Construction projects are becoming more complex, with increasing levels of regulations, more product choices, and higher performance expectations. And there are so many more ways of getting bombarded with information — e-mail, text, voice-mail — that we get swept up into survival mode of responding to the bits of info as it comes along.
But the danger of this multi-tasking is that it doesn’t really work: you lose sight of the big picture (only seeing one piece of the elephant), and there is really no one who has a handle on the whole situation.
On commercial projects, the solution to this problem has been early morning trailer huddles or at least message boards at the jobsite trailer. The trend is to increase the membership to these meetings — inviting in subs who previously just got their marching order as they went along.
The problem with these meetings is that the communication is mostly a one-way deal. The schedule and work packets have already been figured out, and are just being passed along. Yet the meeting can help in creating awareness of what other workers will be doing on the job site, and ideally does allow for some shifting work around a conflict area, mostly regarding safety.
Howell and Ballard
The problem with this traditional method of communication is that expectations don’t always match reality. Years ago, Greg Howell and Glenn Ballard measured the percentage of planned work that was actually completed, and discovered that it was often very disappointing. The work would just get rescheduled, and would have already created havoc through lost productive work time and increased stress from the unpredictability. They went on to develop a practice known as “The Last Planner,” in which activities are first “made ready” by completing all precedent work. This ensures that all resources and supplies are in place, and that any affiliated work is ready to be deployed at the same time.
Once the day or week is over, any work that doesn’t go as planned is analyzed for the underlying reason, in order to correct the condition on future work. The goal is to increase the predictability of the work.
The Lean Construction Institute
This is just a quick cameo of the type of communication and streamlining of work that Howell and Ballard developed. Along with their colleague Iris Tommelein, they founded the Lean Construction Institute and catalyzed a shift in efficiency, value delivery, and improved design and project management.
If you haven’t yet tapped into this very logical and powerful concept of lean thinking, then I would recommend seeking out a local community of practice.
Better communications systems for residential job sites
My current challenge is to adapt this same underlying concept to the smaller scale of residential construction. What happens when you don’t have a jobsite trailer? Or if your subs typically don’t ever meet each other until the job site? And, in fact, the scheduling is often set up so that there is no overlap, thus avoiding the conflicts that have often ensued when subs tangle on site.
Is there a way of tapping into this same communication technology that drives us into frenzy, and tame it into submission? Would it be possible to have one initial face-to-face meeting at the outset of the job, for everyone to meet, identify their precedent work needs, and jointly determine a schedule? Is there a way to convert this information to a jobsite board that is interactive, with the ability to assess real-time what is work-ready, or what needs to be rescheduled?
This is the challenge that I am about to undertake for a local affordable housing project. I would very much welcome any input. (My e-mail address is ecobuildtrends [at] gmail [dot] com.).
There is much to be gained – if we can figure this out.
Dr. Vera Novak was recently awarded a PhD in Construction by Virginia Tech. Her work is dedicated to increased depth and breadth of sustainability in construction, by leveraging the points of greatest potential impact. She is currently working on optimizing corporate sustainability practices to support regenerative design, as well as adapting a lean thinking process for smaller scale projects. She also writes the Eco Build Trends blog.
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