BY ROBERT P. MADER
Of CONTRACTOR’s staff
PHILADELPHIA — There’s an awful lot of wheel-spinning that goes on at construction sites. Dennis Sowards offered attendees at the Mechanical Contractors Association of America mid-year educational conference in June here some alternatives with the “last planner process” and the “Fives S’s.”
The initial version of the Five S’s was created by Toyota for its Japanese operations. The concept has been translated and modified by American corporations as part of total quality management, said Sowards, previously a quality guru with mechanical contractor Kinetics Group but now an Arizona-based consultant.
The Five S’s stand for sorting the needed from the unnecessary; simplifying by keeping needed items in the right places; sweeping, keeping the workplace clean; standardizing and documenting agreements and procedures; and self-discipline, making adherence to the Five S’s a habit.
The basis for the Five S’s is that most shops and construction sites are disorganized, leading to what Sowards calls treasure hunts looking for tools, materials or shop drawings.
Contractors should start by picking one area on which to try the Five S’s, he said. The process could be applied to purchasing to reduce the time it takes to process a purchase order and organize the buyer’s desk. It could be applied in the field to reduce start-up time, clean and organize the yard or standardize gang boxes.
Value is whatever the customer is willing to pay for, Sowards noted, so anything else such as tradespeople waiting around, excess inventory or unnecessary transport of materials is waste. Part of the Lean Thinking process espoused by Sowards is a shift in management’s focus to differentiate between what’s value and what’s waste.
The intent is to reduce variability so work flows from the completion of one task to another. Contractors should analyze their process flow, such as their rules of release when a task can be handed off to the next crew. A contractor might implement a dual bin reordering system — when one bin of parts or materials is empty, it’s time to reorder. Assemblies could be modularized or kitted in the shop.
A key part to creating this type of flow through a project is the “last planner” process, Sowards said. The last planner is the foreman, the person who gives daily instructions to the crew.
“The last planner is not an alternative to other scheduling or to-do lists,” Sowards noted. “But it is a cultural change, especially for the foremen.”
The question then becomes how does the project manager help the foremen get work done. The foremen have to be given the power to say no, yet at the same time they have to commit to accomplishing whatever they’ve agreed to get done.
Buildings don’t get built according to a master schedule, Sowards noted. The master schedule shows the feasibility of doing the work, identifies who should do the work and determines what the long lead-time items are.
A lean construction schedule would be a reverse phase schedule that works backwards that identifies what big chunks need to get done and their relationship to one another. The schedule also represents a commitment from the responsible parties.
That schedule then needs to be broken into smaller pieces in a look-ahead process, which focuses on making everything ready so that the real work can actually be done. The smallest piece of the look-ahead process is the weekly plan that’s put together by the foremen. The idea is to get the work done properly in the correct sequence with a properly sized crew.
While the foremen are the last planners, the superintendent is the production manager and the PM is the process sponsor. Group members must have a weekly planning meeting where they go through what they’ve accomplished in the previous week’s plan, what has failed, the reasons for the constraints and the current week’s plan.
It’s the job of the project manager to create composites of all the crews and foremen’s look-ahead plans as well as create plans for the next two, four or six weeks. It’s also the PM’s job to deal with status information from suppliers, designers and owner and to make sure the foremen are equipped to get the work done.
The last planner process has been proven to work, Sowards said. Dallas-based mechanical TDIndustries studied 50 jobs with more than $300,000 in labor costs and found the last planner process saved an average of 17% of the projects’ labor budgets. Boldt Construction, a Wisconsin general contractor, has found that the last planner process has shortened schedules by as much as 20%, Sowards said.