The sticky note syndrome

Modernising lean scheduling for efficiency in construction. By Paul Daynes

The term has been around for some time now; Lean. Lean processes; manufacturing; construction; design; supply and even ‘thinking.’ The list grows in size as Lean methodologies are applied and adapted to more industrial practices. In essence, Lean means trimming away redundant processes and harmonising the co-ordination critical to project success; and in the construction industry, this taps the knowledge of all the parties responsible for delivering work on a particular building project, and holds each party accountable for delivering on its promises.

A key aspect of Lean is Lean scheduling. In the construction industry, Lean scheduling promises to make as a big an impact as Building Information Modelling (BIM) is having now; by transforming construction efficiency and empowering construction teams. Lean principles attempt to address inefficient processes before they have an impact on a task or series of tasks.

From note boards to digital screens
Traditionally, firms have conducted Lean scheduling using Kanban boards – coloured cards or sticky notes on large boards – which show who is responsible for work to be done, work that’s underway, and completed work. However, a paper-based way of working – particularly in construction where team members are often going back and forth from the office to the building site – can be unreliable and contradict the benefits that Lean can offer. Spreadsheets are unreliable and difficult to maintain – and sticky notes literally fall to the floor from planning boards! In addition to this, when several decisions and changes are being made each day on any given project – it also puts construction firms and their clients at risk of mistakes being made when it’s not easy to track updates in real time.

Given these changes in the marketplace, there is a noticeable industry shift towards the use of software tools to replace paper sticky notes that serve as a favourite medium for Kanban cards. The advantage of such software is that it eliminates the labour-intensive, error-prone (that is, non-Lean) process of transferring data from cards to spreadsheets. Lean planning software automatically records the movement of cards across the Kanban board, enabling the generation of real-time reporting, without delays. Because reports are immediate and accurate – and because collaborators do not need to be in the site office to see the board, since it’s viewable on their portable tablets – Lean teams are managing themselves more effectively, with less effort.

Never enough metrics
Metrics are vital to the smooth delivery of projects across the industry. Accordingly, Lean production can be surmised by holding up the ‘Three Big Metrics’ in project delivery; constraints, variances, and planned percent complete – PPC.

Introducing digital tools that can track data and analyse successes and failures will help managers deliver these metrics. However, capturing reporting data hinges on transferring information from cards to spreadsheet-based reports; this is where lean processes are vulnerable to failure. Visual production planning software can allow design teams to escape having their planning rooms covered with fallen sticky notes by transferring assets to a digital board.

Once the project has gone digital the possibilities and potential increase. For example, by hosting digital planning boards in the cloud and ensuring that teams can access tasks and plans remotely, construction supervisors, task owners and teams will be free from having to be physically present in the office.

How Costain improved workflow visibility
Engineering solutions provider Costain is one such firm that has embraced Lean software. It has deployed LeanPlanner from Newforma, and has since seen a vast improvement across the company in terms of collaboration and workflow visibility.

“We have seen additional improvements in the way we deliver our strategies for Lean construction and Factory Thinking,” comments Gavin Pearce, Production Control Manager, Costain Group plc. “With virtual collaborative task boards, we have improved the planning and issue resolution with our project teams and partners. Through improved visibility of tasks in defined work periods and shortening the interval of control, we have achieved greater efficiency in project delivery, with an audit trail that enables precise construction status and productivity reporting to our clients.”

Lean thinking technology
Technology has caught up with the process-problems in project delivery; manifested in the digitisation of workloads in the office. Whilst this has resulted in an explosion of data, which project managers now need to deal with, it presents a new horizon for Lean principles.

For example, an exercise in Lean planning would see digital tools used to show separate teams what they have to do, what work they’re doing, and what they’ve done. Enabling interaction with virtual Cloud-hosted whiteboards would allow collaboration through mobile technology; allowing different teams to access current commitments at any time.

Digital tools and Lean principles have innumerable potential executions in the industry. While technology is key to handling the construction industry’s ‘dataexplosion,’ Lean will help make sense of it. These tools were once commonly held as a luxury, they are now a necessity. In practice, the ruling methodology has been the work paradigm of “Cost – time – quality: Pick two,” whereas it is entirely possible to have all three.

Paul Daynes is Regional Director, UK & Northern Europe at Newforma. Newforma develops, sells and supports project information management (PIM) software for architecture, engineering, and construction firms worldwide, and the building and infrastructure owners and developers they serve. Newforma products raise the productivity of individuals, improve collaboration among project teams, and elevate the effectiveness of organisations.

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