Most construction projects are shattered and disconnected—a problem that grows with the size of the project and number of stakeholders. Despite an unending stream of software and systems to streamline processes, the industry struggles to increase production. Rethinking the construction production system and adhering to strict discipline in the macro view is the key to making production work.

To improve performance in our industry, I suggest we think of construction projects as production systems where safety, quality, material, equipment, people and reporting are all tied to the same physical output and production flow. I’ve seen this approach work on both small and large projects.

As an engineer at Volvo in the late 90's I realized the power of aligning resources with the pull from a moving assembly line. Everything is divided into widgets per minute and every substation knows what they need to produce. In construction, it’s much harder to see the overall flow because there’s no tangible indication of it. But the efficiency of manufacturing can be had in construction, given the proper production system design. The system has to use production areas and standard schedule durations to create a flow to which everyone can align, similar to the manufacturing assembly line.

Flow is like a traffic jam. All the cars can fit on the road and if we had the discipline to set cruise control to 45 mph we’d travel together in a nice, steady flow. Instead, some of us try to go a little faster just to stop a few seconds later. The starts and stops trickle through the line of cars like a slinky toy, exponentially disrupting the flow and slowing everyone to a crawl. In construction, the same is true, with different trades having different installation speeds, causing disruption to the overall flow and forcing crews to jump around to stay busy.

We must plan our work around the fact that all capacity in a system that exceeds that of the slowest trade is waste. If we are the painter, we should not try to pass the framing crew just to run out of walls to paint; instead, we need to focus on having just the right capacity to stay on track with the overall pace of the project. We need to find a common rhythm to which we can all dance, and then lock the whole project into that beat.

Production system design needs to start by developing a communication standard that all stakeholders can understand. It is essential to develop a common geographical language that outlines how a project is divided up into physical production areas. These areas help to make sure we reference the same exact scope and gives a common narrative to how the work should progress.

The areas should be developed to have a similar amount of scope to support a level workload. Rightsizing the areas upfront takes a lot of work but affords us the opportunity to successfully use standard schedule durations in every area. Once the projects start to get comfortable with standard durations we can use Takt (German for rhythm) principles to optimize flow and realize the true potential of lean.

Standard durations and defined areas provide the needed stability in the production schedule to successfully integrate the entire supply chain. The true strength of the system is the physical areas that the entire supply chain can align to and organize around. Once these areas are established, the modeling and shop drawing efforts need to follow the same areas and order of installation to properly align. Fabrication, kitting, labeling and delivery must ultimately also follow the same areas to bring the material on site as needed, when needed, and to the pull of field installation.

Production Systems as a Train

Sites must see the production system as a train, where the track is the area sequences the crews will follow. Every train car is one discipline and the lead car sets the speed. Every car is loaded with the material needed for that discipline only and all cars move together from start to finish.

On site, the system relies on the team to break up a project into tens or hundreds of these areas with similar amounts of work. Every team has one week to complete their area. Only one—or a few—trades occupy one area at the same time. The trades can only deliver material to their active area and need to clean up behind them at the end of the week. All disciplines make sure that they have enough capacity to finish the work in the standard duration and all trades move into the next area every Monday.

“The development of the train cars and standard rhythm allows contractors to be extremely focused, finishing one area at a time,” says Matt Davenport, plumbing helmsman in Union City, Calif. “It also creates a transparent and simple alignment of expectations. The clear handoffs and overall flow and 3D modeling allow us to take our production to the next level and to focus on getting our pre-fabrication and installation work done rather than engaging in complex scheduling and coordination efforts.”

A systemic approach to construction simplifies the coordination and allows the team to realize the true potential of lean principles, but it has also proven extremely hard to achieve and maintain. There are competing interests and an ingrained culture of trying to work ahead that constantly challenges the system. Despite the many challenges we can clearly see that work with a solid production system in place achieves better and more predictable results than phases that do not have a Takt plan developed.

I've seen this approach been put in place at numerous projects totaling over 2-million sq ft of total work. So I share my view of production to provoke the industry to seek system-oriented solutions. Many developers create impressive technology with a narrow focus and forget that the true potential lies in aligning the resources to seamlessly pull in the same direction. We need to start by understanding the true problem of miss-alignment that we are trying to solve and then develop the simplest solution possible to achieve flow.

Our industry needs to reduce our obsession with complexity and local optimization efforts and spend more time focusing on systemic and simple solutions to promote flow and to align our resources to a common rhythm.

“If production levels—the output—varies from day to day, there is no sense in trying to apply other systems, because you simply cannot establish standardized work under such circumstances,” says Fujio Cho, then president of Toyota Motor Company, in the book, the Toyota Way.

Join us in embracing the underlying principles of lean and Takt Time planning to realize our industry’s true potential.

Klas Berghede is a senior production manager in San Francisco, Calif.