All About Lean Construction
As owners and developers of major capital projects keep seeing more construction delays and ever-escalating costs, they have been searching for solutions to control both. The delivery method of construction seems to be a major focus for them to solve delays and cost overruns. In the effort to streamline processes and cut costs, we have seen a plethora of new delivery methods in construction recently.
The most notable was the departure from traditional Design-Bid-Build to the Design-Build method. The Design-Build method was to allow construction to proceed while drawings were being worked out. In addition, Design-Build was to create the “team” approach with the general contractor leading the way to speed construction, lower costs and limit risks. It works pretty well in Europe. But the United States is not Europe and they do not have an attorney at every street corner. The result: costs just keep escalating.
LEAN AND MEAN
Enter Lean Construction. The idea of Lean Construction is to take Design-Build to a new level. This time, the idea is to cut waste and increase labor efficiency all to maximize the value. Some call it improving productivity in construction by trimming the fat. While this may sound like a gimmicky fad that will pass as the economy improves, I have my doubts about it going away anytime soon.
The “Lean” principle has its roots based on lessons learned from the automotive industry and it would be hard pressed to find anyone who would not agree that cars are far better built today than they were 30 years ago (although I think comparing a construction project to a factory-produced car is a stretch).
The Lean concept relies on research teams observing traditional construction practices, digging down deep into the root of a problem and then implementing a solution. For example, I read a case study report for Lean Construction on installing metal door frames that dealt with the problem of grouting them. The team analyzed the process and asked why they did what they did and a final solution was made to cut out wasted materials and save time. While this would seem impressive to some reading the report, I suspect many of our readers experienced at grouting door frames would take away something very different from the case study.
Contractors experienced at grouting door frames would note the crew being observed in the case study was terribly inefficient. This led to an obvious solution and was corrected as it improved “their” process. However, the new and improved process is still behind what many wall and ceiling contractors are currently doing on projects every day across the country.
I have been around many contractors and have seen a wide range of practices to do the same basic operation—some are very good, efficient and already Lean; others are awful with large wastes in materials and time. This is one thing that makes our industry so different from others. We have so much more variation: in practices, skill level and project types. Life would be simple if we all built a 2,000-square-foot box-shaped home with one type of material. Sure, we can put some add-ons and call it something different but we do not have that luxury. Our business is unique and this is why models, case studies or even marketing plans founded on other industries often do not plug-in well to solve wall and ceiling contracting issues.
Get Lean? If you are a contractor surviving today, how much leaner could you get? If I had the case to put to people’s ear, I would suggest observing several operations to find out who is doing it best. They would probably just ask, making another mistake, believing that contractors would be happy to share their secrets of efficiency. That efficiency is what makes them special and able to survive. Why would they share it? This exemplifies our dissimilar industries; they do not understand the nuances of our business model.
We will resist helping, whether consciously or subconsciously, it is our contracting nature. Another more obvious difference is automakers can see what the competition produces and what their car sells for by walking into any dealership; a luxury we do not have. Now you want me to give my competitor who is undercutting prices a helping hand? W&C