Lean, Mean Building Machine
Tim Wies Shows Why Lean Construction Is for Real-World Projects
Mark L. Johnson / April 2016
What is lean construction?
“It’s doing everything possible to eliminate waste—wasted steps, wasted energy, wasted material, wasted time,” says Tim Wies, president of T.J. Wies Contracting, Inc. in Lake St. Louis, Mo.
Wait. Don’t wall and ceiling contractors already do that?
Wies chuckles at the question. He explains that construction is terribly inefficient and that the industry could do more project planning up front. Many companies, he says, are content just to hand a foreman a plan and point him to the job site.
That won’t do for Wies. Business is picking up, and the labor supply is tight. Construction companies need ways to work smarter to improve their margins, and lean is one way to go about it.
Lean principles, Wies says, can be implemented by any wall and ceiling firm, small or large. You identify stumbling blocks, study jobsite logistics and figure out as much as possible before your manpower arrives and material is delivered. The idea is to add more planning and analysis in the beginning of the complex cycle of work we know as construction.
“We’re a manufacturing industry,” Wies says. “But instead of making thousands of widgets every day, we make thousands of buildings, and none are the same.”
Install Product, Don’t Tote It
The Japanese are credited for formalizing the concept of continuous improvement in business operations. In the 1970s, Toyota Motor Corporation and others began managing their parts inventories in innovative ways, learning to source the right amount of parts at the precise time they were needed for production. Just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing was born, significantly cutting waste.
As JIT processes evolved, lean manufacturing and lean project delivery concepts followed. Lean ideas combine people and planning procedures in ways that allow an entire operation, not just the suppliers, to function in unison.
Enter T.J. Wies in the 2000s.
The company won the bid for an IPD, or Integrated Project Delivery, job in 2004. IPD involves shared cost savings. Earnings are tied to how well you perform with others. On the 2004 project, the owner, the GC, design firms and key subcontractors collaborated to find ways to cut costs and work more efficiently. In one meeting, the HVAC subcontractor said he could save the team $40,000 if only the gypsum board piles weren’t always impeding his workers. T.J. Wies contacted its supplier and was quoted a $10,000 up-charge to deliver board every other day. The net gain of $30,000 was implemented, and the team split the savings. This was lean construction at its best—IPD-style.
But IPD jobs are not the norm, and Wies wants harmony between manpower and material staging on every job. So, T.J. Wies engaged FMI Corporation to provide a year-long training program, after which lean principles became operational in the company. But how?
Lean improves efficiencies through better communication. T.J. Wies tapped his project managers and foremen to share together in a new series of planning sessions—with some sessions to be scheduled well ahead of project start dates. To articulate how it would work, Wies adopted a sports analogy.
“NFL teams do game-planning on Monday through Friday and then have a day off. Five 10-hour days preparing for one three-hour game,” Wies says. “We spend two hours planning for a three-month construction project.”
Not anymore. Planning at T.J. Wies, in a sense, became more important than production—and it called for “a leap of faith,” Wies says. In Wies’ union market, labor represents 60 and 75 percent of the cost to build, the majority of any other cost. That means when workers sit around waiting for other trades to finish their work, or when workers have to carry material long distances to their work areas—when jobs have not been properly planned—time is wasted.
“One of the worst statements to ever hear on a job site is, ‘Just put it over there for now,’” Wies says. “When we bid a job, we bid it to install the product, not to tote it around.”
The solution to excessive “toting” is better planning, and to get better planning you need more field people to participate. Suddenly, T.J. Wies’s foremen had a huge voice. They were added to the company’s new and all-important “game planning” process.
T.J. Wies projects begin with a “pre-game” meeting. It’s job specific and involves the project manager and job foremen in the company’s offices. What makes it lean construction is the addition of the foremen at this stage of the process.
“The PMs build the budget with the foremen’s input before they line up any subcontractors and suppliers,” says Jeff Dreisewerd, director of operations at T.J. Wies. “What we’re doing is enabling the guys. It’s a lot different from throwing our foremen sets of plans and saying, ‘Now go build.’”
Pre-game ideally occurs several months ahead of construction. The foremen prepare by gathering project information in advance of the meeting. They contact the superintendent of the GC to learn about the job site, find out where the deliveries will be, learn the safety concerns for the project and obtain all emergency numbers.
When they meet, the project manager and foremen discuss the scope of the work, the key variables to productivity, where to put material and how to sequence the job. They look at the construction documents and anticipate where they might need answers from the GC or the architect.
“You want to eliminate the ‘gotchas’ on the job,” Wies says. “If you don’t do this pre-planning, then you might have some ‘oh, s--ts’—a bunch of guys sitting around with nothing to do.”
Every hour invested in planning saves five hours in production time, Wies says. And if you can prefabricate assemblies in controlled environments, then the quality of the construction increases, too, he says. More heads investing more time up front leads to better ideas.
“The foremen have raised concerns we didn't even think about—different ways to distribute forms electronically, info we didn’t realize they needed and the importance of having uniformity among all the PMs,” says T.J. Wies Project Manager Chris Sauer, who runs 20 projects ranging from a $4,500 renovation to $3.5 million office high-rise. “We’re all on the same page now.”
T.J. Wies conducts “halftime” meetings that take place on the job site. They involve the project manager, the foremen, the field superintendents and the safety director. Everyone walks the job to see its progression, and then they gather to talk about it. T.J. Wies has set up a list of items to discuss, something the company calls its “process chart.” It includes budgets, material placement, the GC’s expectations and site logistics.
“We believe in giving the guys information and in not hiding costs,” Dreisewerd says. “We’re open about it.”
T.J. Wies project managers, superintendents, foremen and the safety director all have iPads, so the halftime meeting progresses with everyone able to access the same information. Foremen use the GoFormz application to access fillable forms, such as work orders, construction logs and safety logs on their iPads. They can access safety data sheets for their jobs, and the company has set up a Google Drive account to deliver other kinds of documents.
The result is better job tracking and more efficient operations.
Listening to the field is another key component of lean construction at T.J. Wies. The company has set up a meeting every six months called the “foremen’s forum.” T.J. Wies has about 50 carpenters’ foremen and about 20 tapers’ foremen. Participation among the foremen is voluntary, and the company likes to have from nine to 13 foremen attend a forum.
“The meeting is not for the office. It’s for them,” Sauer says. “We try to let them build the agenda.”
One foremen’s forum led to the suggestion of adding a line item to the company’s pre-game process. The line item would be a code for a production process the foremen would track for the duration of that job. The idea is to improve production processes, but do so by focusing on one item at a time. The code would signal which item they were expected to monitor. One line. One code. All on the same page.
“They open up about things they’d like to see, things they want us to do better,” Sauer says.
Recently, a carpenters’ foreman came to Sauer’s office. They discussed the budget for one project. The foreman felt certain items needed to be allocated differently.
“He said, ‘That’s too much. We could do it faster. But, over here we’ll need more time,’” Sauer says.
The result? Sauer and his foreman moved budget money from one task to another. The foreman had been studying the drawings a month or so before he came to Sauer’s office with recommendations. Enabling the foremen is enabling lean construction at T.J. Wies.
“It’s all too easy to sit in the office and say, ‘This is what we’re going to get done,’” Sauer says. “When we started bringing in the foremen for their input, we got a lot better at building budgets.”
Lifetime to Master
T.J. Wies is a big, union firm working throughout eastern Missouri and southern Illinois on a variety of commercial projects. But with 250 to 300 people in the field, implementing lean construction techniques has taken time.
“We’ve had some resistance to our two-week plans,” Dreisewerd says. “The seasoned foremen are already thinking ahead, and we don’t want to push processes just to have more paperwork. So, I think we can tailor that process by aiming it at the newer foremen.”
Wies says his company is constantly learning how to implement lean construction techniques and that the learning curve will never end. But in a sense, that’s what it’s about—continuous improvement. It’s not about cultivating certain skill sets or finding and hiring certain kinds of people. Lean construction does not require a special breed of manager, foreman, crew chief or company leader, Wies says it requires simply that people give it a try.
“Once you get feedback and people see they can hit their budgets—and beat those budgets, they get excited,” Wies says. “That’s when you get buy-in. It works because everyone appreciates being ‘in the know.’”
Mark L. Johnson writes regularly for the construction industry about management topics. Catch him at @markjohnsoncomm and linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.