Lean Construction is a game-changer in our industry; yet a lot of clients and even construction professionals are still catching up with its meaning and potential. We recently spoke with Kraus-Anderson Project Manager Kyle Woody, CHC, CCM, to demystify Lean. Woody is a certified instructor of AGC Lean Construction Education Program Units 1-5.
Q. What’s your elevator speech on Lean Construction? Briefly, what is it? What are its benefits?
Woody: There are a lot of official definitions out there, but as I see it it’s simply the Toyota Production System applied to the construction industry. Manufacturing has more than doubled their labor productivity over the last 50 years, but construction labor was actually more productive 50 years ago than it is today. Lean Construction seeks to understand the root causes of this and correct it. People think it can’t apply to construction because we aren’t building widgets. Our buildings are unique things in unique places. But the only real difference is that in manufacturing, products move through value adding processes. In construction, value adding processes move through the product. The other thing I tell people is that to even begin to understand the depth of the Toyota Production System you need to start with reading The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker. And the benefits? We are able to do more and more with less and less. Less human effort, less equipment, less space, less time, less everything, and all the while we get closer and closer to exactly what the customer wants.
Q. How does the Lean approach differ from the traditional mode of the construction science courses that you were taught?
Woody: Primarily the approach to construction that I was taught is what I call a divide and conquer method. I learned to take all the complexity and break it into pieces. Then try to optimize each piece and make it go as fast as it can or buy it as cheap as I could. With a Lean approach to the business we seek to optimize the whole through systems thinking and deeply understanding how all these pieces are connected.
Think of a morning rush hour commute as a construction project. We have all these designers and builders to move through the project and get them to downtown where their work is complete. Traditionally we struggle with why everyone is moving so slow and all our energy is on speeding them up as individuals. Every time a space opens up in front of someone they hit the gas and it isn’t long before they’re coming to a complete stop again. With a Lean approach we are in many cases slowing everyone down like the traffic lights on the on ramps to the freeway, or that giant sign that changes the speed limit based on the volume of cars on the freeway. It may seem like everyone is moving slower, but the reality is everyone will get to their destination faster and with fewer start/stop cycles.
Q. Talk about some of the waste/inefficiency in traditional construction. You mentioned a telling statistic that only about 54% of any work forecast is actually completed within any given amount of time. Why is that?
Woody: That’s correct, in construction about 54% of what we plan to do actually gets done on a weekly basis. In my opinion the problem primarily exists because most people are not aware of it. They’ve never rigorously measured it. Once people become aware of it, measure it, and change their behavior; that percentage start to rise very quickly.
As for the Waste discussion. Waste is all around us. Once someone develops “eyes for waste,” it can overwhelm them. I struggle everyday with what I see. There are categories of course, but what’s really interesting to me is that the root cause of all waste (and some people will argue with me about this) is overproduction. The result of all that overproduction is the biggest waste we deal with in the construction industry which is waiting. Work waiting for workers, and workers waiting for work.
Our approach though is not to become waste-eliminating zealots. Instead, our approach is to give people eyes for waste and then direct their attention to what value is in the eyes of their customer. When we focus our efforts on deeply understanding what our customer values, the waste elimination comes automatically.
What really excites me on the waste elimination front is the synergy Lean has with the sustainability movement. When, through the simple use of ideas, we are able to do more with less, Lean starts to transcend the simple notion of just making more money faster. We are also wasting less of the finite resources that our planet has, which in my mind is one of our core responsibilities as individuals and organizations to the generations of people that are coming behind us.
Q. What is the Last Planner and how does it apply to Lean Construction methodology?
Woody: The Last Planner System is a tool that was developed by the Lean Construction Institute. From a Lean Construction perspective, a project is a “network of commitments.” What the last planner system is designed to do is improve the reliability of those commitments. There a lot of tools that make up the Lean Construction tool box, but this one is the gateway to all the others. This one helps us see our work in entirely new ways. That’s why I’m so passionate about it.
Next week: More on Lean Construction from Kyle Woody, including Push vs. Pull, metrics of success, and an estimate of how much of the clothing in your closet you actually wear.