Lean Construction: Changing The Way Industry Works Together
In 2015, the Canadian Construction Association established the Lean Construction Institute of Canada to promote higher productivity through Lean practices. The institute now hosts an annual conference and supports practice communities across the country.
One of the major drivers for Lean construction has been the growing number of Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) projects, where designers, engineers, and constructors are bound by a contractual agreement to collaborate throughout the planning and building process.
“Lean construction has been attractive for quite a few years,” says Eric Lee, vice-president of Industry Practices with CCA. “Lately with IPD, it’s become a central focus for our members. That’s the reason why it’s an issue we want to be on top of.”
That said, Lee cautions against confusing the two. “I think there is a misconception that Lean is only applicable for IPD. Lean construction is an important element of IPD, but any project can benefit from Lean construction principles.”
Another important distinction is that Lean’s “big room” approach creates an inter-dynamic that is very different from what is achieved through the deployment of Building Information Modeling (BIM) systems.
“The emphasis with BIM tends to be on highlighting discrepancies, errors and omissions in drawings,” Bova says. “BIM is a wonderful tool, but it can create adversarial situations as opposed to collaboration.”
“The benefit of the big room is that it forces human beings — the experts, the trade foremen — to work on the problem together. We need to work around things, and sometimes having a chat is better than critiquing every square inch of the building.”
Adapting Lean for Construction
A central tool of Lean construction is a scheduling method called Last Planner, which was developed in the 1980s by the Lean Construction Institute, a global non-profit corporation dedicated to promoting Lean practices. The approach provides a framework for collaboration among general contractors and trades based on mutual accountability.
In construction, for example, a drywaller is accountable to the painter, because delays or quality problems with the drywalling can disrupt the painter’s work. So, the painter is referred to as the drywaller’s customer.
Last Planner works backwards from the completion date to day one, with the finishing date of each phase determined by the requirements of the phase that follows it. Time frames are not dictated by the GC, but are established by consensus in planning meetings where all players are required to be present.
During construction, all of the on-site players participate in daily in-person meetings that last 20 to 30 minutes. Here, progress is reviewed and problems resolved.
The approach requires a significant time investment, but contractors find that it consistently pays off. “When a scheduler suggested this to me back in 2009, it seemed ridiculous at the time to have a meeting a day when we already didn’t have enough time,” says Wayne Leduc, director of operations for the Mission Critical & Pharmaceutical Sector at Toronto-based EllisDon. “But I agreed to try it on the next project, and I found that it really saved me time.”
These time savings often come from eliminating re-work, such as adjusting schedules and activity whenever something goes wrong. “Rather than chasing people all the time,” Leduc says, “they come to you every day for 20 to 30 minutes, and you have their total attention. Then you’re coordinating them in that room. So it’s streamlining the process, and then there’s collaboration on their part, and they become bought into the program.”
The approach calls for the GC to step back from the enforcer role. “You need to be able to promote that collaborative conversation so you’re not hammering them every time they falter,” says George McGrath, superintendent at Mission Critical & Pharmaceutical Sector for EllisDon. “So you’re all working as a team to get the project done.”
“We’re leading the way, but the trades are telling us what they’re going to do,” Leduc says. “They’re also bringing up the roadblocks for them — things they need us to remove. So they have a total say in the meetings.”
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the approach is that it creates an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. “Step one of Lean is it forces people to be in a room together and solve problems,” says Justin Bova, CEO of Winnipeg-based contractor Pretium Projects, which specializes in Lean construction. “That increases teamwork, morale, and project momentum.”
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