The Future of Construction and Digital Lean

The modern jobsite is in a constant state of refinement and innovation. Even pre-pandemic, the industry was starting to rethink our current methods of development and embrace change. Modular construction, for example, had just started to take off in the U.S. At the top of last year, Marriott had even begun development of its flagship modular project, the AC Hotel New York NoMad. Like myself, a lot of us were excited to see continued change in the industry in 2020.

While the pandemic has delayed construction across the country, it’s a good time to reevaluate processes and look to the future of your firm and the field. In 2021 and beyond, our teams will need to manage a backlog of projects. Productivity will be heavily valued. Methodologies such as Lean, which emphasize team member empowerment, a shared vision and efficient processes, can benefit those of us looking to innovate right now. Below, we overview a few construction trends that are gaining momentum and discuss how digital Lean can enhance our workflows.

Offsite Construction

There is something to be said for a controlled work environment that is not dependent on the whims of weather! Modular, offsite, prefab — whatever you want to call it — this style of construction features building “modules” constructed at an offsite location and then assembled onsite. Modules help team members construct buildings more quickly while reducing the likelihood of significant interruptions due to inclement weather. This protects the trades and the customer’s bottom line from the risks and complexities of delayed projects.

Offsite also lends itself quite well to digital Lean. Unlike the traditional jobsite where crews are waiting for direction each morning, with modular construction, team members need to go into each day knowing what needs to get done to keep up with the project plan. Lean workflows are a necessity for this style of development as it encourages open communication and responsibility to ensure work gets done on time and project “hiccups” can be addressed succinctly without affecting the timeline.

Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA)

DfMA construction is a new development style that emphasizes products designed to simplify installation onsite and significantly reduce waste costs and labor. In the same vein as offsite construction, but mixed with assembly-line style manufacturing, products are carefully selected and manufactured to the project’s exact specs at a separate location. For example, instead of ordering bulk lumber to be delivered at the jobsite and then having crews fabricate specific parts onsite, all products and materials will be pre-fabricated prior to jobsite delivery. As you can imagine, this concept is catching on, not only because it saves valuable time, but it helps our teams reduce resource waste and materials clean-up at the end of a project. The timeline from final day of construction to startup can be significantly shorter with DfMA.

By integrating digital Lean into both the pre-fabrication side and the project side, all teams get insight into the progress of materials being manufactured and what’s happening on the job. Effectively, this could eliminate the frustration surrounding material install. I’m sure you’ve run into issues with materials fabrication taking too long, delayed installs or not having the right amount of material for a job and having to order more. These issues can accumulate and are often a significant factor for late project completion. Lean is a resource that can take DfMA to the next level, empowering our crews to plan their work at the material level for max productivity.

Design-Build Development

Okay, so design-build isn’t necessarily new, but it’s exploding in terms of popularity. The industry is taking note of the benefits of design-build — namely, how it minimizes disputes with both the design and construction teams under one roof. Customers gain a lot by going with a design-build firm for two reasons: 1. Fewer unexpected costs and 2. Productivity is streamlined. With architects, engineers and contractors working on the same team, specs and equipment layout are collaboratively produced ensuring a building’s design is cohesive (e.g., you won’t run into an issue with the HVAC layout after the building has already been through most of its development). And once a design is complete, there’s no waiting around to break ground as all parties are already in agreement.

Digital Lean is ideal for contractors in design-build development. Once building plans are set, team members can quickly get started and update client-facing project engineers, architects and executive-level management in real-time without time-consuming communication. The Last Planner System® can also voice project concerns if they arise, and with full access to the timeline, they can pivot as needed. With major productivity benefits already, Lean can optimize this style of development even more.

In sum, as we start to take on more contracts and complete projects that have been delayed due to the pandemic, we have to be realistic about improving productivity. For example, consider the experience of FPI Builders, LLC, a general contractor out of Fort Worth, Texas. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know their team over the last few months. In October 2020, they integrated digital Lean platform RefinemySite to better implement The Last Planner® System and streamline their operations. They’ve already seen great results and plan to keep up these practices in preparation for the future.

“In the next 5 years, if you are a small to mid-sized construction company and have not adopted Lean principles, you’ll get left behind,” noted Kevin Drake, owner, FPI.

His team member Steve Turner, a superintendent at FPI, also noted that Lean keeps them competitive in the market.

“Looking to the future, the industry is going to change. We are now required to provide KPIs to back up everything we do, and the best way to do this is with a program that automatically creates them,” explained Steve.

“Going forward, there will be things that won’t change, like hanging a piece of drywall. But what will change is how the worker gathers their tools and has them at the ready; how we get the drywall to the building. These incremental changes in productivity add up over dozens of projects and manhours.”

Even with the pandemic, the future of the construction looks bright. Digital Lean applications can help the industry transition to a more productive workflow that generates more value for clients. The major trends of the industry in terms of off-site construction, design for manufacturing, design-build, and Lean IPD are growing in popularity. Digital Lean products are aligned with the industry’s efforts for continuous improvement.

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