How Toyota Can Teach Construction About Overprocessing

Successfully engaging the entire project team in early and open communication can help limit over processing on a job site.
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Some of the main aims of lean construction are to steer clear of unnecessary tasks, reduce the complexity of processes, and complete projects efficiently. While this all sounds good in theory, the reality at the jobsite is often very different, and overprocessing is the norm rather then the exception. In this article, we’ll explore how improving communication could help remedy the situation. 

Excess processing doesn’t happen all by itself but is a symptom of a multi-faceted problem. In his insightful book The Toyota Wayauthor Jeffrey Liker shares 14 management principles that have made the Japanese car manufacturer the gold standard of efficiency. The crux of section two is that the right process will bring the right results. So logically, if there are faults or inefficiencies in a process, it will yield wrong or suboptimal results. 

Liker goes on to state that as part of Toyota’s total quality management (TQM) philosophy, lean production will prompt a process redesign that eliminates waste (muda in Japanese) through continual improvement (kaizen). Toyota identifies the seven areas of potential muda as overproduction, waiting, unnecessary transport, excess inventory, motion, defects, and – you guessed it – overprocessing or incorrect processing. 

Engaging Every Stakeholder

One of the ways that Toyota has become the go-to case study for lean manufacturing is that it makes everybody a stakeholder who is given the responsibility to contribute. “The use of a good process that engages people is much more desirable, even if it does not initially achieve all the results,” Liker wrote. Just as on the Toyota factory floor, such engagement is desirable on the construction jobsite. But workers can only be fully engaged if they’re communicating effectively within clearly defined roles and as part of a smooth and seamless process. 

Breakdowns and the overprocessing and other wastes they lead to can often be traced back to communication snafus. Messages are sent but not received (or, due to a lack of accountability, ignored), construction crews don’t update offsite supervisors, project managers fail to share updated information before workers get onsite, and so on. The resulting rework doesn’t just involve fixing mistakes in a practical sense, but a lot of back and forth to schedule, monitor, and report – in other words, overprocessing. 

Unlike on Toyota’s assembly line – where communication is clear, concise, and immediate – there are often significant lags and misunderstandings between onsite crews and those attempting to manage them. One of the key reasons for this disconnect is the fact that the average construction worker uses between three and six different communication platforms or apps daily and nine in total. This means there’s a text here, an email there, and a direct message over there – none of which are synchronized in any way. 

Achieving Continuous, Uninterrupted Workflows

In a blog post for ConstructConnect, Kendall Jones identifies the crucial role that communication plays in lean construction processing. “The goal in lean construction is to achieve a continuous workflow that is reliable and predictable,” he wrote. “Each stage of production is done in sequence. For example, you wouldn’t start hanging drywall in a room until all of the electrical and plumbing was roughed in. In order to achieve flow all parties have to communicate and work together to avoid interruptions.” 

In contrast to Jones’s vision of jobsite efficiency, MachineMetrics identified poorly designed processes as those that have “management or administrative issues such as lack of communication, duplication of data, overlapping areas of authority, and human error.” This is unfortunately more common in construction than the continuous workflow that Jones described. 

While the problem areas that MachineMetrics mentioned seem to be distinct, communication (or the lack thereof) is actually the hub of them all. Data has to be duplicated if it isn’t being reported quickly or accurately. Authority overlaps when people aren’t sure who’s responsible for certain tasks because they haven’t been told. Human errors occur when the information that people are basing their decisions on is incorrect, out of date, or incomplete. 

Creating defined, repeatable, and efficient processes and ensuring everyone understands and follows them is predicated on timely communication. If all the disparate apps that construction workers and their supervisors currently use could be replaced by a single platform, people wouldn’t have to overprocess each task because they’d know exactly what, when, and how to do it. With this muda checked off the list, project managers could then extend their ongoing kaizen process to tackle the other wastes of lean construction. 

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