin, senior manager of operational excellence at The Weitz Co. What's more is that construction spending shows no signs of slowing. This leaves contractors with one option: work more productively with the resources they have by eliminating all forms of waste.
According to the Lean Construction Institute, waste can take eight forms on construction jobsites:
Transportation — unnecessary movement of people, equipment and materials between processes.
Inventory — more material or tasks than are required.
Motion — unnecessary movement of people or equipment within a process.
Waiting — delays or stoppages.
Overproduction — making something before it’s needed.
Overprocessing — carrying out more processes than the customer requires.
Defects — production that requires rework.
Unutilized resources — failing to utilize all talent and resources available.
On a Hilton hotel project in Des Moines, Iowa, Weitz asked all trades and stakeholders involved to see what they could do to eliminate inefficiencies in these categories. With approval from Hilton, the contractor worked with the architectural team to design a prefabricated bathroom pod that could show up to the site, ready for installation in each unit. They worked out the kinks of installation through Navisworks simulations and on-site were able to install 250 bathrooms in 11 days, which Martin said was actually more time than they needed.
The project team saved 15 trips per bathroom compared to the average workflow involving tile installation, paint finishes, toilet fixtures and more. “The trips of going up and down a manhoist, going all the way to the far end of the floor, taking out materials — all that motion’s saved,” Martin said.
In addition, the plumber was able to prefabricate standardized components and the door installer eliminated waste by the simple step of delivering doors with hardware already prepared. “The more parts and pieces we can put together [to] make this an erection set where it shows up and goes into place, that’s eliminating waste," he said. "It’s adding value."
A window into waste
An August report from PlanGrid and FMI Corp. found that construction professionals spend 35% of their day on “non-optimal” tasks stemming from inefficiencies on the project, such as hunting down information, resolving conflicts and doing rework. This translates to more than 14 hours lost per person each week, or almost two full working days that could be spent moving the project forward instead, the report found.
Inefficiencies seep into many areas of the construction business, both on- and off-site, but this doesn’t have to be the case, according to Engineer-Manriquez. “Think about these types of waste as unwanted house guests,” he said. “They’re in your house right now. You don’t want them to stay, so you should really get to know them to see what makes them tick and get them out as soon as possible.”
Lean methods like pull planning (sequencing a project by working backward from a target completion date) and A3 reports (a collaborative decision-making workflow developed by Toyota) give companies a window into waste that they might otherwise miss, lean proponents argue.
For example, McCarthy used an A3 framework to address a pattern of late payments to customers. Accountants and various division heads started with a deep dive into the problem, finding that the 45-day average was even more delayed than they realized. They were able to reshuffle their processes and avoid a $300,000 alternative — a software that may or may not have saved them a dollar, Engineer-Manriquez said.
Who doesn’t want more time and money?
“We know that projects that utilize a high lean intensity are three times more likely to finish ahead of schedule and two times more likely to finish under budget,” Engineer-Manriquez said, compared to projects involving traditional methods that don’t always account for the complexity of construction. Yet, lean construction is not taking off the way it should given industrywide challenges, panelists and attendees remarked.
So why the hesitance?
Sometimes a lean proponent’s conviction that this is the way to go can put off employees and subcontractors, Engineer-Manriquez cautioned. The first and most important lean principle is respect for people, he said, and this should include a recognition that they are expert in what they do, whether or not it fits the lean formula yet.
“Accept people exactly where they are” and allow them to “voluntarily want to come and see the value,” he said, and if they don’t, that value probably isn’t being communicated well.
Collaboration and information-sharing are central to lean, and underpinning these are conversations that start with: “I’m not here to tell you what to do; I’m here to support what you already do to make your job easier,” Engineer-Manriquez said. Over time, that dialogue “sustains the change” and allows it to grow, he said.
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