Western PA (Re)Introduction of Lean Construction

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Jon O’Brien, Director of Communications – Master Builders’ Association of Western PA

Every few years it seems as though the construction industry harps on a new buzzword – partnering, sustainability, BIM, collaboration, Lean, etc. Lean? It appears that a retread has made its way back into the buzzword cycle. Back in the late 1990’s, the Lean Construction Institute (LCI) was established, propelling the topic of Lean in the construction industry. Shortly after LCI was established, locally the Master Builders’ Association of Western PA was also launching a group – the MBA Young Constructors. In its first year of existence the YC hosted an educational session on Lean Construction.

“Lean Construction was the big topic of the day when the Young Constructors was being launched,” said the YC’s inaugural chairperson Jim Frantz, President of TEDCO Construction. “This was the YC’s first event and we wanted to host something that would get the industry talking.”

Attendees left the YC educational event talking, but perhaps not in the manner that would be expected by its hosts. A few individuals who attended this event recalled the discussion of the day afterwards focused around what exactly is Lean and how does it differ from what currently happens in construction. They left being unable to explain how it differs from traditional construction.

Since the late 1990’s Lean invasion into the construction industry, many viewed it more as an academic focus and not so much of a practical tool for the industry. “The Lean articles I read and seminars that I attended were good but I think Lean for construction is part academic exercise and part everyday occurrence on a construction project. The good contractors out there incorporate 75% of Lean principles already but they may not realize it,” said Eric Cartwright, vice president of corporate construction and real estate at UPMC.

In the academic world Lean Construction is defined as a philosophy based on a combination of operational research and practical development in design and construction with an adaption of Lean manufacturing principles and practices to the end-to-end design and construction process. Lean Construction is concerned with the alignment and holistic pursuit of concurrent and continuous improvements in all dimensions of the built and natural environment: design, construction, commissioning, maintenance and recycling.

“To simply state it, Lean is a focus to minimize time in activities. You want to look at what you’re doing as a function of time and work towards eliminating waste,” said Randy Hartsock, Massaro Corporation.

In the practical sense of Lean, it is about managing and improving the construction process to maximize the delivery of value to the client with no waste, which can be achieved by early team involvement to understand what it is that’s being built, and to build it right the first time. The following are some examples of Lean in action, comparing conventional construction with Lean.

In the traditional approach the construction team is prepared to catch scope changes during construction, whereas on the Lean project the scope may change during the project but it is expected to be fewer due to team input during preconstruction to address such items as constructability for example.

In the conventional setting, project managers are the sole planners and in Lean the managers are the first planners, with the rest of the field crew filling in as the last planners to get input from the entire team.

Push techniques are employed in traditional construction where information is delivered to the team and on a Lean project pull techniques allow for the flow of information to move upstream and downstream.

One of the goals of Lean Construction is to limit on-site waste. flickr/ ArmchairBuilder.com

Those few listed items highlight some major points that builders are using to incorporate Lean principles on projects. These principles highlighted the Lean process the first time Lean was rolled out in the late 1990’s. However this time the use of Lean Construction may be catching on due to the discussion of Lean outside the normal industry circles and by the education process. Earlier this Spring, The Orlando Sentinel newspaper published an article on a 23-floor apartment in downtown Orlando that was expedited due to Lean, which they describe as a method dedicated to ridding the construction process of waste, as work schedules are drawn so that nobody is left waiting on others. The article stated that the Lean approach allowed for the project to be completed months ahead of schedule and “millions of dollars cheaper than a conventionally built tower.”

Other ways that the Lean movement is picking up momentum this time is that construction firms are really analyzing the Lean principles to see how they can incorporate them in their operations.

“I have gone to a few seminars on Lean, plus I’ve read a ton on it, and I feel if we incorporate some Lean techniques that we can become more efficient,” said Bill Derence, Mascaro Construction. “For example going to the field leadership and getting them involved by pulling information can greatly assist in building our schedule.” 

On the design side Lean is also picking up momentum this second go-round: “Twelve years ago, when Burt Hill joined the Lean Construction Institute, I attended workshops and learned a lot and brought some good information back to the firm, but the thing I remember most back then was that in a room full of people I would be the only architect,” said John Brock, Stantec (formally known as Burt Hill). “From those workshops I brought back some rock solid techniques that allowed us to work better with the builder and the owner. Most importantly, we employed a work plan that involved a look back and look aheads, and this engaged the team. The most important thing is that owner engagement – by truly getting the owner involved early we limit redesign.”

As is the case with many topics, education plays a role in the process. A few years ago the Associated General Contractors of America introduced its four-part Lean Education Program. Since its inception 26 AGC chapters have offered at least one of the Lean courses and over 1,500 professionals have gone through one of the courses. As for the college campuses: “Lean is slowly working its way into the jargon of the next generation as college students are talking about it,” said Jen Landau, an Advisor at the University of Pittsburgh Construction Management Program. “While we don’t have a class devoted entirely to teaching Lean Construction, Lean discussions are taking place in the classes.”

At the Master Builders’ Association, the MBA is preparing to host a contractor roundtable session after summer to see what direction the association should go in concerning Lean Construction. Lean champions from other parts of the country are going to attend to discuss real-life examples of how implementing Lean made their companies more efficient. According to the AGC this is the major difference between Lean from a decade ago and today – back then the consultants and academics preached its value and now peers are educating each other to improve the industry together.

For more information on the western Pennsylvania Lean Construction roundtable contact Jon O’Brien at 412-922-3912 or jobrien@mbawpa.org.

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