When it comes to lean manufacturing in HVAC construction, some things have changed and many things are still the same.

One message that seems to be coming out clearly is that many contractors have seen lean construction as something to do and be done with, kind of the flavor of the month. This is like learning to walk then going back to crawling.

Lean is a proven way to deliver better value to the customer while driving out waste. It cannot be done once or even on one project, but must be done consistently to realize sustained improvement.

Owners, managers, trades and contractors are all saying there is a greater need than ever before to drive down the costs of projects. The paradox of lean is that one will not have sustained lower costs by focusing on cost cutting, but will lower costs by focusing on delivering greater value.

Donald Petersen, a former CEO of Ford Motor Co., once said he listened to the late W. Edwards Deming’s message on quality improvement about 10 times before he really “got it.”  Maybe we all need to refresh on the basics of lean to better “get it.”

A refresher course


Value is what the customer needs and pays for. Value is added when you physically change the nature of the product the customer buys. Value is added as you weld pipe, perform ductwork fabrication and install HVAC market equipment.

“Waste” is the opposite of “value.” Anything that uses resources and does not produce value is waste. Some waste is necessary and much is not.

Only about 30 percent of the time a crew or individual is working is actually value-added work.

You can learn how to increase value by asking customers. Customer satisfaction surveys are useful and important. However, most construction companies can deliver greater value to their customers by looking at how the crews do the work and by attacking the seven basic types of waste.

Some of the most obvious wastes still being seen on all jobsites are:

Treasure hunts: Workers walking around looking for tools, material, information, where to work, etc., is treasure hunting and waste big time. People moving tools and equipment is waste. Moving stuff or people adds no value — it is a huge waste found in construction.

Too much or too little material and tools: You always want to have enough material and tools at the job or in the shop to keep the crews working, but not excess. On most construction jobs it is an overabundance or not enough — and usually some of both. You have way too much of some material or tools and not enough of others.

The only effective way to ensure that you have what you need and not too much is to plan the work; order the material needed; and manage the work. This is not a one-time event; it must be done weekly and constantly evaluated for improvement. This is much like how a good football team evaluates game films each week and makes improvements to how they execute their plays.

Poor measurement: Many efforts to measure productivity of construction crews have limited real success. An effective measure is “PPC” developed by the Lean Construction Institute. It stands for “percent of planned worked completed.” It does not measure productivity however, if used correctly to manage the work, it will improve productivity.

Crews waiting: Often crews are waiting because they need instructions, another crew to finish a task, more material or some special tools. Coordination and commitment planning are needed but are scarcely found. Some examples include workers waiting in line to obtain special welding rods, crews running out of duct to install while another floor is jammed with duct and crews complaining that every day they run short of material to install on the job.

The answer is not to commission a “productivity czar” to walk around and fire any worker or crew not being productive. The answer is for project management (project managers, superintendents and even upper-management contractors) to get out of the office/trailer and see for themselves. This is not the “management by walking around” idea made famous by Tom Peters. In lean terms it is called a “muda walk.”

“Muda” means “waste” in Japanese. In most languages around the world it has been adopted, having the same meaning. Managers need to go watch the work being performed — not walk by it. This takes some time, maybe even an hour or more to really see how the work is being — or not being — performed.

One idea is to sponsor an annual “muda walk for a month” initiative every September. Managers could commit to go out an hour a day to watch for muda in the workplace. No blame is to be placed, just observe — not spy — what is happening and look for the seven types of waste. Those who did this exercise always reported finding many opportunities to improve.

You don’t have to wait until September to do a muda walk. Start today or tomorrow. Go and see how the work is done, and improvement will be obvious. But you must watch long enough to understand why it is being done that way, not jump to quick conclusions and shoot from the hip.

Start improving

There are many tools for improving lean, but none of them work unless you use them correctly. Managers are always looking for the next great thing to improve, but fail to consistently do what has already proven to be successful.

Here are several ways for starting or restarting a lean effort. If you can honestly say you are doing these well, then move to the more advanced lean tools. Most companies still do not do these well or consistently.

Teach your workers to spot waste and attack it. Do they recognize the seven types of waste? Do you?

Apply the five Ss (sorting, sweeping, simplifying, standardizing and self-discipline). If you are not doing these, you are not doing lean manufacturing. They will eliminate many treasure hunts.

Measure PPC. Have a supervisor plan his or her work (crew tasks) each week then report what was accomplished by the end of the week. Collect and analyze reasons for not completing the tasks as planned.

Do a muda walk. Require project managers and superintendents to spend one hour each day observing the work being done, to look for and make improvements.

Hold daily huddles at the start of each shift. The meeting is a stand-up gathering and should start — on time — with a quick review of the overall vision and goals of the project. The huddles should last no longer than 10 minutes, and include a review of yesterday’s accomplishments and today’s plans. Assign someone to address these problems.

Work to remove the barriers to make the work flow better. This usually means collaborating with all the crafts on the jobsite.

Remember that nothing improves unless something changes. Lean is a way to reduce costs and improve value. What do your customers want you to do for them?

 For reprints of this article, contact Renee Schuett at (248) 786-1661 or email schuettr@bnpmedia.com