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September 27, 2012

Lean processes could change the construction industry

  • Sometimes it takes someone with an outside perspective to help show where the waste is.
    Skanska USA Building


    What could you do with an extra hour every day?

    While there’s probably an endless list of things that come to mind, there’s likely a much shorter list of ways to add an hour to the day. Most people look at their crowded schedules and see no way they can take on more; and certainly no way to somehow carve out a new hour to accommodate more.

    Compounding the issue is that, once work flows are set, it becomes hard to break away from them. That’s why we invited the Virginia Mason Institute to our offices to help us break some old patterns and help us identify a new way to work; and maybe even find some more time.

    Virginia Mason has been very successful in integrating lean processes — new ways of working that emphasize efficiency for the benefit of the client — in ways that have greatly improved their patients’ experience.

    In construction, we’re seeing a trend toward lean, as well. In one of the most competitive markets in our industry’s history, lean construction is seen as a potential differentiator for contractors.

    With Virginia Mason’s experts serving as facilitators, we’ve held two “rapid process improvement workshops” aimed at streamlining some of our traditional work flows. The week-long workshops put a specific process under the microscope, break out its individual parts, determine where waste is occurring, and immediately implement an improved process after the “non-value-added” steps are either minimized or eliminated.

    For example, a key part of our safety efforts is daily pre-task planning, where we ask field workers to identify every risk they’ll encounter on a given day and ask them to identify how they will mitigate those risks. The process of handling the paperwork, though, was taking some members of the project team an hour every day to handle. By identifying ways to streamline the process and at the same time improve its effectiveness, we’re now targeting to complete the process in 10 minutes.

    That time savings looks great on paper, but we’re piloting it in the field to see if it works. We think we can get there.

    The upshot? More time. What can we as an industry do with more time? That’s a tantalizing question and could be the new ground for competition in the market.

    More time will likely lead to more innovation. The act of identifying lean processes helps reinforce a culture where any individual’s idea can bubble to the top. With the time to fully flesh it out and put it into action, a new idea that emerges can be put to immediate use to benefit the client.

    That’s the theory, anyway. To truly realize the benefit, we all have to be open-minded to new ideas. For many of us, especially industry veterans, it’s difficult to have an open mind about the way we work. Systems that have been the norm for years are hard to give up. Systems that work well are even harder to abandon.

    Our industry presents significant challenges every day and there is a tendency for all of us to fully embrace the classic if-it’s-not-broken-don’t-fix-it attitude. To those I ask: If your car gets you where you’re going but only gets 15 miles per gallon in doing so, is there really not a better way?

    To that end, we need to be conscious of needing some form of outside help. It takes someone with an outside perspective to help show where the waste is. That’s why we turned to the health-care industry to lead our explorations.

    New ways of working are out there. It’s up to us to find them. Initially, this will lead to increased competition. Contrary to lean principles, contractors won’t want to share their new methods in order to have an edge.

    Over time, however, as subcontractors come to new projects and as contractors learn that sharing today’s information is OK due to their continuous improvement culture, the new ways of working will spread. In the end, we will find ourselves in a new-look construction industry that we each helped to shape.

    When we get there, we’ll have more than an extra hour of time. We’ll have created a construction industry that drives value for our clients at every stage of a project and beyond, ultimately leading to benefits for all.

    Kevin McCain is a vice president in Skanska’s Seattle office. He leads all of the company’s work with Virginia Mason.

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