ConstructionPro Week, Volume: Construction Advisor Today - Issue: 47 - 03/18/2010

Experts Offer Advice for Improving Productivity in Construction

Steve Rizer
Construction Project Controls and BIM Report

The construction industry cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to productivity and needs to be proactive in dealing with this issue, Michael Casten, founder of the consulting firm Construction Concepts, said during a webinar sponsored by CPC/BIM earlier this month, telling attendees, "I would suggest to you that if you haven't recently solved your productivity problems, you have one."


In making his assertion, Casten reported that productivity in the construction industry has been declining at a rate of about 1-1.5 percent per year. He noted that there has been a steady decline in productivity over the last 25-35 years. Furthermore, the average construction operation underperforms its potential production capacity by a factor of three or four times, he said.

This 4-part webinar series is now on CD.  To hear Michael's presentation, along with the other instructors' sessions, click hear.

Casten argued that even as the industry's output measures, cost-reporting systems, project-scheduling systems, and other project-control systems have become more sophisticated, and even with faster computers and improved software, productivity has continued to decline.  "Clearly, a cost-reporting system by itself cannot and does not improve productivity," Casten said. 

For the webinar, entitled "Traditional Productivity Improvement Techniques," Casten primarily focused on construction productivity at the crew level. It was one of four webinars that CPC/BIM hosted in recent weeks on the topic of construction productivity.


Casten suggested that subcontracted labor is not the way to solve these problems. "While I'm not opposed to subcontracting labor, my experience in the field is that subcontracted labor rarely, if ever, performs the work significantly better than does those general contractors who perform that same type of work, and there is a tendency to lose more and more project control the deeper down you get, particularly when you get into sub-subcontracted work or sub-subcontracted suppliers, and so on."


To make improvements, construction firms need to make changes to productivity that are systematic and continuous, Casten said. "It isn't something that can be done very, very quickly and with two or three speeches or a couple of emails. Ultimately, we want to continuously improve the effectiveness and efficiency of all the employees and the work they do across the entire organization."


Ultimately, productivity across a project must have a well-designed production system that includes the following, according to Casten: preconstruction production planning; value stream production planning; operation production planning; assured production planning and control; and implementation and follow-through.


"One of the things that we have learned is that you are not going to bring in a lasting improvement in productivity without having a lot of people learn the processes and learn the realities of it through real experience -- that is, learning by doing. That is a long, relatively expensive process. Unfortunately, we can't do this with webinars. We can't do this with four-hour lectures. We can't even do this with week-long institutes. I've tried all of those. The only thing that apparently works [is] you have to spend time with project teams almost one at a time, get them to begin to understand the mechanics of how we break work down and then how we build work back up in a way that will truly be effective and efficient."


In his presentation, Casten addressed "the false promise of cost-control systems," achieving a "breakthrough" in performance, the construction operation life-cycle, the daily crew production flow, necessary new skills and disciplines, changes in leadership, and other areas.


Strategic Project Solutions Duo Focus on Lean Techniques for Measurable Productivity Gains
In another session for CPC/BIM's productivity webinar series, Roberto Arbulu, who leads the strategic project solutions technical services team for Strategic Project Solutions Inc., offered attendees several tips for using lean techniques for measurable productivity gains.


"If we want to optimize production, we need to look at projects as temporary production systems," Arbulu said. "There is a possibility of optimizing production. It can be done. We can use optimization principles [and] production principles to achieve that."


Arbulu also recommended synchronizing production throughout a project. In particular, he advised attendees about how they should synchronize what happens on site with what happens in a different location.


Arbulu additionally advised attendees on the topic of production control and how to reach optimization objectives in that area.  Arbulu and colleague James Choo, who serves as technical director of strategic project controls for SPS, also addressed the importance of effective variability management, buffer allocation, key steps for optimizing project-based production, process and operations design, and other areas.


During the session, entitled "Using Lean Techniques for Measurable Productivity Gains," Choo stressed that improving productivity alone does not always enhance project performance.


Ibbs Advises on Finding Areas for Substantial Gains and Return on Investment
Productivity improvement should be considered as a project, "just like your construction work is a project," William Ibbs told attendees of another session, entitled "Productivity Identification and Measurement -- Finding Areas for Substantial Gains and ROI."


The effort to improve productivity should begin with a definition of what the project's scope is and what parts of the project should be improved, Ibbs said. "Are we concerned with our construction productivity, or are we concerned with our design productivity?" He also urged attendees to determine whether they should focus on improving productivity "in-house" or with subcontractors. A budget for productivity improvement efforts also should be set, he said.


In addition, attendees should consider how they are going to promote efforts to improve productivity, Ibbs said. "How are we going to promote this productivity improvement effort from this individual project to the company as a whole?


"The idea of productivity improvement really revolves around getting a good group of people together who can help you, who are familiar with the company, who are familiar with best practices in other companies and can help you stand back and really look at the company as a whole and look at the project as a whole and bring some tools, some techniques to the process that will help you better understand the way things are currently being performed."


In addition to improving productivity, Ibbs' presentation focused on basic productivity concepts, the importance of ROI and profitability, measuring productivity, and other areas.


Lichtig Examines Opportunities for Productivity Improvement With or Without a Full IPD Contract
The heart and soul of lean integrated project delivery (IPD) "really is what's come to be known as 'the five big ideas,'" Will Lichtig, a lawyer with McDonough, Holland & Allen PC, told attendees of a webinar session entitled "Integrated Project Delivery -- Opportunities for Productivity Improvement With or Without a Full IPD Contract."


The following "five big ideas" represent an underlying philosophy that supports the ability of people to deliver projects in a new way, according to Lichtig:


Increase Relatedness -- One idea is to increase the relatedness of the project participants. "On traditional projects, we often say that individuals come together on projects as strangers, and they often leave as enemies. What we've found is that all projects, because of the dynamic nature of project delivery, have rough spots in the road. What we believe is that by creating durable, personal relationships among the folks that have to deliver the project, you're actually going to be able to withstand those ups and downs on a project much more rigorously than if they basically just view each other as commercial entities."


Collaborate; Really Collaborate -- "The reason we emphasize the 'really' is because on most projects, if you ask people whether they collaborate, they're answer would be, 'Sure we do.' Designers will often say, 'I've prepared my design. I share it with a construction manager to review and provide constructability comments, and then we reflect back on those comments, and we as the designers will take those that we think are important and integrate those into our designs.' Well, from our perspective, that's not what we consider collaboration. Collaboration for us is having everybody sit around the table and to collectively study the problem. We bring folks together much earlier in the process and really look to create innovative solutions as a collective by studying the problem together and brainstorming the range of solutions."


Networks of Commitment -- "If you really think about it, on projects, what really gets work done is promises that people make one to the other. You often are looking for work product from somebody and plan your activities based on their commitment to deliver work to you. In the construction industry, if you look at project performance, roughly 55 percent on traditional projects of what's promised in a given week actually gets done in that week, and the problem is you don't know which 55 percent of the promises are actually going to be kept, so it's no small wonder that we have chaos on our projects when we try to deliver them. There are ways to begin to work so that you are able to increase that reliability to 80 or 90 percent, which has been done fairly routinely on projects using the Last Planner system, and by doing that, companies are able to improve reliability and therefore the workflow among the project participants."


Tightly Couple Learning with Action -- "Projects often are too long to wait to do lessons learned at the end of the project, and often, even when lessons learned are done, they're filed away somewhere, and nobody ever looks at them again. What we like to think about is that the projects are actually a learning organization. They are a temporary social organization that's put together and that the goal is for them to learn everyday from what they did yesterday. We do innovative Plus/Delta reviews every day or after every meeting so that we can constantly be reflecting on what happened today, what have we learned from it, and how can we implement innovation as a result of that learning in the way that we approach the work tomorrow or next week."


Optimize the Whole -- "In essence, what has happened in the construction industry is everybody has become increasingly siloed, and everybody has a smaller commercial chunk of the work. Each of those chunks in a traditional project delivery system really is focused on optimizing their little piece of the project. They're focused on creating efficiency in their little realm, which often has very deleterious effects across the entire system. So, in the lean IPD world, we try to step back from that and really focus on optimizing at the system level in order to gain the great, great benefits that can be had by spending $1 here and now to gain the benefits of $2 or $5 there and then somewhere else in the project."


Implementing these five ideas can yield benefits involving impeccable coordination, production system design, and collective enterprise, Lichtig said.




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