How Lean Leaders are Changing the Construction Industry

As an engineering professional a few years into my career, I’ve focused on building my skills in a way that allows me to contribute positively to my clients, my company, and the construction industry. I quickly realized that becoming a student of Lean would allow me to do just that. Through opportunities at my company, Southland Industries, and my involvement with the Lean Construction Institute’s Lean Leader group, I’ve learned how Lean practices can transform a project, and how important engaging the next generation of professionals is to full industry transformation. In fact, LCI's Lean Leader group was launched last year to advance LCI's mission to revolutionize the built environment by cultivating a groundswell of up-and-coming practitioners who are already aware of Lean design and construction. Right now, the Lean Leader group is working to benchmark awareness of Lean design and construction among university students, with future goals of providing student resources for Lean education.

Currently, Lean practices are guiding our work on Penn Medicine’s Pavilion Project. Designing and building the new million-square-foot inpatient hospital is in itself a large undertaking, but by bringing a team that is willing to try a new approach to construction, we’ve set an even more ambitious goal of optimizing the whole process to end up with one of the most advanced, patient-focused hospitals in the country.

One of the biggest advantages the team has is being located in the same space, with all firms represented in an office located ten blocks from the project site. This makes reaching consensus and understanding and evaluating all factors, together, in a transparent way possible. Working in the same office space allows connections with other team members that just don’t happen via e-mail or conference calls. Choosing by Advantages is one aspect of Lean that has proven particularly important to this project. In a constant visual reminder, the office is covered in sketches from collaborative work sessions hashing out details with all trades represented. Each trade brings a willingness to be better than the last project and solve problems during design, before the field encounters the issue.

Everyone is expected to be a Lean leader on the project. With an aggressive construction schedule and budget, team members at every level are pushing for ways to optimize workflow, reduce waste and increase value. One method of doing so is by implementing the Last Planner System, which helps the team keep moving the project forward. Another key strategy for reducing waste is offsite prefabrication. By prefabricating large sections of duct, piping or even a combination of systems/trades, in a controlled shop environment, we are not only reducing material waste, but are adding value by increasing the quality of the final product. Additionally, an offsite shop can be a much safer environment for workers and lead to quicker fabrication than if the same process were to take place in the field.

The Penn Medicine Pavilion will have 500 patient rooms, which each require a dedicated bathroom and the ability to control its own temperature setpoint. To build these rooms, the team looked for repeatable elements and worked through all details, with input from everyone from the owner, architect and general contractor to the mechanical and drywall subcontractor. With everyone having a voice in the solutions, the team settled on two main prefabrication strategies:

  • Bathroom Pods – Each patient bathroom will be constructed off-site and rigged in as a complete unit. Final connections to plumbing and ducted systems will be made in the field, but the internal piping will be installed per pod in the offsite warehouse.
  • Mechanical Utility Racks – Since each room is repeatable, the utilities above the room and in the corridors that serve each room, will be racked together in an easy to install module. Systems on the rack include supply and return duct, terminal device for each room, heating hot water piping, cable tray and electrical conduit. A separate rack that includes all the medical gas systems will also be installed above the patient rooms as a single module.

Another prefabrication idea was implemented in the main mechanical spaces. The primary duct that distributes fresh air to 47 operating rooms is at its largest 15 feet wide by almost 7 feet tall and is located more than 15 feet above the floor. Installing this duct after the decks are poured would have been a time-intensive, 2-3 feet piecemeal process. Instead, in collaboration with the structural engineer, steel erector and sheet metal subcontractor, the team figured out a way to rig in 25-foot-long sections of ductwork and place them directly on support steel in their final locations with limited impact to the steel erection sequence. This process saved both install time and money to construct the ductwork, while significantly reducing the risk of injury. This required a large amount of pre-planning, of not only the rig itself, but also finalization of the mechanical systems and coordination in the space and was a team effort all around. This approach exemplifies the core tenets of Lean including optimizing the whole, focusing on process flow, and generation of value.

For many team members, this is the first Lean Integrated Project Delivery project they have worked on, but with a willingness to follow the core concepts of Lean, especially respect for people, focus on customer-defined value, and elimination of waste, the team has already had a positive impact on both the project and our industry.

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