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Lean construction methods: efficient work, happy customers

This article describes how lean construction is a way of working that reduces waste, increases efficiency, helps the environment, and allows for working smarter, not harder. But while the concept is one that has unofficially been practiced in the unionized sheet metal industry for years, the ITI is leading an effort to make the concept more standardized in apprentices’ training.

“Lean construction” may be an industry buzz term, but in reality, it’s a practice many sheet metal workers already do as part of their day-to-day work. Lean processes have been found to reduce waste, encourage ideas, and help projects finish early and on budget.

Developed by Toyota in the 1950s and led by Taiichi Ohno, a stalwart on reducing waste, lean manufacturing focused on the system as a whole. Time spent creating quality parts led to fewer defects in manufacturing. Fewer defects meant fewer cars to fix later, fewer recalls and a reduction in waste.

Essentially, “lean construction” is a mindset and a way of working that reduces waste, increases efficiency, helps the environment and allows for working smarter, not harder. But while the concept is one that’s unofficially been practiced in the unionized sheet metal industry for years, the ITI is leading an effort to make the concept more standardized in apprentices’ training.

“In sheet metal, we’re taught right away to stack 20 sheets together and cut them all at the same time,” said Tim Carter, business manager from Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 66 of Everett, Wash. “We don’t think of it as a lean process, but it is. The lean process affects more than productivity. It affects safety and morale. It’s permeated a lot of different aspects.”

Lean construction was adopted from the Toyota manufacturing model and also includes collaboration and creativity, allowing workers of all titles and experience levels to share ideas on how to make the work more efficient. Trades work with other trades as well as with architects and engineers to plan out the project from the very beginning. Instead of working independently, all agree on goals and plans to complete the project together.

The series of processes aims to find efficient ways to use tools, clear clutter or adopt a different way to do a task. It’s an apprentice suggesting a different way to solve a problem or a contractor bringing in gang boxes full of all tools needed to eliminate the need to search for tools on the job site.

“I really believe – and tell the guys – this is something they do every day,” said Henry Nutt, sheet metal general superintendent for Southland Industries, which has adopted lean construction as part of the company philosophy. “This is just a formal way to capture it.”

The investment isn’t minimal, but it’s worthwhile, experts say. On the front end, more collaboration between trades, engineers, and architects means more meetings. More meetings equal more time upfront. However, during those meetings, plans are made, realistic goals are set and everyone is on the same page. This planning leads to fewer surprises, said Tom Soles, executive director of member services and market sectors for SMACNA.

“It cuts down on all the inefficiencies on a construction project when people aren’t communicating and working together. All the problems that happen on a multi-trade project where it’s a design-bid-build – you don’t have all the contractors and subcontractors collaborating as they should be,” he added.

“Time is invested in all of these meetings. Their foreman and superintendents are in these meetings instead of on the job site. I think eventually it will minimize work, eliminate change orders. There will be more time invested up front but the project should go smoother.”

Because of the extra time spent on meetings, the bid may not be the cheapest, but when there is a precedent set, projects finish days, weeks or months early, and customers are happy. Finishing early saves money, which allows projects to be completed under budget, Nutt said.

“You have a more efficient and safer project and don’t lose any value,” he added. “It’s cheaper to build, but you’re still building quality work.”

These types of coordination and planning meetings are a large shift toward lean construction, but there are small things that make the process work as well. In Washington state, some contractors have purchased tools for their employees to use, creating a shadow wall where the tools hang. When one is being used, the outline of the tool is visible from across the shop.

It cuts down on the time workers wander the shop looking for tools, Carter said. Also, when tools are put away, it reduces clutter making it cleaner and thereby a safer environment.

“It saves a ton of time,” Carter said. “Some people resist that. They want their own tools. But the shops I’ve seen implement that process have seen an increase in productivity, just by that small investment. The larger shops have so much volume. If they can improve it by a fraction of a percent, it’s a lot.”

To Soles, it comes down to doing something the same until someone else looks at the same job a different way and says, “I have an idea.” It’s a process, he said.

“It’s not a tool you take out of your tool box,” he said. “It’s processes that need to be practiced to engage the contractors and the customers. It’s a mindset. It’s a concept. It’s a way of behaving in your own environment.”

Lean construction is a common practice in fabrication shops, which are more accustomed to working in this mindset, because reducing waste and working efficiently is often practiced in that setting.

“It’s a cultural change for a company that hasn’t been doing it,” Soles said. “It’s wanting to make yourself better. It’s talking to people and trying to figure it out. There’s going to be failure. You’re going to want to try different things. You have to have little failures to change things or else they don’t change.”

But change is hard.

“Initially, it didn’t make sense. I was frustrated at the people who would point fingers and tell us how to do things from afar,” Nutt said. “Now, I know it works. I’ve seen people transform. When it works, it’s a happy environment to work in. You don’t want to go back. You want to go to a job where everyone wants to work together.”

Standardizing workflow could end creativity on the job site, but in this case, it has the opposite effect, Carter said.

“Sheet metal workers are artists, too. We’re probably the only craft still left that makes what we install,” Carter said. “When the lean processes are done correctly, they shouldn’t be stifling creativity. They should be enhancing it.”

A shift to adopt lean construction processes works best if it comes from the owners and contractors first, but it takes the whole team to make it function effectively, Nutt added.

“The innovation and the great ideas don’t come from the manager sitting in the office. It comes from the people doing the work,” Nutt said. “It’s engaging your team, and allowing your team to have a voice.”

Members are using it across the country, but Soles – as well as Carter and Nutt – predicts it will be widespread in no time.

“It’s going to become more of an expectation,” Soles added. “It works well, because it addresses customers’ needs.”

The International Training Institute, the education arm of the unionized sheet metal and air conditioning industry, and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) are working together to evaluate training in lean construction. With a trained and educated workforce as the main goal, the organizations are looking at existing lean construction curriculum in order to fill in gaps, evolve it and simplify the processes members can practice.

But in a way, lean construction is already taking place at different levels at training centers across the country with the next generation. Apprentices learn efficient ways to work from the time they enter the program.

“It’s caught fire, and people are doing it all over the place,” Nutt said. At Southland Industries, lean construction is embedded in the company’s philosophy. “People understand it’s not going away. It’s not a fad. It can save you money. It can make you money. People know they’re bigger than a part of the employment pool. They’re a part of the whole thing.”

More than 14,000 apprentices are registered at more than 150 training facilities across the United States and Canada. The ITI is jointly sponsored by SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (formerly the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association) and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA).

ITI supports apprenticeship and advanced career training for union workers in the sheet metal heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), welding and industrial, architectural and ornamental, and service and testing, adjusting and balancing industry throughout the United States and Canada. Headquartered in Fairfax, Va., the ITI develops and produces a standardized sheet metal curriculum supported by a wide variety of training materials free of charge to sheet metal apprentices and journeymen.

For more information about ITI and its available training curriculum for members covering sheet metal trade work, visit their website or call (703) 739-7200.

Content Reviewed 1/2021