By Dennis Sowards
Productivity is a constant concern of all field foremen and project managers. Most often, workers are told to work smarter not harder, but are rarely given specific ways to do it. The main priority for managing projects in a Lean approach is to keep the crews doing value added work. Usually, this is done by reducing or eliminating non-value added work. Here are 14 ways to work smarter:
Stop focusing on efficiency and point speed. We focus on efficiency in the field when we push each crew to work as hard as it can to finish each task. It seems to make sense that, if every crew worked to finish its tasks as soon as possible, the project would be completed faster. It looks good on paper and CPM charts, but is not reality. We want the work to flow from one task to another. When we focus on point speed we often finish the task early, but the next crew doesn't start right away and thus, the schedule is not advanced.
Variability happens in construction and we want to achieve a reliable process where trades can depend on the other trades to keep their promises and turn over work as scheduled. Finishing a task too early is just as unreliable as finishing late. We don't want gaps in the project flow to happen.
Plan the work ahead of time. One of the biggest time wasters for crews is waiting. They wait for material, tools, equipment and information. Often, they wait on other crews to hand-off the work space to them. While some reasons for waiting are not preventable, most can be avoided or minimized. This takes planning. Use a look-ahead process to identify all elements that must be in place for the crew to do value added work.
There are many types of look-ahead plans and formats. Most identify the activity and the due date and rely on the planner's knowledge and memory to identify the key tasks or actions to complete to make that activity ready.
The best look-ahead plans are the ones that contain a specific checklist. Imagine if pilots relied solely on their memory to prepare for take-off instead of reviewing the flight checklist? Look-ahead plans work if used as designed and they can greatly reduce the time crews have to wait.
Know the work. Each foreman should be planning the crew's work by each task a week ahead. Each day the crew should be shown what the anticipated work is for that day, so they can work to meet the day's expectations.
Minimize the crew's get ready time. Look at the time it takes a crew to actually start doing value added work. This includes having the crews start on time and get their tools and equipment, including their safety equipment. One contractor measures TTL - the Time To Leave the yard and get on the road. They were able to reduce this by 25 minutes per crew vehicle per day. Another contractor was able to reduce the time it took for air balance crews to get harnessed up each morning by about 18 minutes. With 25 workers on this job for several weeks, productivity improved.
How did both of these contractors do this? They studied the current ways the crews used to get ready each day and identified ways to reduce it. In the case of the air balance crews, it was to use a rack containing a labeled peg for each worker to hang up his or her own safety harness. Each morning the worker did not have to sift through a gang box of harnesses to find one and resize it to fit. Locating tools and equipment at point of use is very important.
Ensure that all tools are available and in working order. At the end of each shift, the foreman should ensure that all tools are in their designated place and functioning. That way the crew will easily find them when needed during the next shift. Organized gang boxes are critical to accomplishing this. Apply the 5S's technique to organize the boxes. There must be a system to be sure the tools go where designated at the end of the shift. A foreman may delegate some of this responsibility to an apprentice who takes the last five minutes of each shift to organize each gang box.
Make sure all consumables are stocked. We never want to have an excess of consumable material like welding rods, screws, bolts, etc. on site, but even more, we don't want to run out. A simple way to do this is to use the Lean "Kanban" method. A kanban is a signal to restock or refill a product to a designated level. The signal is triggered when the level of material reaches a set point.
For example, in installing pipe one would consume many elbows and valves. One contractor used a plastic bin with a divider separating it into two parts. In the front were an established number of parts, say 30. When the 30 were used up, the worker pulls the divider and another 10 are available to use. On the divider is a card containing the part size, stock number, vendor, and all information needed to reorder the part. The card goes to the foreman to reorder. The 30 - 10 level was designed to allow the workers to continue working while more material is ordered and not overload the space for storing material.
Deliver material close to just-in-time. Suppliers and contractors' shops tend to over order and over deliver material to the jobsite. Usually the GC will require the subcontractor to move any material stored at the job. Who moves it? The crews we want to keep busy installing. The idea is to keep just enough material on site to keep the crews productive and to never run out, but not store excess. It is not practical, in most cases, to actually deliver just-in-time, but almost just-in-time (one to two days in advance) is possible for most projects.
Store all material, tools, and equipment on movable devices. Anything stored on a jobsite will most likely have to be moved at least once and usually two to three times. If it is stored on pallets, carts, rolling racks, etc. it can be moved quickly. If it is stored on the ground or non-movable racks or tables, it will take the crews much more time doing this non-valued added but necessary work.
Mark all boxes and containers. We are quick in construction to reuse cardboard boxes. We put all types of material and parts in them. This is a good conservation approach. The problem is that a worker often has to look in many boxes before he or she can find the desired part. Mark on every box what is actually inside of it so anyone approaching the storage rack can easily read and decide if the box contains what is needed.
Prevent rework. This is so obvious that it almost seems unnecessary to mention. However, there is much more rework occurring on jobsites than is known and recorded. The punch list at the end of the job signifies the tip of the iceberg. Much work is caught and repaired by foremen doing daily walk-throughs. Most seasoned construction managers accept this as the way construction work is. BUT it doesn't have to be that way! By doing muda (waste) walks, one can see the rework occurring and can involve the workers in seeking preventive actions. The Japanese say this about poor quality work: "Do Get It - Don't Make It and Don't Send It." Learn how to master this saying and rework will go down.
Have enough equipment and in working order. Always make sure there is adequate equipment available and that all are functioning. A systematic way to account for and maintain all equipment is needed.
Manage personal time. Crews should honor their commitment to start and end on time and keep breaks to the designated times. The human body needs breaks to be most effectively, but excessive time can be lost when workers drag back to work following breaks. Additional smoke breaks and using cell phones for personal calls can also reduce work time. Some jobs manage this effective, while many allow workers to steal productive time. I wouldn't pay a repair man for eight hours of work on my house if he came late, left early and took long breaks, would you? Follow the contract and keep the promise.
Keep the work area clean. This may seem impossible at a worksite, but empty boxes, drinking cups, scraps of material, etc. do build up and create clutter that hides problems and becomes a potential safety hazard. In an ideal world, each worker would be responsible to be clean while doing the work. Jobsites and many construction workers are far from ideal. Still, much can be done by putting trash collectors in easy to reach locations and having a systematic way to collect all trash. You get what you expect.
Manage the records. Jobsite trailers can be a large time waster. The trailer should be organized so employees can find forms, reference binders, current job drawings, and supplies quickly and get on with their work. RFI, change orders, time sheets, etc. should all be filed and marked so anyone can see where they are located. A rule of thumb is the 30-second test --can one find what is needed in 30 seconds or less? If not, more organization is needed.
There is a great need to improve productivity at almost all construction sites. Try these ideas and see how they help. Keep experimenting and trying new things. We learn by trying better ways not just doing the same old things.