Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Give Construction Workers a Break!

When I was a kid growing up in Florida (home of the mighty Gators), I spent every hot, muggy summer working as a roofer for my dad. We tore off old shingle roofs and installed new ones at a frenetic pace. I would often find myself literally running across a roof with a handful of nails or a bundle of shingles. Pretty much on a daily basis I would come close to having a heat stroke (that's what running on a 120+ degree roof will do to you!). I just thought that killing yourself at work was part of the gig. Little did I know that I was experiencing firsthand what Lean thinkers call muri.

Muri is a concept borrowed from the Toyota Production System, and basically means "overburden, unreasonableness, or absurdity" according to Wikipedia. My experiences on those roofs all those years ago were definitely absurd, but not at all rare in the construction industry.

Typical Construction Industry Approach

We routinely ask our installers to perform superhuman feats: working in unbearable heat or in muddy conditions; carrying heavy materials by hand; performing ergonomically unsound installations that contort and strain the body; starting work at sunrise and finishing at sunset; and so on and so forth. This has happened since...well, forever. The excuse usually given is the old "Gotta get the job done come hell or high water!" adage. Or sometimes you get the "When I was young we didn't even take lunch breaks!" diatribe. What they really mean to say is "We have too much waste in our processes, so we make up for it by overburdening our people." or "We don't have faith in continuous improvement as a means for innovation, so we just go with what we've always done." Isn't that sad?

The Lean Approach

How would a lean thinker go about reducing muri on construction sites? As I've stated before, I'm not an expert in the Toyota Production System or Lean Enterprise, but here are some ideas:
  • Stand in the Circle...Construction managers should spend almost all their time on the job site, "Standing in the Circle" to deeply observe the work being done. This is different from just "making the rounds" from job site to job site. Being in a single place for an extended period of time exposes the senses to stimuli that we normally ignore, which helps us be more aware of working conditions. Once we are aware of what's happening on a job site, it's harder for us to overlook muri.
  • Team-Based Problem Solving...Construction managers should make it part of their everyday job to facilitate team-based problem solving. Make it extremely easy for employees, sub-contractors, inspectors, customers, and anybody else on the job site to make suggestions and have their ideas reviewed. Use a whiteboard posted on the job site to highlight problems that need to be addressed. Support experimentation with new installation techniques or new equipment. If we engage our people, they will tell us about the muri on the job site.
  • Manpower Planning...Think long-term when planning for manpower requirements. Scheduling extra manpower to avoid overburdening our people will certainly cost more in the short-term, but will result in tremendous savings over the long-term: reduced injuries leading to reduced WC costs; reduced employee turnover leading to reduced recruiting, hiring, training, and "new-guy" costs; and improved quality leading to reduced re-work costs.
  • Safety Planning...In the project safety plan, include provisions for good ergonomics and humane working conditions. Always provide sufficient ramps, scaffolding, ladders, etc. Have established standards for working in adverse weather conditions. Always provide creature comforts close to the job site: drinking water, toilets, hand cleaners, etc. Put a limit on the number of hours per week an installer can perform physical work. Rotate job tasks to avoid repetitive motion injuries.
  • Eliminate Waste!!!...Finally, the best way to reduce muri is to eliminate process waste from our work. Waste leads to longer completion times and additional costs, and forces our installers to work harder. If we remove waste, we create a win-win: the project is completed faster and cheaper, and our workers don't have to kill themselves to get the job done. It's obvious, if an installer doesn't have to walk out to the truck every five minutes to grab a tool, he can get the job done easier. If we're not waiting around for an answer from the architect on a change order, we don't have to work nights and weekends to finish the job on-time.
Your thoughts? What's holding us back from doing all that? Old-school thinking? Short-term costs? Tradition? Lack of leadership?

At some point (hopefully sooner rather than later), we need to get past the mentality that work is supposed to be hard. Work should be challenging, but not absurdly so. Work should be engaging (yes, even in the construction industry), not all-consuming. We can get past this historical barrier to operational excellence if we can accept that muri is a problem.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Batch & Queue Construction?

Have you ever been in line at a sandwich shop where the "sandwich artist" was making three sandwiches at a time?  You know, he pulls out three loafs of bread, puts the meat & cheese on all three sandwiches, wraps each of them in deli paper, and hands all three to the clerk at the cash register.  It's happened to me, and I was not amused.  Why?  Because I was first in line out of the three, and I had to wait three times as long to get my sandwich.  Not only that, but I had mine toasted and it was darn near cold by the time I sat down to eat it!  Okay, I'm a little demanding of my eateries, but I can't help it; I'm a lean geek.

What does this have to do with Lean?  It's all about batch-and-queue vs. one-piece flow (click here for a good explanation from the Shmula blog).

The Case for One-Piece Flow

In the lean manufacturing world, the debate on batch-and-queue production vs. one-piece flow production has long since ended (batch-and-queue lost).  Anybody who has studied the Toyota Production System understands the superiority of one-piece flow: reduced inventory, early detection of defects, reduced transportation, more scheduling flexibility, and (most importantly) an increased organizational awareness of the need to solve problems preventively due to the lack of buffers in a single-piece flow.

So, where do we stand with respect to these principles in the construction industry?

Batch & Queue Construction

I've had a difficult time explaining my thoughts on this.  My belief is that in the construction industry, we typically exhibit the traits of a classic batch-and-queue operation, even though we're not technically batching buildings together.  Here are some of the similarities:
  1. Work is done by specialized groups (concrete finishers, framers, drywallers, plumbers, electricians, etc.) dedicated to performing a narrow scope of work
  2. These specialized groups try to optimize their own operations, even if that means a delay in the completion of a building
  3. Item #2 above means huge amounts of time are spent waiting for the product to transition from one specialized phase to the next
  4. Because of the delays between specialized work phases, the cause & effect trail of defects can go cold, resulting in fewer problems getting solved at the root cause
  5. There is little collaboration between specialized groups, resulting in less innovation
Hey, lean geeks, does this sound familiar at all?

Lean Construction

So, what is the lean approach to construction?  What could be done to move from a batch & queue approach to a one-piece flow approach?  Do the construction folks think it's even necessary to make this transition in order to achieve operational excellence? Your thoughts?  I certainly don't have all the answers, but here are a few pie-in-the-sky ideas:
  1. Create multi-functional work groups, consisting of highly-skilled installers capable of performing a wide range of installations
  2. Equip your highly-skilled installers with all the equipment (possibly custom-built equipment) necessary to complete a wide range of installations
  3. Utilize visual management to encourage participation through shared information
  4. Pre-fab as much as you can inside factories on lean assembly lines
I'm sure that experts like Dr. Michael Mullens with the Housing Constructability Lab or Hal Macomber at Reforming Project Management have a lot more to say about this subject than me, but those are my wild fantasies.  Are they feasible?  Your thoughts?