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.


Brian Buck said...

Outstanding post Michael.

My favorite two comments are:

1. "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" -- This is an outstanding principle to keep in mind and to keep reminding ourselves of.

2. "we need to get past the mentality that work is supposed to be hard" -- Even organizations with a lot of Lean history may still feel this cultural push to make work hard. Thanks for calling this out. I can not agree more with this coment!

Michael Lombard said...


Thanks so much for the comment. Sometimes I can't believe the conditions to which we subject our employees, especially in the construction industry.

I clicked on your name and found your blog, and I things it's great. I've added you to my RSS feeds, and look forward to learning from your writings.