Lean Success: Business Operations

By Jeff Gavin | Aug 15, 2012




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Lean and green could be your best “best practice” when planning and executing jobs large and small. Such an approach may streamline your project delivery.

Lean, in business, is as much an attitude as it is a value and an action. Lean business practices seek to eliminate waste on an ongoing basis, add value for the customer while getting rid of anything that does not contribute, and promote continuous improvement built on one’s successes.

The lean approach has been applied to project management, construction and manufacturing. In fact, its application in manufacturing may be how people are most familiar with the process. Just-in-time manufacturing—only building per customer need—changed the way many companies manufacture and deliver products. Toyota introduced and popularized it with Toyota Production System (TPS). It became the basis for lean project management, also formalized by Toyota. Among the key imperatives are a customer-first focus and the establishment of long-term relationships and mutual trust.

Hal Macomber is managing principal of Lean Project Consulting in Louisville, Colo. His company helps the construction industry adopt lean principles and practices.

“A lean approach looks for a smarter way of doing things but also the thinking to get there,” he said. “Construction work has become knowledge work, in particular, electrical. There is so much more to know than just pulling wire. There’s building automation, variable controls and on and on. When work becomes more knowledge-based work, it drives collaboration, an important principle of ‘lean’.”

From a project management perspective, Macomber defines the lean approach through five actions.

“It’s important to define value on any projects from the customer’s perspective and in their language,” he said. “You also need to organize your work to produce that value. That’s the value stream. The workflow should flow uninterrupted and be reflected in that value stream. Another tenet is to always pursue perfection. Then, find ways to better it on the next project. It is also important to perform work ‘at the pull’ of the customer.

“Doing work ‘at the pull’ of the customer is really the third lean principle. In lean project management, the entire team should look to each other as customers. So in the pull, the ‘customer’ also refers to the next performer in the value stream. For instance, electrical contractors might be customers of the electrical engineers. ‘At the pull’ of the customer means doing the work when it’s needed, not before or after. So, in the case of serving the end-customer, frame the wall when the plumber needs to do rough-in. Do the plumbing when the EC needs to do electrical rough-in. Do the electrical work, so the blocking can be done. Plan so you bring the right people in the right numbers and at the right time. Such collaboration leads to lean construction,” Macomber said.

Bringing lean manufacturing ideas to construction
So how does being lean allow you to be both reliable and more efficient from office to job site?

“Look at the variety of trades that are needed to get something built, and ask what is the most work the smallest crew on-site can do in one day,” Macomber said. “Everyone then commits. Maybe it’s a two-person crew. The project team assigns their respective crews an agreed-upon 1,000-square-foot production rate per day. If everyone is reliable and working at the same production rate, you might trim 25 or 30 percent off the time of a project. In most cases, the individual tradesmen don’t give up anything in this approach. You have to be in lockstep, but you are also accelerating project completion by maximizing throughput.”

Macomber explained how this idea is taken from a factory setting and applied directly to the construction site. If labor numbers end up being too conservative, the team scales up together at the same rate.

“I can tell you, once a subcontractor learns about this way of working, they stick with it,” he said. “They can make more money with short work cycles and receive immediate feedback and incremental review. This lean approach helps drive improvement across the entire project. What you might learn on a lean project can be carried over to other projects.”

Lean construction and sustainable design
In many ways, lean construction embraces what green building promotes.

“With lean projects, the owner, architect and contractor are all trying to achieve that highest level of sustainability,” Macomber said. “We are showing there are ways of designing and constructing that don’t add cost yet make your building greener and reliable. Through a lean approach, I can shave four months off an 18-month construction project. Obviously, that’s a cost savings in labor and time.

Macomber shared some other tactics that shorten project time and are gaining attention.

“I’m seeing a growing use of modular construction,” he said. “Prefabrication is lean and possibly green, depending on the manufacturer. For example, bathrooms in hospitality, multiresidences, dorms, even hospitals are being premanufactured. They are often custom, complete with tile and fixtures in place, all the electrical in the walls and ready to install into the building. Eggrock Modular Solutions is one firm doing this kind of work. Modular is a far leaner approach than accumulating supplies and building on-site.”

Macomber feels companies offering modular and prefabrication services can also be a new opportunity for ECs to provide electrical engineering design work.

Tricia Kyzar consults for The Sustainable Design Group,  Gainesville, Fla. The firm provides verification services for projects pursuing green certification through LEED, Energy Star, Florida Green Building and others. To be sure, green construction echoes lean philosophies.

“Managing a green project now requires making sure you are aware of strategies and collaboration up front,” Kyzar said. “Now, before projects break dirt, you have at least one initial meeting that brings all the project partners, including the subs, together. Here, project goals are clearly set and understood.

“A green building operates as a holistic whole. For HVAC to be designed not to work so hard, lighting must do its part through efficiency, be it lamp choices, controls and/or system integration. The architect lays out space that makes the best use of available light and sets the stage for mechanical efficiencies and load reductions. You need to work efficiently to build efficiently. Collaboration is crucial to meet the objectives of the project and the needs of the green customer.”
Macomber said one reason sustainable design and construction play well into lean project management is the commitment to meeting the customer’s needs through sustainability objectives.

“You don’t light indiscriminately in a green project,” he said. “You ask how much lighting is needed for the people working in that space. Even more importantly, you ask questions to understand how they work in that space. You are not providing bulbs but rather a workspace properly lit for the individual’s needs. You also strategize a highly effective way to provide it. Sustainability points us to finding the most energy-efficient way.”

Kyzar finds that cost is still the biggest misconception.

“Many people still feel green building is more expensive,” she said. “We battle that as green consultants. In truth, the whole purpose of building green using LEED or other principles is to create a project that costs less to build, offers less operational costs, less material maintenance cost, less waste, less damage to the site and less remediation afterward. Fortunately, sustainability is becoming more understood as a building approach. An EC is in a prime position to incorporate power savings into a home or office. ECs know what products enable automation, manage phantom loads, power manage remotely. Their knowledge of efficient lighting and lamps make them a natural team player and consultant.”

Helpful processes
Integrated project delivery (IPD) and choosing by advantages (CBA) are two process approaches that embrace lean elements.

IPD may be more readily recognizable for contractors involved in design/build, green certification projects and work that requires building information modeling (BIM) (see sidebar). It promotes a delivery system using a team-based approach—aligning interests, objectives and practices. But IPD isn’t exactly another name for lean project management.

“IPD agreements and contracts were created to enable easy movement of scope among project participants and keep the focus on optimizing the whole project rather than just its parts,” Macomber said. “The approach promotes learning and innovation while aligning the interests of all the parties. While IPD can make a project run easier, lean behaviors must still be present for it to be truly leanly managed on-site and off.”

While not yet the norm, this process is becoming more common, Kyzar said.

CBA is another decision-making approach that complements lean thinking. This process works to establish sound decisions by asking you and your team to consider several solutions or alternatives, weighing each and then sorting them out to end up with the best resolution or action. It accommodates quantitative and qualitative data. You set the stage, defining what you need to decide. Then you innovate developing a set of possible solutions or alternatives. You make your decision but reconsider that choice as a sort of verification process. You then implement it.

“We don’t have the habit of generating a multitude of alternatives in the see-problem, fix-problem world of construction,” Macomber said. “Consequently, we are not getting the best decisions. Lean project delivery participants who use CBA have said such decision-making is standard for them. CBA may initially slow down decision-making, but when practiced, sound decisions get made faster.”

For more on working lean, the Lean Construction Institute, based in San Diego, is another resource. Find useful links to other sites at

GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction, landscaping and related design industries. He can be reached at [email protected].

About The Author

GAVIN, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction and urban planning industries. He can be reached at [email protected].





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