(Photo: 2018 HA Photography)
As an early adopter of lean construction, Kinetic Construction can tell you its implementation isn’t easy. That’s partly because lean construction isn’t a policy or a learned skill—it represents a whole new way of thinking about how companies operate.
But when hard work succeeds in putting the system in place, that’s when the magic happens. Projects move along in symbiosis, and clients get more value out of their investments.
What is Lean Construction?
Lean construction, a movement that began in the early 1990s, attempts to apply production concepts used to make manufacturing efficient to construction projects. According to Tom Plumb, President and CEO of Kinetic Construction, who’s been leading his team through lean implementation for years, lean construction’s purpose “is to deliver more value to a customer through the elimination of waste in our processes.”
By waste, Plumb doesn’t mean material waste. He’s referring to lost time, lost efficiency, and lost efforts. The effort to reduce this type of waste using lean construction involves revisiting each process in a project and paring it down to the simplest parts. With an in-depth understanding of each step, it’s easier to improve schedules and eliminate rework and downtime.
“The governing principle is actually continuous improvement,” Plumb said.
What’s Required to Take on Lean
Plumb acknowledges how hard it is to take on such a fundamental shift in the way a company operates. Before attempting to introduce lean, a company’s culture has to be set up for success, and teams need to trust the change.
“One of the foundations of lean is respect for people,” he said, so the culture needs to reflect that value for the system to work. “Each member of the management team needs to be an expert and a true believer in lean. All of this belief system flows from supervisors, from bosses.”
For Kinetic, this belief system has most come into play by using the Last Planner® System of Production Control, a method of taking on projects created by the Lean Construction Institute.
Plumb describes traditional management on a project as being structured like a wheel. In this scenario, the subcontractor or the superintendent would be the hub, and the consultants and subcontractors would all be on the rim. All information between those on the rim needs to go through the hub.
By contrast, lean construction done through the Last Planner System puts the contractor and superintendents on the rim together with everyone else. There is only one thing at the hub: the goal. Consultations on the project budget, scheduling, and design all include the voices of the subcontractors and consultants, and so their expertise to organize the project is used from the start.
“One of the best things I’ve seen is a drywaller and sheet metal contractor discussing what needed to get done and figuring out between them how they were going to work together so they wouldn’t get in each other’s way or introduce rework. That’s powerful,” Plumb said.
A Way Forward
By Plumb’s estimation, lean construction is the only way into the future. He believes so many people keep using the old system simply because they are used to it. As the current generation of leaders heads into retirement, the younger and less experienced people need a way to be effective. That’s where lean comes in. “What you’re teaching them to do is harness the brainpower of the entire site to focus on an objective.”
The emergence of technology only allows that power to grow. “Adoption of the right technology is lean; they’re not two different things,” Plumb said. “Technology happens to be one of the most powerful ways we can make our work better, less chaotic, more organized.”
Putting heads together for a single goal is powerful, and doing it breaks the historical trade-off between quality, time, and cost, Plumb said. Kinetic is already harnessing the system to deliver value for clients. On a project to build a private school, Kinetic brought in the sub-trades early to involve them in major decisions on the process. Using lean construction, the project was finished five months ahead of schedule, on budget, and without skimping on quality.
Though the process of implementing lean is still ongoing, Lean 101 is now a part of Kinetic’s onboarding process for new hires. “We’ve collected this stored energy of lean distribution, and we’re going to roll it out in our organization,” Plumb said.