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Lean on front-line workers’ expertise to streamline construction site tasks

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Construction workers

HOUSTON — Construction firms can reduce risk and project waste — from time to materials — by collaborating with front-line workers and supervisors in deciphering what works and what doesn’t, according to the leader of one large firm doing just that.

New York-based Turner Construction Co. is deploying the increasingly popular “Lean Construction” practice to drive better efficiency on the job — a method Ian Smith, Turner’s Dallas-based senior regional environmental health and safety director, said is improving both project outcomes and employee satisfaction.

Mr. Smith provided attendees at the 38th annual International Risk Management Institute Inc.’s Construction Risk Conference on Tuesday a glimpse into what the firm calls “observation circles,” put into place at different project sites with the objective of brainstorming possible problems and solutions.

For example, in the midst of a project installing floor tile at a high school in Houston recently, Turner workers spent time in a conference room discussing problems noticed on-site. They included concerns that the workers installing the tile were not getting up to stretch as often as they should, causing muscle stiffness, and that there was no one person tasked with cutting the tile — all deficiencies that led to concerns with project safety and possible delays, according to Mr. Smith.

Small changes, such as a stretching regimen and assigning a person to only cut tile, led to greater fulfillment on the job and better project timing, he said.

“It’s about continuous improvement,” he said, adding that the outcomes of “observation circle” discussions don’t necessarily lead to major changes.

“We are coaching people, we are giving people feedback, we are engaging workers on the front line … that’s what the work is all about,” he said. The results are often “small incremental changes,” he said. “You don’t have to change a whole lot.”

Per the Lean philosophy, promulgated by the Arlington, Virginia-based Lean Construction Institute, “observation circles” function via a specific set of steps designed to encourage front-line workers and supervisors to uncover eight different types of waste in their work and to empower them to make the necessary adjustments. The steps encompass everything from setting up meetings to how to conduct those brainstorming sessions and how to put new practices and protocols to work, according to Mr. Smith.

The idea is to scour what Mr. Smith calls “waste,” a term that Lean Construction lists under eight specific categories: defects in work, which require workers to rework projects, costing time and money; overproduction, which includes doing work before it is needed and often resulting in having to rework a project; waiting times, or time wasted while waiting on another part of the project to be completed; nonutilized talent, or the correct personnel not in integrated into the project; transportation, or adding transportation to a project that does not add value; inventory, or items not being used; motion, with too much or too little movement associated with a task; and extra-processing, or doing extra or redundant tasks unnecessarily.

Supervisors looking for such deficiencies have an often-overlooked source for information: worker testimonies and observations, he said.

“If anybody has been on a construction project, you know that most foreman or supervisors don’t stay in one place,” said Mr. Smith, adding that those engaged in specific tasks are often the best sources for information.

Chiming in the on idea of resorting to front-line workers for improving tasks and reducing waste, Michael J. Diehl, Philadelphia-based technical consultant with Liberty Mutual Insurance Co.’s Risk Control Services, said the best ideas for change usually come from within the organization.

“That golden idea, that’s going to come from them, from the folks that are doing it,” he said of the front-line workers.