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When Construction Workers Connect, Inventory Waste Stops

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In previous installments of this article series, we’ve focused on lean construction wastes that largely impact people and processes, including overprocessing, waiting, and excess production. But in this post, we’re going to switch gears and discuss a pressing problem related more to materials: wasting inventory. 

The initial move toward lean manufacturing made by Toyota and other pioneers of the car industry was connected to another initiative that transformed the production of goods for the better: just-in-time production. According to Lean Manufacturing Tools, “Just in Time (JIT), as the name suggests, is a management philosophy that calls for the production of what the customer wants, when they want it, in the quantities requested, where they want it, without it being delayed in inventory.” 

In construction, the philosophy of JIT can be put into practice by only ordering the building materials that are needed and using no more than is required to complete individual tasks and the project as a whole. Of course, it would be impossible to completely eliminate waste in this area. Certain materials cannot be custom-made and so come in dimensions larger than a construction crew will actually need. In which case, they will have to be cut down to size and the excess discarded or, when possible, recycled. 

That being said, the amount of inventory waste is often increased by processing snafus that precede either ordering new materials or putting them to use on the jobsite, or sometimes both. Also, when job timelines are ill-managed and mistimed, materials can take up valuable warehouse space, driving up storage costs. Or if perishable inventory is left out in inclement weather (rain, snow, sleet, and so on) for too long, it can degrade, warp, and be rendered useless. In which case, a company will have no choice but to order a replacement, doubling what the cost should have been. 

How Much Are Construction Projects Wasting? 

According to a report conducted by The Centre for Management of the Built Environment at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden, the typical construction project wastes around 10 percent of its production costs on materials that aren’t used, need to be reordered, or are utilized incorrectly. When combined with defects, health and safety issues, and one of the other wastes of lean manufacturing we explored in an earlier post – waiting – this number skyrockets to between 30 and 35 percent of the total project cost. 

This report states that wasted inventory is tied to another area of inefficiency that is often a significant drain on human and material resources. Systems and structures are also a big part of the problem. The authors mentioned “frustration over the unnecessary information that is sent,” which can total up to 121 separate documents per project. 

As stated in an earlier article, the typical construction worker uses between three and six communication apps daily and an average of nine in total. This means that their inbound and outbound messages are scattered across many different platforms, many of which don’t talk to each other. As a result, they might receive only some of the documents they need while never seeing, let alone reading more pertinent and timely information. The result? Yet more waste.

Tangled Processes + Clouded Communication = More Waste

This can take several forms. First, let’s say the scope of a particular framing task is reduced. The subcontractor doesn’t know this because the message is stuck on a platform that he or she rarely accesses, so they go ahead and do the job as originally intended. This results in twice as much wood being used as was necessary. Rather than being able to assign this to another task or a different site, the project manager must now order more wood, which will take several days at best. 

They also have to ask the workers to undo the overwork and redo the framing so it fits the new job specifications. This leads to the crew working overtime. The roofers can’t come to the site on their original timeline because they have to wait for the reframing to be completed, so now the whole project is running over budget and behind schedule. As you can see from this example, inventory waste rarely exists in isolation but is rather the result of muddled processes and communication errors. 

Putting a platform into place that offers a consolidated and clear view of all relevant information in real-time would go a long way to solving the problem. A single pane of glass would offer clarity and consistency so that crews knew what to be doing, how, and when. As a result, they’d use the correct amount of the right materials, reducing the cost of wasted inventory, avoiding delays, and keeping projects closer to their initial deadlines and budgets. 

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