Thursday, September 3, 2015

Construction Industry Lean or Lean Doesn’t Apply to Us

Lean doesn’t apply to us is heard around the world in every industry type other than manufacturing. Because lean’s roots are in manufacturing it is a generally accepted philosophy and yet some people still resist involvement for a variety of reasons. I understand there is a common entry point from which to begin or restart a business’s lean efforts that eliminates the resistance and ensures Lean is applicable to all industry types. That entry point is safety.

The construction industry is segmented with layers of management that causes some confusion regarding who owns the work process and who has a right to challenge the process - the construction management company’s managers or the sub-contractor managers? This confusion regarding boundaries can be an excuse to dismiss Lean as having merit in the construction industry. My experience has taught me otherwise. A bad process is a bad process and all of the layers of management on a job site should work co-operatively to both make the work safer and easier and at the same time reduce the cycle time of the business processes.

To help you better understand let’s use a real life example. While leading a Lean Safety gemba walk at a construction site I observed a truck load of drywall being unloaded and then transported to the area where it was to be installed. Drywall is shipped flat because cranes and forklifts are used to move the product up until it gets to the job site. At this point people had to manually lift each sheet to a vertical position and then man handle the sheet to slide it onto a drywall cart that had vertical containment structures used to hold multiple sheets. Once each cart was loaded the now heavy load had to be pushed through the job site hallways, onto and off an elevator, and then down additional hallways to the location of the install. The hallway floors across which the load was pushed were littered with scrap and waste material which made pushing the cart even more difficult. This job is performed by “laborers” which tells you all you need to know about what it takes to perform the work task. The fact that laborers are required on job sites is an indication that there is a division of labor between them and the craftsmen on the job site. The laborers role is to physically struggle and if management would lead the effort to make this physically demanding work easier and safer the laborers would understand and see the value of Lean on their construction site.
What could be done to improve this physical task?

• Put rollers on the cart’s flat surface
• Have the drywall vendor deliver the drywall already on carts
• Use a battery powered drive unit to move the carts at the job site

These are just a few of the “low hanging fruit” opportunities. I am not trying to find the best solution but am instead trying to make it crystal clear that every job on a construction site can be made safer and easier. If construction management teams focus on making work safer and easier they will reduce the cycle time of the work processes. That in a nut shell is the essence of Lean Safety. Engage the workers in efforts to make work easier and safer and at the same time reduce the cycle time of the business process. It is a win win approach for both management and the workers on the job site.