With 53% of typical construction projects finishing behind schedule, most owners and project teams agree that the industry is in dire need of improving efficiency. Enter COVID-19, and suddenly, completing projects on time and within budget while adhering to safety protocols is even more challenging. Common causes for poor project performance include teams working in siloes, slow decision-making, and poor information exchange – all of which are only heightened during a global pandemic.
Harnessing out-of-control construction delays
In a time where social distancing is the norm, and with some team members working remote and some in person, improving your construction schedule and attaining high levels of productivity may seem like insurmountable goals. Construction professionals are faced with scenarios where problem-solving must be conducted virtually. This can lead to communication and knowledge gaps, knowledge loss, and an inability to see where and when work is available for people who are both offsite and onsite.
In my work as a Lean coach for over 100 construction projects, a lot of wasted time is caused by workers’ inability to see what work is available and when. A visual management system – utilized by less than 5% of construction projects in my experience – is a critical tool to help get this waste under control. Visual management systems allow teams to see – in a very simple and visual way – where and when work is available, ultimately making teams much more efficient and effective.
Even with advances in technology and planning tools to promote time and cost efficiency, alone, they can’t solve construction scheduling challenges, never mind the additional issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic. To tap into better processes, new ways of working, and effectively managing teams to improve project outcomes, your company needs to Lean into construction schedule recovery.
Lean thinking to improve your construction schedule
I recently worked on two construction projects that were experiencing delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. We employed Lean thinking to help the teams not only find innovative solutions for their current challenges, but also sustain that change and the improvements for projects even when the pandemic isn’t causing such difficulty. One project is the remodel of a 214,000 square foot courthouse built in 1845, into 114 residential units. The other project is a 211,000 square foot, 5-level building, with two levels of below grade space and 118 units.
Both projects were farther behind schedule due the forced shutdown period caused by the pandemic, as well as the need to follow COVID-19 safety protocols. The teams needed to find innovative ways to catch up and conquer their construction schedules.
Working with both teams, we formulated the following hypothesis: use the foundational elements of Lean (respecting people, understanding customer value, and eliminating waste) to address the unique challenges COVID-19 has introduced, as well as the tried-and-true construction challenges in order to:
- Ensure safety
- Create a workable backlog for teams to avoid the dreaded “waiting,” allowing schedules to flow quickly and seamlessly
- Improve the speed and efficiency of work so projects could finish on or ahead of schedule
- Maintain or improve quality
We proceeded to test the hypothesis with both organizations with the uber goal to standardize new behaviors, as well as the learnings and improvements we would identify together throughout the organizations, so they could reap the benefits well beyond the pandemic.
Three Lean solutions
A key cornerstone of Lean thinking is to deeply understand a problem before introducing solutions. One way to get to the heart of a problem is by “going Gemba,” which means to go to where the work occurs. This allows you to observe first-hand problems and opportunities as they happen. In addition, listening to challenges experienced by and brainstorming solutions with everyone who is involved in a project – from foremen and frontline workers to owners and superintendents – is crucial to finding solutions that lead to long-term, sustainable performance.
For both construction projects, we first employed this Lean thinking and that led us to these three solutions aimed at recovering construction schedules:
1. Improving construction site organization using the 5S philosophy
At one of the project sites, there were excess stockpiled materials, making the project site cluttered and difficult for individuals to find materials. There was also no clear accountability as to which teams were responsible for them. In one instance, a team wasted 30 minutes looking for a piece of equipment. On average, direct observation showed that workers were wasting 22% of their day looking for materials, tools, or information to do their work.
To address this problem, we applied a Lean approach called 5S to improve workplace organization.
By using this tool, the team:
- Improved job site responsibility through an audit checklist for the workplace organization. It empowered everyone in the field to generate ideas for improvement around workplace organization and smooth flow of performing work. This is the ultimate way to demonstrate respect for people: giving them responsibility and challenges to demonstrate their highest value. As one apprentice stated, “I’ve been adding ideas every day and feel the job has been improving. I’d like to see the audit rotate because I’ve been learning so much about what it takes to keep a project moving.”
- Improved safety. With significantly less clutter, there was more room to ensure safe, social-distanced pathways to comply with COVID-19 requirements. Less clutter also yielded a safer work environment with fewer trip hazards, easier-to-access materials, and less likelihood of workplace injuries.
- Resulted in faster change-over from trades. With better workplace organization, materials were easier to access and clean up. As a result, it was easier for each team to perform work and then also clean up, so the next tradespeople could begin working with minimal waiting and set-up time.
The impact of employing this Lean strategy was visible to those working in the space, but the hidden value was also in the cost savings through:
- Increased productivity by being able to move quickly from space to space. By improving the flow of work due to workplace organization and improved processes, the time to turn over work from one mechanical contractor to another was reduced from 35 minutes to 10 minutes (a 71% improvement). Over the course of the project, this yielded a savings of 904 crew-days of work.
- Savings in material costs. The teams started with the exact amount of materials that were needed. As a result, they were able to secure $8,000 in credits for materials that were not needed. Vendors helped the team understand what materials could be ordered in smaller quantities, so they obtained exactly what they needed, when they needed it.
2. Promoting efficiency through a Visual Management system
It’s a common question for foremen on a construction project to ask, “Where can I work next?” As a result, time is wasted looking for work, waiting for work, or trying to understand why work cannot move forward. Using a concept in Lean called Visual Management, all of these time-wasting endeavors can be eliminated, and teams are able to see and understand together. It helps them quickly and easily see if the project is ahead or behind schedule, and what teams (and individuals) can do about it, which can be a powerful motivator.
In the case of these projects, both teams already had a tool in place to show whether work was completed, but there was much room for improvement.
Here are some of the Lean changes we implemented using Visual Management principles:
- Changing location: The visual board shifted from an excel-printed tool in the trailer to a large visual poster where the work took place. Having the poster where the work occurs makes it easier for workers to see and update, thereby making it more relevant. Otherwise, it becomes stale and no longer valuable.
- Using color: We changed the color of job statuses from a black and white board to one with color. Color enabled everyone to see very quickly and easily where work had not started, where it was complete, and where it was stalled. Using colored sticker dots, individuals could very quickly and easily update their work.
- Making problems visible: A section for barriers was added. It was important for foremen to make problems visible. This way, people could collectively see what was getting in the way, and help to overcome those constraints in real time, in the field.
In the poster above, the green dots indicate where work can happen. The X’s on the chart indicate where work has been completed, and the red dots indicate barriers to performing work.
The foremen in the field can simply go up to the board, see where the work is available and ready, and move to it. The color-coding improves flow, reduces wasted time looking for work, and promotes solving problems to get work ready.
The impact of these simple changes was powerful from a cost-savings perspective.
- In general, foremen spent about 15% of their day (or one hour) asking around if the next space/task is ready and trying to ensure that they have the right information, materials, manpower, tools, etc. to do the work. Ten minutes here and there, throughout the course of the day, adds up to a lot of waste.
- Over the span of the projects, this easy fix yielded $1.0M in more efficient work (and less wasted time).
3. Employing technology innovations
Once we deeply understood the root causes of the scheduling delays, we implemented a couple of simple technology-based innovations that were highly impactful and not difficult to employ:
- Sharing field conditions with architects using video requests for information (RFIs). One project team was having difficulty keeping up with more than 500 RFIs. Video-based RFIs made information faster and easier to process. With video, RFIs were resolved 50% faster than traditional, written RFIs. They also had the positive side effect of bringing humanity and empathy to the process, due to the visual nature of communicating via video – whereas written communications like email can often be misinterpreted.
- Using a software tool called MURAL for collaboration among the team. This tool enabled teams to work using computer-based “sticky notes” to share, sort, understand, vet, and collaborate on problems and ideas to make the work run more smoothly. Everything was transparent and accessible, just as it would be if the entire team were working in a room together using a whiteboard or wall space. The software allowed for simultaneous, multi-user input, and for members to contribute asynchronously based on work schedule.
Recovering your construction schedule
The most important takeaway from these COVID-19-inspired challenges and the changes that resulted from using Lean thinking is that they ultimately respect the people doing the work. In these unprecedented times, field staff are taking risks by working amongst others. Organizations owe it to their valuable teams to make the workplace as safe and efficient as possible.
As these two projects demonstrate, Lean strategies can lead to significant improvements in performance and cost savings. While this is not a “one size fits all” approach, the culture shift and behavior change on these were meaningful, and in applying the Lean philosophy, there is hope that it will spread even further across the construction industry. With these principles undergirding your construction schedule, you’ll be able to easily adapt to the next business disruption. Is your construction scheduled delayed due to COVID-19 or are you experiencing delays in general? Send me an email or connect with me on LinkedIn to see how Lean can get your schedule back on track.
Senior Lean Practitioner, Construction Manufacturing