One of the challenges Lean philosophies have faced is the perception that they are applicable only on the shop floor. That view, though has been under assault for some time, most notably with the rise of the Lean Office and Lean Healthcare.
Lean has not enjoyed the same inroads in project work, though. Sure, 5S and visual management is applied in this arena, but the idea that Lean is most beneficial in a repetitive production environment persists. That makes it hard to apply concepts like standard work and setup reduction.
One company recently featured in a Forbes magazine article (January 21, 2013 issue), though, provides a great example of how Lean can be applied in non-traditional situations.
The company is Project Frog, and is a designer and project manager for pre-fabbed buildings. While the article and Project Frog’s website don’t specifically mention Lean, it is clearly there.
Standard Work: One of the challenges of applying standard work in a project is that much of the work is non-repetitive. True standard work is hard to apply when the production is one-off. Stripping the common work from many construction projects and consolidating it on an assembly line creates the opportunity for standardized processes. While the final building might be different, the individual wall units are repetitive. Look for similar ways to strip out consistent work from your projects. Whether it is the bidding process, packing trucks for service calls, or performing surgery, there are nearly always pieces of the work that are common to all projects. Find them and standardize them.
One-Touch Installation: The walls of the prefabbed units are pre-plumed and pre-wired. Connections are simple, and don’t require expensive skilled labor, specifically plumbers and electricians. Of note, Project Frog produces bathrooms that even have toilet paper holders and baby changing stations installed. They are simply positioned and attached to the plumbing. The same can be done for your work. Look for ways to simplify the interactions between phases of the projects. Obvious ideas include things like using standard programs and terminology so there is no need to modify information as work is passed between people.
Process Improvement and Documentation: Project Frog builds their structures inside of a warehouse, and tweaks the design to make the buildings easy to assemble. They then meticulously document the methods so the people in the field can do the work with minimal problem. This is really the heart of continuous improvement. Refine a process. Document it and follow it. Identify problems. Repeat.
Waste Reduction: Project Frog claims to reduce the waste at a construction site by 80%. All that material in a dumpster has a cost. It is hard to reduce waste if you are only doing a task once. By the time you identify it, there is no chance to make a change to reduce it in the future. Again, isolating the repetitive parts of your projects, whether ordering materials, scheduling, or loading trucks, the more you can standardize, the more opportunity you have to reduce waste.
Vendor and Logistics Management: Project Frog doesn’t manufacture their own components, but rather manages the relationships with its vendors to meet its project needs. This approach helps keep inventory down, as well as allows them flexibility in selecting from a range of components. Of note, they also help suppliers make better components that are more suitable to customer needs.
The results look promising. They have shaved a month off the time it takes to build convenience stores, and expect to knock 8 months off a medical center. They have reduced the price tag on schools from $300 per square foot to $210. The consistency in of building in a production facility presumably will also improve quality over using a fragmented, contracted workforce operating in a variety of environmental conditions.
Now before you dismiss this article as irrelevant to your operation, consider the number of projects your company does to support even the most structured production environment. Buying and installing new machines. Conducting kaizen events. Developing fixtures. The list is endless. And many of them are done frequently enough to warrant the application of Lean.
The takeaway? Stop looking for reasons why Lean principles will not work in a particular application, and start looking for ways to use it to gain a competitive edge.