Lessons in Colocation and BIM From the Forefront of Lean Construction

12Oct16

by Timothy Schuler

Collaboration is an obvious antidote for inefficiencies in the construction industry, but it’s not an easy solution. Why? Because collaboration can get messy, especially when large building projects require dozens of independent companies—and numerous stakeholders with strong opinions—working together.

But better collaboration is a must. In 2004, the National Institute Standards and Technology (NIST) estimated that a combination of inefficiencies—or “lack of interoperability”—cost the industry $15.8 billion annually.

As building systems become increasingly complex, there has been more specialization among designers and contractors, and an even greater need to collaborate early to deliver projects on time and within the budget. That’s where techniques such as lean construction and integrated project delivery (IPD) come into play.

“Due to the large number of players involved, participants on a construction project often rely on time buffers to account for unpredictability in the activities of other team members,” says Kevin Britt, who leads planning and scheduling initiatives at DPR Construction, a multibillion-dollar company based in Redwood City, California. “Depending on the circumstances, something might be estimated to take five days when in all actuality it will only end up taking two. Each player knows there is potential for delivery delays, missing information, or rework needed, so they might add some buffer.”

That buffer has inherently added to waste in the industry, but it doesn’t have to continue that way. An integrated approach to construction projects that brings key participants together early—using Building Information Modeling (BIM) and the Lean Project Delivery System (LPDS)—subverts this culture of hedged bets and replaces it with one of collaboration. And that in turn reduces waste and increases reliability.

lean construction delays

“DPR, and maybe even the industry, is transitioning from a command-and-control mentality to a collaborative, engaging mentality that uses the specialty knowledge of the project participants to reduce the uncertainties,” Britt says.

Custom-Built Lean Construction. As any fitness guru will tell you, getting leaner is hard work. For a construction company, it can mean a lot of up-front investment, including increased engagement with team members and rethinking basic processes. However, Britt says a leaner approach can save time and money, and create a better, safer work environment for everyone on the team.

“When we’re able to give the workers in the field the tools and the information they need, we know that we’ll be more productive on our projects,” Britt says.

In many ways, lean construction is representative of the type of culture DPR has tried to cultivate since its inception in 1990. The company is unique in that it employs several thousand tradespeople and has appeared on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For. “One of our core values is ‘ever forward’—essentially a continual self-initiated change and improvement,” Britt says.

But what does the transition to a lean construction model look like on a practical level? The short answer is that it may not look the same for every company. Britt says it doesn’t even look the same on every project. “The unique variable is different companies and different people. We shape and form these processes based on the people that are part of that project.”

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lean construction planning DPR

All in the Big Room. Similarly, some of the basic strategies of lean construction, such as colocation, or pull planning (the process of scheduling jobs by working backward from the final person in the chain) often benefit from a more nuanced approach, a lesson DPR has learned along the way.

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