For many industries other than commercial construction, every citizen is a likely customer. The customer pays for the product or service and uses or consumes it themselves. So, they are sensitive to both cost and quality. Consider the following as an example of how customers react when they don’t perceive value. In the 1970’s American cars required frequent service, they didn’t last long, and they just didn’t seem to embody craftsmanship. Meanwhile, engineers in Japan were rethinking processes and products with a goal of eliminating waste. The result was a higher quality product with several feature improvements. So, American consumers started to give their business to the Japanese auto makers.
In the construction industry, an owner is less likely to be the person occupying the project at the completion. They’re somewhat of a third-party buyer. They are buying something often with money that is not theirs, personally, and they will not personally use what they buy. That relationship seems to insulate the industry from the necessity to improve to realize their potential.
The value stream from general contractor to subcontractor seems to have hundreds of years of tradition that is unaffected by the lessons learned about elimination of waste in other industries. In fact, layers of waste (expense) are added to protect themselves from each other and owners will find it more difficult to import a building than consumers found it to buy a Japanese car. So, if we can’t import a competitor, we’ll have to stop tolerating the waste. So, we want to fix the industry and there’s an increasing acceptance that Lean is the right methodology. But, what’s missing?
Practicality. A starting point.
Lean practitioners often start at a high-level discussion like Quality “experts” did in the auto industry in the 1970’s. They correctly include words on their posters and slide decks like efficiency, productivity and optimization as they attempt to appeal to senior managers in the construction industry. Appealing to leaders is the right thing to do because Lean is a company-wide culture. The CEO contributes as much, or more, than the construction worker or the person cleaning up the construction site. This irrefutable lesson was taught by Deming in the auto industry, adopted by the Japanese, and resulted in a formidable – and almost existential – challenge to American auto makers.
So, leadership in the construction industry pays handsomely for Lean consultants and some even buy into the idea. But they don’t know what to do next. Posters are hung up proclaiming “we’re a Lean company”, directing people to eliminate waste, and talking about value for customers. But the people that are selling, bidding, or building projects want to know: “What am I supposed to write on my task list that, if I do it, will be a step in the direction toward Lean?”
People that understand Lean need to be inserted in construction projects where the work is happening. They need to be empowered to overrule the “but this is the way we’ve always done it” resistance to change. It’s not that their ideas are going to be revolutionary. On the contrary, at the working level the ideas will seem like they are no big deal.
Waste isn’t taking a million dollars out of the corporate checking account and setting it on fire. Waste is the plumber showing up to the job site at 6:00 AM only to learn that the plumbing material isn’t expected to arrive at the job site until 2:30 PM. Waste on a construction project is a death of a thousand cuts and eliminating it requires rethinking accepted habits, conduct, and behavior. It requires a new culture. A culture of Lean.
I contend that teaching Lean in the context of current project will better teach people how to think Lean than a presentation or classroom setting. Someone trained in Lean thinking that is assigned to a current project might:
- Optimize the performance of the enterprise versus letting each department fight to have their work optimized. A business development team coming in at the last minute with a hot job that needs to be estimated in half the normal time is setting the project up for costly errors. A strong pre-construction department taking a “my-way-or-the-highway” without getting feedback and buy in from the eventual field team might be setting them up for issues in the field.
- Evaluate processes to look for gaps or redundancies. Companies that are more mature are likely to have processes that were created and modified by several managers over years. Each manager had their own experience (or lack of it), knowledge, and motives. The result is often a Frankenstein of process quilt work that is less efficient and effective as it could be. Process mapping critical processes is essential to ensure Lean.
- Question why a temporary lay-down area hasn’t been created to store material near where work is being conducted. Craftsmen moving material instead of performing their craft is a waste.
- Not accept “I think so” when they ask if material is on hand. They’ll trust, but verify. They’ll ask for a picture of the material on-site to be sent to them.
- In fact, they’ll smell a rat every time anybody says “I think so”, “maybe”, I have a gut feel”, or “kind of”. They deal in facts, data and commitments.
- When the project manager creates a schedule that relies on the superintendent making creative arrangements with subcontractors, he’ll realize the schedule was created with the “curse of knowledge” and requires more communication, coordination and planning than is customary. If the schedule is released as-is and everybody was left to figure it out on their own, there would be chaos. The superintendent, if not properly communicated with, will resort to the industry standard “those guys in the office don’t know how to build buildings”. The Lean expert would insist on a written plan that accompanies the schedule and explains the site choreography and ask those involved to approve and accept it before the work was started.
- Lean thinkers will communicate frequently with subcontractor’s management. They provide complimentary feedback if everything is going as planned. They provide a performance review if there are things like poor quality, people not showing up to the site, or materials being wasted. They’ll assume that no self-respecting manager at a subcontractor wants to be known for those indicators of wasteful performance.
- Break the schedule down into specific date-driven tasks and reconfirm commitment from those responsible to performing the work.
- Not accept a disorderly construction site.
- Conduct project review meetings with the field team, preconstruction team, and business development team at appropriate milestones to ensure what was planned is what is being executed and look for opportunities to improve the quality of handoffs through the process on future projects.
- Recognize that all rework is waste and insist on high quality the first time.
- Ensure lessons learned from mistakes are communicated to the whole team so they are not repeated.
- Only accept clear scope documents and credible plans and document everything else as an issue to be solved. Lean thinkers will look at gaps in scope, schedule, buy-out, and methods planning as the potential to drive change orders or rework later in the project when it’s more expensive and will add to the duration of the schedule. Intense and detailed planning eliminates waste downstream.
- Optimize the execution of the entire project rather than allowing the sub-optimization of individual subcontractor scope because of personalities, conduct, or behavior.
- Create appropriate collaborative coordination between trades for sequential dependencies or when expediency requires that they work in the same area at the same time.
Those bullet points do not define Lean. Each item is an example of a Lean thought. The list is intended to demonstrate Lean thinking. It’s about questioning everything. The more of an industry custom something is, the more consideration should be given to the question of whether it can be done more efficiently.
When you read those bullet points you probably thought they were underwhelming. You might’ve even been thinking that you already do these things. Does everybody in your company do them? Is it in your culture? Is your senior leadership auditing to ensure the culture is being respected? People will perform to the lowest standards senior management is willing to accept.
I believe a practical starting point introducing Lean into your construction company is to start the continuous improvement process of questioning everything. If it ain’t broke, break it. Start with the projects you’re working on now. If your team is so steeped in tradition that they can’t imagine a way to improve, you might consider bringing some Lean minded people in from other industries to come in and immerse themselves on to your teams. The Lean questions will start immediately and they can begin process mapping for more broad improvements across your company. The elimination of waste more than funded the effort in other industries.
Starting with the context of actual plans, tasks, and actions that have to take place on current projects is the birth of your new culture. It transforms Lean from an academic idea-of-the-day to a real mindset of continuous improvement. You’ll develop the habit of not taking things for granted and starting to ask “why am I doing it this way?”. Ultimately, you won’t just look, but you’ll see. Waste will jump out at you and you’ll be ready to receive the bigger message the next time you sit through a Lean workshop or presentation.