by Ted Garrison
November 2, 2007

Lean ConstructionLean Construction Lean construction is about thinking lean in order to accomplish more with less and in less time, but more importantly, getting the job done in ways that provide greater value to the client by delivering exactly what the client wants. Lean construction starts with value as defined by the client, but goes further by eliminating waste in the construction process.

Clemson Professor Roger Liska’s study on construction productivity estimated construction productivity at 40 percent. It’s not surprising that the construction industry’s productivity isn’t what it should be, but it’s time for the construction industry to make changes. When any industry, not just construction, has implemented lean thinking, productivity has been seen to double virtually over night

Increased Value

A contactor increases the value offered by first defining the project from the client’s perspective. This requires a change in the contractor’s attitude. Usually contractors believe they are responsible for responding to the client’s stated demands as described in the plans and specs or in the technical discussions with the client on a design-build project. This passive approach leaves much of the client’s requirements undefined because it only focuses on the bricks and mortar aspects of the project.

There is very little difference in technical performance among high performing contractors. For example, if the plans call for 3,000-pound concrete, all the contractors will provide 3,000-pound concrete. Poor quality contractors aren’t a threat to quality performing contractors. The bigger problems are when contractors worry only about following the plans and specs—only following the direction and nothing more.

If contractors want to act like the experts, they need to take a more proactive approach. I define a client as: "Someone under the protection of." This definition requires a paradigm shift. Think about it. How long would you keep your attorney, your CPA or your financial planner if you didn’t think they were protecting you? So why should construction clients keep their contractors if those contractors aren’t protecting them?

This means contractors must act as advisors. But too many attorneys advise their clients not to do that because they might be held responsible. That position is ridiculous because the contractor is paid for his/her expertise. Then again, maybe that’s why profit margins have declined because contractors are only following directions and providing a commodity. If you disagree, consider your response to your doctor, if he said, “I agree, you’re sick. So what do you want me to do?” Sounds silly doesn’t it? But, it’s just as silly when contractors refuse to use their expertise.

Instead, contractors need to increase the services and relationships they have with their clients. I’m not referring to a relationship built by taking a client to a ball game or on hunting trips, but a relationship based on intimate involvement in a client’s situation. High performing contractors do a great job on construction; they help their clients find the best solutions for their situation. In other words, the contractor helps the client operate this business more efficiently. This is important because the amount of value a contractor can deliver on the physical building is limited, but the amount of value the contractor can provide a client on his/her ongoing operations is virtually limitless.

If the contractor speaks the client’s language and understands the client’s problems, then he/she can provide real solutions for the client. The value of these solutions will make the contractor’s performance priceless.

Eliminating Waste

To deliver the best value, contractors must eliminate waste in the construction process. Contractors must understand how an event occurs to eliminate waste. An event is something that occurs over time and is illustrated by Figure 1.

Every event has initial conditions and if the initial conditions are known, then the final outcome can be predicted. Most people accept that idea. However, when people don’t know all the initial conditions, which is the usual situation, problems occur. There is only one outcome based on the initial conditions, but when the initial conditions are not known, it causes difficulty predicting the outcome. For example, if you never heard of gravity and stepped off the edge of a building, do think there is any doubt about the result?

Every event has initial conditions and if the initial conditions are known, then the final outcome can be predicted. Most people accept that idea. However, when people don’t know all the initial conditions, which is the usual situation, problems occur. There is only one outcome based on the initial conditions, but when the initial conditions are not known, it causes difficulty predicting the outcome. For example, if you never heard of gravity and stepped off the edge of a building, do think there is any doubt about the result?

Therefore, the first step in eliminating waste is to understand the initial conditions. While usually no one can identify all the initial conditions, experience allows qualified contractors to determine the most important conditions. If the final outcome isn’t what you desire, then you need to change the initial conditions. This is called pre-planning.

In the rush to get projects started, too many contractors skip over pre-construction planning because they believe they can manage the process once they get started. This logic is flawed because once you start the ball rolling in the wrong direction it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to change its direction. For example, what happens if the general contractor doesn’t take time to insure each subcontractor understands its responsibilities on the project? This creates the possibility that one of the subcontractors isn’t capable of performing as required and you can’t make a subcontractor perform if he/she isn't capable. This leaves the general contractor with several poor choices. He can take over the sub’s responsibilities, replace the sub or settle for poor performance. None of these solutions is ideal. Instead, by performing a limited amount of due diligence before beginning the project, all resulting problems can be avoided.

This preliminary due diligence should include some past performance review, a risk analysis prepared by the sub to demonstrate his/her understanding of the project and interviews with the key project personnel to insure they understand their role and responsibility in the project. These steps are not complicated and don’t require a lot of time, but the effort is well worth it to eliminate problems.

Once a problem has been identified, the DMAIC (Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control) model illustrated in Figure 2 can help identify and resolve the problem in a structured manner. The process starts by defining the problem or item that needs to be changed.

Once a potential problem has been identified and defined, it can then be measured, analyzed, improved and controlled to obtain the desired results. For example, if there is some question about the potential performance of a subcontractor, you can start a measurement process by reviewing past performance, requiring a risk analysis of the project and interviewing the project staff. If this subcontractor measures up, then the project moves forward, but if the measurements indicate the subcontractor doesn’t meet the required skill and knowledge, the general contractor can take appropriate action.

The analysis would consist of reviewing the various options and determining the best course of action. The analysis would consist of reviewing the various options and determining the best course of action. In essence, implementing this new course is the improvement step. Once the improvement is in place, the control step is used to insure the solution is in fact following the prescribed new course. In other words, if we keep the subcontractor or select another subcontractor, we need to insure through controls that they are performing as agreed by all parties.

Solutions are often based on a trial and error process which is why the DMAIC Model is presented as a cycle. What if, despite careful analysis, apparent sound improvements and controls put into play, the desired results are still not being achieved? Then, the problem must be redefined and the process should start over.

The construction process is somewhat a trial and error process, just like any innovative process; therefore, the industry needs a structured process to more effectively deal with the unique challenges that face every project.

Lean construction provides an organized and structured format to help contractors perform more efficiently and effectively. While no process is the end-all solution, lean thinking is a powerful tool that all contractors should use.

 

Construction Business Owner, May 2007