Lean, Mean Building Machine: How to Increase Productivity on the Jobsite
While other industries have experienced increases in productivity, the business of building has not. Research finds that automation and technology are slow to be adopted by the construction industry.
In 2016, a World Economic Forum (WEF) report found that global productivity in engineering and construction had remained nearly flat for 50 years, due to industry fragmentation, volatility, relatively low profits, and weak capitalization. The news is worse in the United States, where productivity has fallen during the past 40 years.
International consulting firm McKinsey & Company echoed the WEF’s findings this year in a February 2017 McKinsey Global Institute report on capital projects and infrastructure. McKinsey & Company found that:
– The global construction workforce has realized only a one percent productivity gain in the last 20 years.
– Conversely, manufacturing has increased 3.6 percent, annually.
– The world economy has only seen a 2.8 percent productivity increase over the past year.
In some ways, it’s unfair to measure the construction industry against others. Its nature — a series of projects, each with a brand-new set of unique challenges — makes it incompatible with advances in assembly-line technology and other industries that don’t require hands-on, custom work.
However, there are tools and techniques that can enhance construction productivity. Subcontractors, who bear the majority of the burden of labor and scheduling on most jobs, are poised to benefit the most.
In this article, we’ll explore a few methods of improving productivity on the job site.
Lean Project Delivery
The Lean project management and delivery philosophy is simple: Cut through the waste and make each project and process as efficient as possible. Through collaboration between the owner, general contractor, subcontractors and major suppliers—combined with constant joint evaluation of the schedule and workflow—the execution of Lean principles can save time and money.
Beneficial for general and subcontractors
General contractors are usually the ones to introduce the Lean philosophy to a project. However, even subcontractors who have never heard of Lean almost always embrace it wholeheartedly once they experience the positive results, according to Felipe Engineer-Manriquez, corporate Lean manager at McCarthy Building Companies.
Engineer-Manriquez says that subcontractors are typically responsible for most of a project’s production and often have large workforces, two factors that can benefit the most from Lean. It’s no coincidence that the most enthusiastic general contractors are the ones who, like subcontractors, have a significant self-performance component.
Communication drives the project
Lean places a high premium on early collaboration. It involves the owner, design team, and general contractor, along with the subcontractor or supplier. By including all major players at the start of the project, Lean sets a path for clear communication through the entire job. It also employs tools like pull planning, one of the linchpins of the Lean system.
In a typical pull planning session, the “last planners” — the onsite supervisors from each subcontractor and major supplier who are authorized to make scheduling decisions and commit his or her company’s resources –– gather with the general contractor to establish a timeline of tasks, working backwards from the anticipated project completion date. Along with the architect and owner, if necessary, they “back into” the most aggressive yet doable schedule, taking advantage of gaps and overlap opportunities along the way.
The pull planning process is a throwback to the days before tablets and smartphones. Typically, each trade’s tasks are represented by sticky notes, which are maneuvered about on one wall of a meeting room until everyone agrees on a schedule. The timeline is then reworked as each project milestone approaches.
The method of pull planning
According to Engineer-Manriquez, pull planning itself revolves around five key words and associated questions:
– Should – What goals should the project team be working toward?
– Can – What goals can be achieved reasonably?
– Will – What commitments has each last planner made?
– Did – Has each contractor or supplier met their schedule promises?
– Learn – How has each company performed, and what could be changed or improved if any member of the project team fails to meet a milestone?
Smaller subcontractors are sometimes hesitant to adopt Lean because they think it’s only for large, high-production companies, but it’s to their benefit to embrace the philosophy. “Subs who follow Lean practices don’t stay small for long,” Engineer-Manriquez says.
The prefabrication and off-site construction industries have become centers of productivity, proving that “modular building” means infinitely more than just manufactured homes and surplus classroom space.
Prefab rooms allow for simultaneous progress
Marriott International, which already has a few modular hotels under its belt, recently announced an aggressive North American building program for 2017 that will deliver 50 hotels across several brands — out of a total of approximately 500 — that incorporate some level of prefabrication.
Offsite construction takes place on a few levels. In the case of the Marriott AC Bricktown hotel in Oklahoma City, a factory delivered all rooms, entirely pre-built to the job site to be stacked into place. Building a significant portion of any project offsite allows progress, rain or shine, at the same time other job tasks, like earthwork and rough-in, are taking place on site. This includes the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and other work subcontractors provide.
Roy Griffith, director of corporate development for prefabrication building systems company Clark Pacific, notes that, “By using prefabrication strategies, subcontractors and building industry manufacturers have a unique opportunity to help construction projects become more productive and provide ever-increasing value to owners. General contractors and design teams look to subcontractors…who understand prefabrication to drive more efficient construction strategies.”
Easy assembly for large projects
Mortenson Construction, one of the largest, general contractors in the U.S., has incorporated prefabrication into some of its projects, most notably the Exempla St. Joseph Hospital in Denver, Co., completed in late 2014.
The project included 446 prefab bathrooms and 250 25-foot prehab multi-trade racks, configured with piping, HVAC ductwork, electrical systems and cable trays. These were then installed in the hospital, making it easy for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) trades to make their final connections.
Streamlining onsite labor processes
Gaston Electrical Co. in Norwood, MA, has been prefabricating multi-trade racks in conjunction with other trades for several years. Building parts in advance eases their need for onsite labor, reduces their time on the job, and avoids the chaos that can sometimes erupt when multiple subcontractors are jockeying for position in the same small space.
Prefabrication is probably the closest the construction industry gets to realizing the benefits of the assembly line. Crew members become specialists at window and door assemblies, bathroom fixtures, prewiring, and any other components that go into the end product, and quality assurance is easier when the work happens in a controlled environment. Factory-floor level production also cuts down on falls, one of the industry’s major causes of accidents.
Technology and Automation
Contractors have been slow to adopt technology when compared to other industries, and, according to the WEF and McKinsey, this is one of the reasons that construction has been lagging in productivity gains.
Subcontractors embrace digital tools
The increase in use of tablets and especially smartphones has been the first harbinger of true revolution for the construction industry, with mobile apps offering ways to manage projects, teams and schedules, whether on-site or in the office. When it comes to embracing mobile technology, subcontractors are leading the way.
“Most of the time, they’re ahead of us,” says Engineer-Manriquez. “We’ve learned things from our subcontractors because they’re so production focused. They want high productivity and don’t want to burn their people out.” If a piece of technology doesn’t suit them, Engineer-Manriquez says, subcontractors are quick to recognize it and move on. “They dump things fast if they don’t work,” he adds.
Reducing the need for paperwork
Walter Volpe, Gaston Electrical’s chief estimator, notes that the company uses a wide variety of digital management tools, including:
– Robotic total stations to mark locations and take measurements
– iPads for plan review, status photos and real-time communication between the office and field
– Digital blueprint software
According to Volpe, this represents a “slow but steady” shift away from paper for Gaston.
“We’re always ready to harness the power of new technology and tools to help us improve our business and service to the client,” Volpe said. “In our business, you either embrace and adopt this new technology or risk being left behind. As construction schedules go from ‘fast-track’ to ‘flash-track,’ new tools help us to stay ahead of schedule.”
Digital aids like safety meeting compliance programs and sensor-based employee tracking software that maintains historical data, payroll timekeeping, and location during emergencies, can also shave time from monotonous paperwork tasks.
Using tech to improve safety and increase precision
Software is just the beginning. “There are many innovative tool companies delivering products that help us work safer, increase productivity and deliver better overall quality,” says Volpe.
One of those companies is Milwaukee Tool, which has a line of Internet-enabled “smart tools” that the user can control via an iPhone or Android. With a push of a few buttons, users can set maximum RPM, speed, torque, and other performance characteristics that, when fixed optimally, can extend the life of the tool.
3D laser scanning is another way subcontractors can up their productivity quotients. Multiple laser scans create a detailed image of a room or other area. That data is uploaded into a CAD or building information modeling (BIM) program to provide a complete picture of the space. The detailed measurements allow for exact material orders — eliminating waste — and provide a heads-up for crews working in older buildings as to where hazardous areas might be.
Bringing Lean Principles to Your Business
Subcontractors have the processes and tools that can help them distinguish themselves and grow their companies. Implementing technology and the most up-to-date business practices means an investment of both time and money, but it’s a necessary commitment in today’s competitive market.
“With the advent of powerful technologies and an aging workforce, the face of construction is changing,” Griffith said. “The strategies that made subcontractors…successful for the last 50 years will not be the same strategies for the next 50 years.”
Journalist and writer Kim Slowey spent more than 25 years in the construction industry and is still a Florida certified general contractor. She writes about commercial and residential construction and real estate for publications like Construction Dive and Forbes. Kim also writes for The Home Depot, which carries a wide selection of tools for construction pros, like those described here.
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