Lean Construction: A Primer for Subcontractors

August 2018

by Jim Cavaness, MMC Contractors West, Inc.

There are so many different variables and conditions of satisfaction that must be considered by all involved in trying to bring a project to successful fruition. As a specialty contractor, we have a unique perspective on the use of Lean construction processes. This perspective is simply that—a personal and professional perspective. It may not work for everyone and every situation. Lean is constant improvement!

In its simplest form, the Lean construction process is meant to improve how owners, architects, engineers, general contractors, and specialty contractors work together to achieve a successful project with the least amount of waste. While a simple idea in nature, there are many obstacles to overcome when it comes to practicing Lean construction. However, when we focus on working together and building the right team, we’ve found that’s the best approach to accomplish goals.

In the traditional way that a project is conceived and brought to completion, there are many areas of apparent wasted time, effort and resources. So let’s review a hypothetical traditional project from a specialty contractor’s point of view, and see individuals and teams would benefit from a project being completed with a process that allows for an on time, under budget, and gives the owner what it originally envisioned. For discussion purposes, various steps have been left out of this review.

The Current Landscape

There are many routes that a project can take, yet, there is a general direction that is followed at the inception of a project.

  • The Idea. The owner has something in mind and is ready to make the investment to make it happen. There’s a general idea of budget and timeline and a Performa that makes economic sense. In order to make this idea into a reality, an architect can become involved as one of the first step in the construction process.
  • The Drawings. Given the input and budget from the owner, the architect begins designing using the specifications available. The goal at this stage is to provide excellent customer service and deliver an exceptional final product. Once the team has created plans that are at some stage of completion, or complete, they are then sent out to be priced by general contractors.
  • The Bids. Usually, general contractors will work closely with specialty contractors to outline bids for a project. Once bids have been obtained, they are turned in and all contractors anxiously await to hear if they’ve been awarded the business.

In a perfect world, the next phase includes the owner carefully evaluating all project bids and choosing the right team for the job based on merit, past performance, reputation, and detailed pricing. However, it’s not uncommon for owners to have sticker shock at this point and request design changes from the architect to help them get to a more digestible number. This step back slows the momentum of a project and also means everyone involved has expended energy on something that will not come to fruition.

A Team Approach

A successful Lean project usually starts with a Target Value Design and Conditions of Satisfaction discussion between the owner and the team members it would like to include in the initial informational planning. This helps to eliminate the wasted time in effort of designing and planning a project that doesn’t fit the Performa.

The usual next step is to utilize the Last Planner® System to look at schedule, identify tasks and milestones that need to be implemented into the project for a timely delivery.

A guiding principle of Lean construction is maintaining the flow of a project. When we stop moving forward, we start accumulating waste. Complementing this, Lean construction is also based on the idea of “pulling” a project rather than “pushing” it. Ideally, the owner receives exactly what it has asked for and the construction team has offered solutions that everyone is comfortable with. But we do not live in a perfect world.

Common language and improved communication is one step toward finding the sweet spot in satisfying the needs of everyone involved. When we use unifying language and Lean processes, we’re able to work together more efficiently. Not only that, but we avoid veering off track and slowing the project.

Creating a cohesive team is the very root at what makes a successful project. Relationships are built on trust and communication and when those two principles are in place, the team functions like a well-oiled machine.

For example, general contractors rely on specialty subcontractors to execute a big portion of the work on a project. It takes a lot of time to continually educate specialty subcontractors on the processes and language they use to ensure they are following their guiding principles. The more specialty subcontractors understand the process, the better their performance will be. Having a solid team of specialty subcontractors gives the general contractor a significant competitive edge. When the general contractor can spend less time focused on re-educating the specialty subcontractors, more time is dedicated to the project, thus helping ensure it stays on track.

From the specialty subcontractor perspective, this is their opportunity to be of service in the project, and in doing so, make themselves invaluable to the owner and general contractor. Being part of a good team helps the team become more profitable, which subsequently results in more people wanting them on their team.

Learning the Language

The Lean Construction Institute has put together an exhaustive and comprehensive process that teams can use to develop a common language and process. This language and process can be used within their own company or organization to eliminate waste from their own processes. This process can be taught from the top down, bottom to the top, or can start in the middle of the owners’ team and work both ways until every team member is on board.

Let’s take a brief look at a few of the Lean terminologies and processes:

Target Value Design—In any purchase or investment, it is extremely beneficial to design the project to fit within the available funds or Performa.

Conditions of Satisfaction—What actual and detailed results are to be achieved? The owner obviously gets to sit in the driver’s seat for the project. But it is important to remember that all parties involved have their own conditions of satisfaction that they want to achieve for their participation.

The Last Planner® System—Brings stability to the project by giving attention to the flow while reducing the variation in the hand-off of work between the specialty subcontractors in a continuously improving work situation.

The language can be utilized throughout all touchpoints on a project—business development, estimating, engineering, fabrication, project management, and field operations. The Lean process keeps companies competitive in the market place and should be engrained in the culture of a company.

It is important to remember that Lean in itself is built on two pillars of thought. Continuous Improvement and Respect for People. The best processes in the world are of no use if there are no people to perform them. Lean offers the opportunity for the team members to bring their ideas and consequently their ownership to a project increasing the satisfaction of all involved.

Jim Cavaness is the service general manager for MMC Contractors West, Inc., Las Vegas, Nevada. He can be reached at (702) 889-6800 or jcavaness@mmccontractors.com.

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