A simple question, as an answer to the construction productivity puzzle

It has been an open secret until now that the construction productivity has been suffering worldwide. Adding salt to the wounds is the industry’s retarded growth since the last year and on. Companies are getting hungrier and desperate struggling on both sides — lesser revenues and higher costs — putting a hard strain on the margins.

In such times and in future, while looking to improve the efficiency and to increase the scale of construction capabilities, it has become critical for companies to build productively.

How to improve construction productivity has been a puzzle and there has been no dearth of techniques, technologies, methods and tools available for addressing this challenge. The challenge for companies has always been where to start and what to bet on as the times are still early. Something sustainable is needed.

Though the problem is so severe when viewed from the outside, the pain is not felt within the teams working on the project, at least it appears so. There seems to be no motivation to change and improve or grow on the field, while the management struggles to establish a transparent view of the project or to spot the bottleneck and the hurdles in growth.

Since many years now, being involved in many of the complex construction projects, our consulting teams at Lean Station have been subjected to variety of teams with varied strengths and challenges. Our research driven consulting methods through Lean PlanDo accumulates and crunches thousands of data points and analyses the root-level challenges affecting the progress and the growth in companies. Though each company and each project team has its own specific challenges, our interest was to find a few common threads that if solved, can result in significant improvement in project performance as well as impact the company’s profitability. We found one. It is something that needs to be addressed by all companies at a priority.

All most all the team members, whether it was project directors or project managers or engineers or supervisors, none of them hardly spent enough time pondering on the question “why”.

Why has the subcontractor not put in the manpower for the work? Why has the material not arrived in the right sequence? Why hasn’t the consultant approved my drawing in the last few occasions? Why cannot my engineer remember the grid lines or know where the location of the work at the site without having to refer to a drawing, mid-way in the project? Why is my subcontractor not completing as I expect him to? Why should I focus on this work and not something else? Why should my team focus on solving the most critical work for the week? Why should we improve the alignment and cross coordination between my engineers? Why this small delay can cause a major disruption after a few weeks? Why should I, the main contractor control the lifting plan and not allow my subcontractor to dictate it to me?

This list is just a small list from a larger list of questions that we are forcing the team to ask to deeply understand the interoperability of the various variables in the project. ‘Why’ leads to details, ‘why’ often leads to more questions and a whole lot of uncertainty gets resolved while seeking answers to them. This forms the basis for Lean construction.

Lean construction is lot more about a tool or a process, its a way of thinking and a culture. Lean PlanDo cultivates the team to develop this as a culture among its teams. The key aspect of LEAN thinking is to break down the activity into as much detail as possible — arriving at the sequence of steps, while addressing the logic of construction. “What,Where, When, Who, How and How long followed by What next” goes the thought process. Further, what affects my steps a.k.a., constraints affecting any of the steps is to be identified, the thought process focusses on “What, How, by When and Who is responsible”. It’s rare that these teams ask “Why”, Why is this necessary, or why it isn’t? –This forms the basic construct of logical reasoning that any basic engineer is expected to have developed before he is on a site. However, either the team draws the reasoning from the norm or worse, fails to stop and question the norm.

While we are looking for a productive revolution ahead, a small change is needed in ourselves to accept that change is a constant and to embrace it than resist it. In parallel, it is highly critical for each of us to question the norm — and use “Why” more often to bring out the best of everyone and in invest in collective wisdom. Thus we will experience productivity.

Don’t just stand there, Stop and use “Why” as a tool:

  • Ask why to investigate the reason for an action or an inaction
  • Ask why, when in doubt, to understand deeper and better
  • Ask why, to check the alignment or understanding of the different team members
  • Ask why, to seek the details to bring out more questions and its answers
  • Ask why, to handhold somebody, ask why to force the other person to think further and shape their thoughts
  • Ask why to break a tradition or challenge a norm (a tradition/norm that makes no sense in that context)
  • Ask why to wake up a team before a challenging day’s work

We at Lean Station are striving towards innovating the purpose, people and process of construction projects towards a productive and transformative cause. Get in touch with us to find out more about Lean PlanDo and how it can help to transform your business.



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Lean Station

Lean Station

Lean Station serves construction companies, both owners and contractors by helping them adopt lean practices to improve efficiencies and build new capabilities