Taking cues from the lean production methods that pioneered in the car industry in the mid-20th century, lean construction methodology aims to remove excess, improve quality, and increase efficiency. Yet for all its good intentions, sometimes this approach falls short at a practical level. In this first installment of an eight-part series, let’s look at how crossed communication wires often lead to overproduction on the job site and the consequences of this.
One of the tenets of lean construction, like with lean manufacturing before it, is that goods are only produced in the quantity they’re needed in. This ensures that overhead is kept low, inventory is tightly controlled, and loss is minimized. At least, that’s the theory. Keeping production levels in line with actual demand can only work if messages are passed down the line from the originator to the recipient without being altered, distorted, or missed completely. Otherwise, the person or crew at the end of the chain performs the work with their original mandate in mind, even though it might now be outdated or wrong.
As we wrote in a previous post, COVID-19 has muddied the communication waters by driving a wedge between essential workers performing practical tasks on the jobsite and those trying to manage them remotely from an offsite location. Doing so is a difficult task when remote management staff have no way to monitor what’s happening in real time. Onsite to offsite communication – and vice versa – is further complicated by the lack of a single, clear channel to send, receive, update, and consolidate information. As a result, there’s often a lag between the work that’s done on the jobsite and this being reported to site supervisors, general contractors, project managers, and others who need to be in the know but can be kept in the dark.
This issue is a two-edged sword, as tradespeople onsite are similarly disconnected. Even if all of the information that a construction crew or subcontractor needs to perform their tasks exists and is up to date, it is likely scattered across channels like Slack, email, text messaging, enterprise software, and many more. When so many platforms are in play and each is its own silo, it’s no wonder that crucial and time-sensitive and task-specific information is muddled or ends up stuck in the cracks. The result? Overproduction that leads to both waste and time-sucking rework, which costs the construction industry $170 billion every year.
When overproduction enters the picture, it doesn’t exist in isolation but has a knock-on effect on the next steps in the projects and the human and material resources needed to complete these. Individual project milestones are also impacted, as is the overall timeline and associated deadlines. An article written by MachineMetrics states that overproduction creates “a ‘caterpillar’ effect in the production flow and results in the creation of excess WIP [work in progress].” In addition, the more rework that results from overproduction, the greater the cost and the more time and effort it takes to manage.
Simply put, construction workers end up doing more than they should because – often through no fault of their own – they don’t know exactly what they should be doing or when. Construction companies can start to break this costly cause-and-effect chain of events not by focusing on overproduction itself but by backing up to the root cause: miscommunication. Consolidating communications into a single channel that presents complete and current information in an accessible way would help both construction workers and their supervisors to adhere more closely to the efficiency offered by lean production and avoid the delays, expense, and hassle of overproduction.