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Lean in and Learn

In today’s competitive world, contractors must streamline operations and come up with innovative solutions to a variety of construction challenges. Many firms have embraced Lean methodology as a way to deliver projects more efficiently.

“The heart of Lean is learning to see waste and finding ways to eliminate it at the root cause,” says Andreas Phelps, PhD, an integrated project executive, based in Dallas, at Balfour Beatty Construction, a member of multiple AGC chapters.

Stewart Trapino, vice president and director of Learning and People Development at Linbeck Group in Houston, a member of multiple chapters, describes Lean as a method of continuously improving and streamlining processes.

“Lean is a catalyst of collaboration,” adds Charlie Garbutt, CEO of Garbutt Construction Co. of Dublin, Georgia, and a member of the AGC Lean Forum. “It involves hundreds of people coming together and working together as a team.”

“We have tried to make Lean part of our culture,” says Kris Manning, vice president in Clark Construction Group’s Western Region in Irvine, California, a member of multiple AGC chapters. As an example, estimators and a crossdisciplinary, internal team studied the effectiveness of its bid processes, such as monitoring how many steps bid captains made and how long estimators waited for information. By setting up a more open design, captains took one-quarter mile fewer steps each day; subcontractor meetings were set up at the most responsible moments during the bid; and technology was implemented to simplify communication.

“If we can spend more time developing a win strategy and less on processes that do not add value, it makes us more effective,” says Manning, who also serves as the chair of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Lean Construction Institute.

Linbeck empowers people to identify areas of waste and make small improvements, do so daily and capture the improvements on video. That may include safety, quality and overall productivity issues.

“We ask people to think about where work is hard and what bothers them,” Trapino says. “If we can create a culture where everyone is making small improvements every day, we will get better and better.”

Messer Construction Co. in Cincinnati, a member of AGC Ohio, uses Lean’s 5 Why problem-solving tool to zero in on the root cause of incidents or near misses. For example, when a worker exposed himself to a greater than six-foot fall hazard, Nick Apanius, Health Care vice president at Messer, started asking the decking company “why” questions to learn how the event happened. The worker said, “to pull something out that was put in wrong.” The team kept asking more questions and learned the scaffolding often was not installed square. They came up with snapping a chalk line to set up the scaffolding, eliminating misplacement of the stringer and the risk of a fall.

“It not only eliminated the safety problem but made them much more efficient doing the work,” Apanius says.

When the contractor joins the project early in design and the team uses target value design, a constructible design originates from active conversations with the owner to learn what is valuable to the organization. Cross-functional teams work on each aspect of the project: the structure, envelope, mechanical and other features. They agree on a system with cost, schedule and constructability in mind.

“It requires a more flexible approach,” Phelps says. “By looking at different things in parallel, it allows you to make decisions later when you have better information.”

At an athletic facility in Southern California, Balfour Beatty participated in a target-value design process that resulted in a significant cost savings. It all began when the mechanical contractor suggested changing to a displacement ventilation system, eliminating ducted supply and exhaust by bringing in air low in the building and exhausting it out the top, thereby improving energy efficiency and resulting in the elimination of a rooftop air handling unit. The displacement system would save about $500,000 on a $10 million project.

At first blush, it seemed unfeasible. Then the structural team came up with a hybrid system with some concrete shear walls and some brace frames, which would allow the air to come in low. The curtain wall team then recommended a higher-performing system that while more expensive would reduce the heat load from a south-facing glass wall. The electrical contractor came up with a way to eliminate a step-down transformer. The combination allowed for the project to move forward with the higher-per forming curtain wall, which will provide long-term value to the owner.

“It’s a type of collaborative thinking, using cost to justify and inform the deci sions and looking across different areas,” Phelps says. “It’s trading off things for the optimal solution.”

Phelps reported the process allows people to break free from their contractual role and contribute in a variety of areas, sharing their experience and expertise.

“The team develops a more robust understanding of what is going on,” Phelps adds.

Garbutt uses Pull Planning, a Lean method of scheduling. Starting w ith a completion target, the team works together to define and sequence tasks and then commit to finish on time.

“It’s tremendously effective,” Garbutt says. “It ’s bottom-up, not top-down management.”
On a renovation of the seven-story historic, 1913 First National Bank building in Dublin for the Georgia Military College, Garbutt used pull planning. The paint contractor, A.T. Long & Son Painting of Macon, Georgia, discussed opportunities to come in early while the other trades were on-site and began painting two months into the project rather than at the end.

“Once a floor was at a certain stage, he could start and then move to the next floor,” Garbutt explains.

The painter started as soon as the drywall was in. When the inside is caught up, the painter works on the exterior to keep a continuous workflow at the site, instead of starting and stopping. The project gained two weeks on the schedule, in large part due to the pull planning.

Phelps has found the process eliminates problems in the field. While pull planning a schedule for a San Francisco high-rise building, it came to light that the concrete subcontractor planned to sequence the work in a way that would not work for the excavation and water proofing trades. By determining the problems early, each trade and the Balfour team were able to work through the issues and not experience a production delay once work commenced.

Linbeck follows ever y facet of the Last-Planner system. It has created a set of Lean boards to take to every project, rather than paper-based packages of information. The group that first pioneered the boards was about eight-weeks behind schedule. By using the boards and daily huddles, the project finished six-weeks early.

“It’s a network of promises and commitments,” Trapino says. “It takes leadership.”

Clark employed a Lean “plan-do check-adjust” technique on a complicated tunnel installation on the Anaheim Regional Transportation Inter modal Center project, in California. The rail authority allocated four 68-hour, week end windows to divert train traffic to a single track, leaving the other track available for construction. The foremen shared ideas and agreed on a scheduling plan in 15-minute intervals.

“The power of them committing to each other to what we were going to do in the narrow work window made it successful,” Manning says. “We were able to get better every time.”

At the end of the first weekend, the team came back together to assess what went well and what could go better. One simple improvement was communicating the progress of the schedule. They decided to implement a collective group text-message system to notify everyone as the work progressed, instead of a call to the next trade coming up.

“It allowed people to appreciate the entire processes, not just their scope of work,” Manning says.

The subcontractors also bartered on scope of work. For instance, one sub took on backfilling, because it made more sense for his company to do so, than to call in someone else for a 30-minute activity. At the end, Clark completed the work in 30 percent of the allocated time, with no disruption to train service and no injuries.

“You got a lot of great ideas out of these guys when they realized they were being valued,” Manning says.

Messer uses Lean daily management to streamline operations by looking at key performance indicators, something it learned from healthcare organizations.

“The key part is what you can learn from other industries if you open your mind to what is possible,” Apanius says.

Within a month of Messer’s Corporate Craft Force department measuring over time daily across the company, the OT rate dropped by 35 percent. By continuing to measure it, Messer began to delve into why certain projects were using overtime, while others weren’t and reallocating craft resources, moving crews among projects; for instance, if one job paid crane operators overtime, Messer’s Craft team assessed if crane operators from another project could be moved to the one paying overtime. That led to an additional 60 percent reduction in overtime.

Balfour Beatty has used a Lean approach to analyze the company’s most successful and least successful projects to develop a deep understanding of the underlying causes and opportunities to improve. Phelps discovered behavioral issues at the root of many problems. The company now conducts a value-alignment session at the start of the job, so those on board understand the drivers behind the project, which influences strategy.

The company also has conducted behavioral-alignment sessions to learn how to more effectively communicate with those on the team and interpret their actions in a constructive way. For example, if someone chronically finds potential problems and is typically avoided, Phelps suggests engaging that person at the right time in the right way to gain an understanding of the naysayer’s perspective.

“The secret weapon in eliminating waste is figuring out how to best leverage our people,” Phelps says. “Behaviors ultimately determine the results of the project. If you are not focused on the people behaving differently, you are missing the point. That’s the revolutionary thing about Lean.”