Monday, September 16, 2013

Lean Construction – Can the Construction Industry learn from lean processes in the Manufacturing Industry?

Guest article from Richard Davies Project  Manager Capital Projects Property Services – Severn Trent Water 

In the current economic climate with clients having to justify value and contractors fighting an ever decreasing margin, the drive towards a leaner, more efficient way of working is inevitable and to disregard Lean is to remain left behind

Earlier in the year a few colleagues and myself took a couple of hours out to take a tour around the Jaguar factory at Erdington, just outside Birmingham.  It is a fantastic example of how an organisation has taken Lean manufacturing and pushed it into every element of their process.  The result is quite staggering, a logistics process that delivers parts just in time, minimal waste, a workforce who take pride in their work and most importantly a competitive end product of brilliant quality. The purpose of the trip was to see Lean manufacturing in practice and to establish which elements, if any could be used in our organisation to improve the way we work.

The first, somewhat cynical reaction, is to say it’s all very interesting, but it isn’t relevant to construction work.  After all it is a production line and they have two very important key components, - they are making virtually the same thing time after time and they have a relatively stable work load so they can organise themselves to maximise efficiencies.  The workload in construction is so fluid and so varied it can’t possibly work. Indeed it may be difficult to apply it wholesale as two projects are rarely similar, due to procurement route, client type, client priorities etc, but to disregard all of the philosophies as irrelevant would be to miss a huge opportunity for the industry and to allow clients to squeeze every last percentage of value from a project.  What is a construction project if not a series of processors?

One of the key traits that was evident from the visit was the level of accountability held by the operatives on the shop floor.  They knew exactly what was expected, the quality they were to deliver and the timeframe they were to deliver to.  If one operative was falling behind, there was a chain to pull and others on the same workstation pulled together to complete the task and catch up.   If their work fell below the required standard for any particular reason, other than mechanical failure, an element of ‘refocussing’ would be called for by the management.  By cascading this level of accountability and responsibility, Jaguar were able to remove two or three levels of interim management and crucially increased the level of pride the workforce had in their work.  If only all tradesman within a construction project had similar levels of pride in their work.  So often when walking round a project half way through, there are examples of tradesmen not respecting others work for example plumber completing a second fix in a toilet but not protecting the new floor covering that has been laid.  Alternatively it may be a site operative disposing of a coffee cup or sandwich wrapper behind stud wall or bulkhead which will be covered up.  Whilst this does not necessarily affect the final visual impact, it is evidence of the mentality of some of the people in the industry.   

All of this leads to arguments as to whose responsibility it is to co-ordinate teams to eliminate re-working which results in disputes and higher costs for all.  Contractors may well point at the clients for trying to drive down costs, but they must bear a responsibility for providing a sufficient cost to complete the works properly.  Maybe if the industry could instil the level of accountability in the supply chain as Jaguar do it may go some way to resolving the issue. The other major items are the commitment to improve, whatever the percentage in efficiency and a ruthless drive to minimise waste.  There is no excuse for saving a single percent, simply because it is only 1%.  During the value engineering exercises undertaken on projects, the temptation is to target the areas of prime expenditure as this is where you can usually make the biggest saving for the least effort or the biggest bang for the buck so to speak.  However in this exercise sometimes the smaller items get lost as not worth the effort which leads to many missed opportunities to really drive value down every element of the project.  

In addition, every process at Jaguar is broken down and analysed to identify the components that add no value and are therefore waste.  These are then removed from the process.  If this philosophy was adopted on construction sites it would be revolutionary – all those trips to a skip, all that re-working because the electrician hadn’t finished before the ceiling fitters were in, the possibilities are endless.

In the current economic climate with clients having to justify value and contractors fighting an ever decreasing margin, the drive towards a leaner, more efficient way of working is inevitable and to disregard Lean is to remain left behind.

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  1. Thanks so much for this helpful information come back again for more interesting information…Keep it up
    Builders in Agra

  2. I think the crucial difference between a manufacturer such as Jaguar and a main contractor is that Jaguar, in the main, employs and trains it's own workforce from shop-floor to senior management .
    Main contractors just want to employ senior managers and sub-contract out everything else.

  3. Good thoughtful article.
    Prefabrication has been around since the 70s and something which we continually promote through all our projects. The problem we find is reluctance from contractors to take on this methodology and subsequently price higher missing the value proposition.