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Medium-sized contractors should be the standard-bearers for Lean. Not only do they have a clear financial incentive to maximize productivity, but their business leaders are less siloed and more likely to interact with team members in the field. Getting to Gemba is less complicated than in a larger organization, and it should be easier to foster a culture of communication, collaboration and respect with fewer employees. Also, most construction firms and contractors are small or medium-sized. Our Lean construction movement can’t transform the Built Environment without buy-in from the majority.
A subset of contractors may perceive Lean methods and supporting technologies as more appropriate for larger firms with more resources. This isn’t necessarily so. Today, forward-thinking medium-sized contractors are proving the practicality of Lean construction by using Lean methods to stay competitive and improve profitability.
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 its team over the last few months. Plan-Do-Check-Adjust is a way of life for FPI, which team members demonstrate on individual projects and in how they approach their business. FPI was founded 36 years ago, but it isn’t afraid to change or use technology to improve continuously. About five years ago, FPI started its Lean journey. To better visualize, plan and execute projects, FPI implemented technologies including drones, 360° cameras and tools for building information modeling (BIM) practices. In October 2020, FPI integrated Bosch RefinemySite — a digital Lean collaboration platform — to better implement The Last Planner® System and reduce administrative burdens in the field. Most significantly, FPI cultivates an intentional culture where each team member approaches every project as if they had an owner’s responsibility for the quality and financial outcome.
They’ve already seen great results and plan to keep up these practices in preparation for the future. “In the next five 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, expressed how Lean keeps FPI 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.”
A medium-sized contractor’s Lean journey might not look exactly like a larger organization’s implementation, but it’s just as valid and meaningful for the building industry.